Foundations & Human Rights

(This is a guest post from Peter Manzo, board member of National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Peter Manzo

The themes about philanthropy’s role in the larger gatherings on Monday and Dr. Robert Ross’s remarks at the Philanthropic Awards Celebration in the evening were a big improvement over Sunday’s events.

Human rights was the subject of Monday’s luncheon, and apparently for the first time at a COF conference, oddly.

Gara Lamarche, President and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, moderated the panel, which included:

Lamarche launched the conversation with a question about why foundations in the U.S. should care about human rights, teed up by a provocative observation that he often suspected many in philanthropy politely tolerated him when he raised human rights issues, but privately wondered what human rights had to do with philanthropy in the U.S. Robinson responded that people often have differing conceptions of what “human rights” means, from freedom from abuse, to protected civil rights, to rights to food, water, basic security. Romero pointed out that, at least until September 11, many in the U.S. viewed human rights as “something we exported to other countries, while civil rights were things we consumed,” and in a later comment, he took this point further by saying that he views the mission of the ACLU as expanding and defending human rights here at home. Naidoo recounted the devastating “demonstration effect” of the U.S. government’s embrace of waterboarding what the Bush Administration euphemistically calls “enhanced interrogation,” abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and special tribunals. He described hearing representatives of repressive security forces in Zimbabwe complain about being pressed on harsh treatment of regime opponents when, in their view, the U.S. openly does as bad or worse. Naidoo said he and his colleagues naturally responded that two wrongs don’t make a right, but the comparison undercuts advocates for human rights around the world.

The panel also touched on the issue of whether there is a tension between economic development and human rights. Robinson noted the example of the high costs of gender discrimination, pointing to a recent study estimating the costs of gender discrimination to Thailand and the surrounding region at $48 Billion.

The question of a trade off in poorer countries between development and human rights is a false dichotomy, which is the point the panelists clearly intended to make. Sadly, some people seem to need to hear that there is a significant financial harm in order to stand firm on human rights. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, famously disposed of the false dilemma by proving that the number one indicator associated with economic progress in the developing world is the increased educational attainment of women. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen makes a persuasive case that expanding freedom is both the end and the principal means of development. In Sen’s conception, the expansion of freedom is not defined simply by civil liberty or freedom from abuse, but by advances in “the capabilities of people to do things – and the freedom to lead lives – that they have reason to value.” To my untrained eye, Sen’s approach links real freedom for individuals to the broader social context that supports developing their capabilities, and that is aligned with, not in tension with economic development.

In the Q&A following, an audience member asked why U.S. foundations seem reluctant to fund international human rights. The panelists didn’t affirm or dispute the premise, but they noted that anti-terrorism reporting requirements are inhibiting or intimidating some funders, and that also some funders may be concerned about protecting investments in direct service projects in a country. Naidoo pointed out that foundations should hesitate to make such a trade off, saying that, for example, funders investing in programs in Russia without also addressing the worsening position of citizens’ rights are running a big longer term risk.

Advocacy was the dominant theme of the COF Awards presentations Monday evening. Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, receiving the Distinguished Grantmaker Award, summed it up well with his remarks, which I’ll try to reflect faithfully (but I didn’t capture direct quotes). Ross said that the Endowment’s philanthropy is defined by two words: diversity and advocacy. Diversity – in culture and ethnic background, life experiences, professional disciplines, and more – drives development of the best, most innovative approaches to the challenges the foundation addresses. But, he said, he thinks the concept of innovation is “oversubscribed” in philanthropy. He pointed out that the people the Endowment and other grant makers fund prove every day that large scale problems can be solved, that they are not intractable. So the key issue isn’t innovation, but rather, how to take innovation to scale, and in the Endowment’s view, advocacy will be essential to developing the public will, and the partnerships across sectors, that will be needed to spread the benefit of innovation as widely as possible. (He also noted that every one of the documentary films that received awards that evening had advocacy at their core.)