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Educational Philanthropy- What's the point?


Throughout this course, we have seen not only how states are responsible to rebuilding education during times of conflict, but also the role international aid plays in establishing educational institutions. One sub-sector of this is philanthropy, particularly by ultra-rich individuals.


With rising inequality across the world, we see rising levels of philanthropic activity as well. It seems the two go hand in hand, meaning for philanthropic activities to continue, some community or region in the world has to continue suffering. Philanthropy is then more of an exercise in power rather than being a mechanism for the wealthy to return their wealth into society. Particularly in the realm of education, investment by rich people moves towards utilizing assets for public influence.


Private philanthropic foundations are notoriously hard to hold accountable- there is no form of election to remove those in power, and many are nontransparent (90% of 100,000 private foundations in the U.S. do not have a website). Being tax subsidized in countries like the U.S., many wealthy people use their donations to foundations to avoid tax cuts.


Apart from the financial fraud that many foundations find themselves embroiled in (for example the Varsity Blues scandal that broke in 2019, where parents paid William Rick Singer through his philanthropic foundation to ensure admission for their children in top U.S. universities), the intentions behind philanthropy in third world countries can, at the very least, be highly problematic. It can become paternalistic, where the good intentions of people giving charity becomes a mask for a judgmental approach to the position of those who are in need and about the things they should be doing differently to lift themselves out of poverty or disadvantage. Such a top down approach, with no regard for what the community actually needs according to its own people, can be more detrimental than beneficial.


Philanthropic foundations fail to get to the root cause of many issues, it is more like throwing money on top of an issue and hoping for the best. One example provided by Rob Reich further elaborates this:

"For example, is donating money or volunteering at the soup kitchen going to bring an end to hunger? The two are completely separate things. What’s appropriate for a soup kitchen is an aspiration to self-liquidation, to social conditions that render soup kitchens unnecessary."


One example of a philanthropic educational effort is the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Built in 2007, the aim behind building this school was to "use the power of education to help impoverished young girls with exceptional promise to realize their potential and transform their lives" and "train a cohort of strong new leaders who would contribute to the success of post-Apartheid South Africa." A $40 million school was built with spacious and thoughtfully designed classes, excellent teachers, small classes, modern facilities and extensive grounds. The school garnered a lot of criticism due to the appalling amount of money spent to make such a posh facility for so few children when a majority of students were suffering under an education system still haunted by the apartheid Bantu Education Act. In addition to this, rather than taking a community-based approach to education, Oprah's school separated children from their homes and communities, even controlling their contact to their parents. Rather than helping the educational disparity that already exists in South Africa, Oprah's school highlights them.




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11 Comments


Neiha A. Siddiqui
Neiha A. Siddiqui
Dec 01, 2023

The relationship between charity and paternalism, particularly in third-world nations is a complicated dynamic in which good intentions may mistakenly perpetuate a top-down approach that ignores the community's true needs. It is sometimes for mere show off. The warning against a one-size-fits-all strategy is especially powerful, underlining the significance of locally informed solutions above externally imposed measures. Like where even are these celebrities and UNICEF ambassadors now that Palestine needs them?


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Such an important discussion! The critique of philanthropy as an exercise in power, rather than a genuine mechanism for redistributing wealth, resonates strongly- as something we have constantly gone over in the course. The paternalistic nature of some philanthropic endeavors, where good intentions may mask a lack of understanding or respect for the needs and aspirations of the communities they aim to serve, raises concerns about the efficacy of such top-down approaches- and I wanted to point out how the example of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa serves as a very relevant case study: While the intention to empower young girls and contribute to post-Apartheid South Africa is fantastic, the critiques regarding the extravagant spending,…

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Absolutely! Thank you for pointing out how many NGO's in Pakistan do this as well- coming in with insane funds to build schools or other philanthropic endeavors to improve education, without putting in any work to actually understand the community they are coming into or trying to make a syllabus that fits with the cultural values of a community.

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What an interesting read, Emaan. I have personally never thought about educational philanthropy the way you have presented it and so it has stayed with me. The bit where you mentioned how philanthropy is more of a mechanism to stay in power rather than a charitable act caught my attention the most. It reminded me of all these exorbitantly rich individuals who tend to use their charitable acts to gain a lot of influence. An example that I could think of was the Ambani family in India. Recently, I read somewhere that Nita Ambani donated meals to a large number of underprivileged children on the occasion of her birthday. She was hailed as a charity icon. However, it is important…


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I am so glad my post made you think of philanthropy differently! You're absolutely right, the Ambani's are an apt example of what not to do when one thinks philanthropy. On a slight tangent to modern education, we can also think about how elitist and alienating Nita Ambani's new center to traditional music and dance would be. Rather than creating an atmosphere that would support the traditional practice of apprenticeship for such careers, she also creates an exclusionary model where only the best of the best of underprivileged classes get the chance to perform and hone their skill.

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Thank you for this blog, this made me think of all the things we do externally without realising the issue or dealing with the issue directly. I think at times there are motives to do things such as appearing as "good people" in front of others eyes, for example the very extravagant school, however, I do think such activities do end up helping other people, however, it is important to realise the underlying causes and to target them.

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Yes totally agreed, sometimes philanthropy does work, and its been effective for many causes, even in education. But, as you pointed out as well, many times philanthropy seems to exist in its own bubble, where funds come for say a school and it is established in a war-stricken area. But where is the engagement with society, and an acknowledgement of the deeper issues that in many cases make this top-down education unacceptable to people? I think philanthropy would be much more effective if it engaged with meaningful projects with the state, or with professional bodies that can guide them better on how to utilize funds in a manner that benefits a larger section of a community in a manner that…

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This insightful essay raises crucial questions about philanthropy in education, particularly in regions affected by conflict or inequality. It skillfully highlights the challenges of accountability in private philanthropic foundations and touches upon issues like financial fraud. The case study of Oprah's school in South Africa serves as a thought-provoking example, prompting us to reconsider the effectiveness and appropriateness of certain philanthropic ventures. What do you think could be key solutions to address the pitfalls identified in philanthropic educational efforts?

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I think philanthropy should first and foremost be made more responsible- I think there should be a state or independent level checking of the work these institutions are doing, and if it is actually worthwhile. Success could depend on many factors, but it should definitely not be just a way for rich people to alleviate some of their guilt by giving to the needy. In addition to this, I believe there should be an active level of communication with the state (where it is in a stable condition) and the people of an area so as to make education more tailor-made for the communities in which they will be functioning.

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