Ford Boosts Market Democracy in Latin America

  • Overseas
  • 1962

In the first two decades of its existence, the Ford Foundation was a conventional family philanthropy that mostly limited its donations to local projects in the Detroit region. As the Cold War between communism and market democracies became serious in the 1950s, however, Henry Ford II initiated an effort to redirect the foundation. It was decided that the foundation should take on national and international responsibilities to “advance democracy” in poor countries where pre-modern economics and communist politics threatened stability and progress.

Alarmed at the spread of totalitarianism, Ford launched overseas programs to build up universities, promote the values of individual liberty and market economics, create cultural and scholarly exchange programs, subsidize open media in other countries, and so forth. Ford opened offices in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and launched what would cumulate to tens of billions of dollars of overseas grantmaking over the next half century. During the 1950s and 1960s, the overseas spending of the Ford Foundation grew to be larger than any other private organization, and larger than initiatives run by the United Nations.

About a hundred other American foundations also funded overseas work as a contribution to the Cold War. Many worked with the State Department and the CIA on joint projects, like funding intellectuals and artists to make the moral case for democratic capitalism. The Rockefeller Foundation even explained its heavy funding of the Green Revolution (see 1943 entry) partly on the grounds that increased food security was “a valuable weapon in the struggle to contain communist expansion.”

In 1962, as the Kennedy Administration worked to contain the spread of Marxism, Ford launched its first programs in Latin America. “The crisis in the world today requires that democracy do more than restate its principles and ideals; they must be translated into action,” read a 1962 statement from Ford’s board of trustees. A billion dollars in donations to universities, agriculture programs, and other efforts followed. In Chile, for instance, Ford offered $10 million in 1965 to strengthen the University of Chile and the Catholic University of Chile and to create an exchange program to bring Chilean academics to the U.S. for training. The goal was to infuse modern concepts of economic development and individual rights into Latin American higher education as alternatives to radicalism.

These sorts of efforts had clear effects. One historian writes that as a result of Ford’s grants to Chilean faculty and curriculum, “Santiago probably had a higher concentration of intellectual talent in the social sciences than any other capital in Latin America.” One dramatic result: A group of economists at the Catholic University of Chile who had been funded by Ford became known as the “Chicago Boys” because they absorbed ideas on economic liberalization and development at the University of Chicago. These intellectuals became crucial in turning Chile into a free-market paragon, one of the fastest growing economies on the globe, and, after a period of instability, a great democratic success.

  • Jacquelyn Holmes, From Modernization and Development to Neoliberal Democracy: A History of the Ford Foundation in Latin America (Bates College Honors Thesis, 2013)