I recently came across an old booklet, “Current Interests of the Ford Foundation, 1990 and 1991.” Handsomely designed and running 42 pages, its cover features a map of the world—an apt image for an institution whose efforts span the globe.

As I perused its contents, I noticed a pattern: the Foundation’s solutions to help populations usually implied changing them in some way.


The first sign that something is off comes early in the booklet, when, in a brief historical introduction, the author tells us that “The Foundation was established in 1936 by the automotive industrialist Henry Ford and his son Edsel. From then until 1950 it made grants largely to charities and schools in their home state of Michigan. Following settlement of the estates of the founders, both of whom died in the 1940s, the Foundation moved to a national and international program of giving.” Put more simply, the original founders gave one way, and now that they are dead, we distribute their money as we please.

We are not told how such a shift in giving strategy relates to original donor intent. Is the Ford Foundation’s giving consistent with any principles which the founders followed, or has the Foundation merely been remade in the image of its trustees? This question implies another: If the role of donor intent is dubious, are the needs and opinions of people affected by the Foundation’s programs equally dubious?

The booklet suggests so. Cloaked in the sincere language of agricultural development, cultural preservation, education, and social justice, we discern the efforts of a wealthy foundation to remake the world in its image—not to ask the needy what they need.


The Foundation focuses many of its efforts on forming elites and guiding public opinion. In the section on International Affairs programs, we read that “The Foundation’s work in this area focuses on such major policy issues as . . . the future organization of the international economic system.” The think-tanks that receive support will encourage, they hope, “consensus among both experts and nonspecialists” and challenge “generally accepted ideas about the costs and benefits of using subsidies or trade barriers to foster national industries.” Students from “Peru, India, and Bangladesh” will receive fellowships for “graduate training in economics at universities in industrialized nations.”

Grants will go to “advanced training in economics in Kenya, Nigeria, and Latin American countries.” The Foundation will grow the pool of economists in developing nations who are “competent in economic analysis and broadly familiar with the global political economy.” For the nonspecialist, the Foundation anticipates providing “support for media coverage of trade and monetary issues and the economic dimensions of environmental concerns.”

This is a comprehensive agenda to change minds, foster support for globalization, and promote skepticism towards economic self-determination throughout the world. Viewed cynically, and probably accurately, it is a shock-and-awe program, designed to dazzle and enchant elites from poor countries with the promise of money, grants, and fellowships for a Western education. Once “properly” formed, they will return home to teach their new doctrines to their students, most of whom will already have been primed by the appropriate news networks to receive these new doctrines.


The Foundation also seeks to shape mores. Buried in the euphemistically titled “Population” program area description, the Foundation tells us that it focuses on “the social, economic, and cultural factors that affect families’ health and influence their use of health services,” which is to say that they strive to break down moral and religious barriers to widespread use of birth control. Programs in Bangladesh and the University of Khartoum will “include attention to gender.” In itself, the attempt to bring greater attention to challenges faced by women is laudable, but the two examples just given are in Muslim countries. What has the Foundation done to tread lightly and respectfully in the midst of a highly traditional culture? Is the goal to help bring greater prosperity and comfort—or is it to change cultural dynamics? And can they do one without the other?

A clear warning that care is not being taken to tailor solutions to local realities comes in the section on rural policy. The Foundation celebrates its “emphasis on fostering social science research on rural problems and encouraging young researchers, especially members of minority groups and women, to take an interest in rural policy research.” The Foundation selects the populations best suited to accept its ideology, trains them in Western academic methods, and sends them off to change the world according to social-scientific theories. An alien, theoretical universalism trumps the effort to bolster and perfect local, traditional knowledge and methods.


Throughout the booklet, uniformity is key. The Foundation believes that “the United States and developing countries share many similar problems, and that the approaches taken in one setting may have relevance beyond national boundaries. Efforts . . . have been strengthened by transnational perspectives.” The Foundation evaluates programs to “determine their potential for being replicated.” It seeks to “develop successful models that can then be reproduced on a wider scale.”

This is dangerous for a grantmaker. There is no point denying that a good organization seeks to develop successful models that can be scaled. And many of the problems of human nature are the same everywhere. But the role of grantmakers—if their business is indeed charity and not social engineering—is to enable meritorious efforts, not to transform grantees. Any organization knows the temptation towards mission creep or self-transformation when a big grant is on the line.

A Foundation of the size and scale of Ford has a responsibility to guard grantees from such a temptation and cannot send signals that it desires uniform solutions. Any knowledge of the histories of countries as diverse as Peru, Pakistan, Nigeria, and India, just to name a few, ought to inspire an appreciation for their uniqueness. Places have rich traditions and practices of local genius which must be preserved and incorporated to any modern practices. The emphasis must be on unique solutions that make sense locally, not homogenous processes applied across the globe.


Finally, the Ford Foundation calls attention to its efforts at cultural preservation, by which it seeks to “document, preserve, and interpret the rich cultural heritages of developing countries.” There is an irony here. As dozens of countries are modernized and brought to the standards and conventions of industrial countries, traditional culture is transformed and, in many cases, simply forgotten over a shockingly short period of time. First, we encourage such rapid mobilization and transformation for the sake of “development” and a chance to participate in the international economic system. Then we have the hubris to make ourselves not only the preservers of traditional culture, but its interpreters!

This is the final blow of a program of transformation and homogenization. A traditional heritage is only a threat to the colonizer if it is living and practiced. If it is made obsolete, observed in a museum or in a dance troupe, and interpreted from a distance, it is tame, inaccessible, and unable to remind populations that there is another way to live.


Looking back on this time capsule thirty years later, we have the privilege of observing big philanthropy at peak hubris—a foundation comfortable in its role as promoter of liberal, pluralist, democratic prosperity. We do so at a time when homogenizing globalism begins its decline. Reading about the Ford Foundation’s priorities thirty years ago reminds us both how much can change and how much can remain the same over the course of a generation. It also reminds us how limited our perspective can be at a given moment, and how quickly our supposedly timeless agendas run their course. Our work over the coming generation will be to salvage those things which truly are timeless and universal while encouraging a cultural ressourcement, a healthy backlash against the homogenization inflicted on societies over the last century through philanthropy and development programs.