A big win for affirmative action (and philanthropy) in Brazil

Bradford Smith

Bradford Smith

On Thursday 26 April, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted 11-0 in favor of affirmative action. As reported by Latin American News Dispatch: ‘The decision reaffirmed a policy adopted by a number of Brazilian universities to institute the practice of affirmative action in university admissions as a tool to combat racial inequality and improve access to higher education for Brazilians who identify as negro (black) or pardo (brown).’ This is a big win for countless Brazilian activists, scholars, politicians and everyday citizens, but it’s also a win for one of America’s largest and most prestigious philanthropic institutions – the Ford Foundation.

Let’s go back a bit in time. Brazil’s early economic development depended on the slave trade: more slaves were trafficked to Brazil than to the United States. Emancipation came only in 1888, years after other nations in the Americas had abolished slavery. And it came without formal segregation and the kind of civil rights movement that galvanized significant parts of American society. Racial discrimination lived on in more subtle ways under a prevailing ideology of ‘racial democracy’, making it challenging for Brazilians to combat and difficult for outsiders to appreciate.

Enter the Ford Foundation. As early as the late 1970s, Ford supported the first studies linking poverty to race in Brazil. Brazil’s military rulers, having seized power in a 1964 coup, repressed those studies – despite the fact they had been done by a government research institute – fearing that a US-style radical ‘Black Power’ movement would take root in the country. But Ford kept working patiently, supporting scholars who slowly built the statistical proof that no matter what anyone chose to believe, it was impossible to escape the fact that the darker one’s skin, the poorer they were likely to be. When Brazil’s military departed in l985, after 21 years in power, Ford began to support NGOs, the growing ‘Movimento Negro’, and others in Brazil who saw an opportunity to advance the cause of racial equality. Today, some 51 per cent of Brazil’s 191 million people declare themselves to be black or mixed-race in the census.

The Ford Foundation will soon celebrate 50 years in Brazil, and the Supreme Court vote is the culmination, to some degree, of decades of philanthropy. In Brazil that philanthropy spanned the Cold War, a military dictatorship, a rocky return to democracy, economic busts and booms, the flourishing of social movements and the birth of new political parties. Within Ford itself, it spanned the tenure of four foundation presidents, eight country representatives, and as many program officers. It was a style of philanthropy based on values, including a strong belief in diversity and the conviction that working in other cultures requires hiring the right people and trusting them to represent you around the world.

Could anyone have drawn up a logic model or theory of change in 1962 when the Ford Foundation entered Brazil that would have predicted the Brazilian Supreme Court’s vote 50 years later? Was Ford’s role strategic, effective, tactical, catalytic or any of the other adjectives that have come to dominate the discourse on philanthropy? Would it have been possible if Ford had been subject to the narrow interpretation of donor intent from which its critics feel it has strayed?

If we truly believe in philanthropic freedom, we should celebrate Ford’s achievement in Brazil for all it represents about what is unique about philanthropy – the ability to take risks, to remain independent, and to commit to the long term in tackling some of the most challenging issues faced by society. Ford cannot and would not take credit for the enormous economic, political, and societal transformations that have brought Brazil to this moment, but it did make critical choices to invest in people, organizations and ideas along the way.

I admit to not being entirely neutral on this subject: I served as Ford’s Brazil representative from 1991 to 1995. But to have played even a small part in one foundation’s efforts to uphold the rights and opportunities of 97 million Brazilians is an enormous privilege. By any measure, the vote of Brazil’s Supreme Court is the kind of result for which philanthropy is always searching.

Postscript: The WK Kellogg Foundation has also played a historic role in Brazil and in 2009 announced a $25 million pledge ‘to help establish an endowment fund with the Baoba Fund dedicated to racial equality for all Brazilians’.

Bradford Smith is president of the Foundation Center. This article was first published on the Foundation Center’s Philanthropy News Digest blog

Tagged in: Brazil education Ford Foundation Racial equality Risk theory of change

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