“Haven’t we been here before?”: Erica Kohl-Arenas on Philanthropy, Poverty, and the Ford Foundation

The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty
The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty

Erica Kohl-Arenas, author of the forthcoming The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, places the Ford Foundation under the microscope on this recent article on OpenDemocracy.

“Past philanthropic efforts to address inequality have favored individualistic approaches over programs that directly confront entrenched systems of power, failing to advance any real structural change as a result,” she says of the Foundation’s new mission– to attack inequality at its roots. “Why should Ford’s new mission be any different?”

Through the lens of a provocative set of case studies, The Self-Help Myth reveals how philanthropy maintains systems of inequality by attracting attention to the “behavior” of poor people while shifting the focus away from structural inequities and relationships of power that produce poverty.

"Along with many other American foundations, they have failed to deliver on their promises at many previous points in recent history."
“Along with many other American foundations, they have failed to deliver on their promises at many previous points in recent history.”

Kohl-Arenas uses that very same method of scrutiny in her article, applying it to not only the Ford Foundation, but to other philanthropists, as examples of this phenomenon:

“American philanthropists from Andrew Carnegie to Paul Ylvisaker have promoted the tradition of individualized ‘racial uplift’ or ‘self-help’ that calls for assimilation, upward mobility, and ‘social responsibility’ among poor families and neighborhoods that are often pathologized.” In short, according to her research, the moral tenets upheld in modern philanthropy grow fuzzy; they promote professional and institutional behaviors that leave deeper relationships of poverty and inequality untouched. She closes with a challenge: “Can the Ford Foundation attack its own power and privilege in order to put people back in the driving seat of social change? … Are foundations brave enough to accept this task?”

Erica Kohl-Arenas is Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York. The Self-Help Myth will be available later this year.