April 16, 2014

Peter Bell: Global Activist Battled Policies That Disenfranchised the Powerless

Karen Bell/CARE

Peter Bell of CARE in Mozambique in 1998

When Peter Bell died of cancer at age 73 this month, the nonprofit world lost one of its most passionate, visionary and humble leaders. Peter was uniquely both a statesman and an activist. He devoted his life to reducing poverty, defending human rights, and advancing political freedom in jobs that included heading the nonprofit aid group CARE.

In an era when the art of statesmanship is rare, Peter Bell carried himself in a way that allowed him to build relationships with unwavering integrity. He could eat breakfast with peasants, lunch with presidents, and dinner with human-rights activists. He moved fluidly across boundaries with humility and grace, seeking little recognition while achieving tremendous impact by imparting wisdom gleaned from each of these unique worlds. 

While ever the gentleman, he brought gravitas, courage, charm, and a passionate sense of conviction to a life devoted to human rights and social justice. As an activist in a pinstriped suit, he gave respectability to the vocation.

Peter’s bold view toward the needs of the poor was evident from the first days of his career. At age 30, he worked at the Ford Foundation’s Brazil office, and during both the early days of the military government in Brazil and later in the aftermath of the violent military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 Peter refused to leave the country, even though the U.S. ambassador had insisted he do so.

Incensed at what he witnessed in Chile, he urged McGeorge Bundy, then president of the Ford Foundation and former national security adviser to President Kennedy, to call on Henry Kissinger to put pressure on the new military government to stop its major human-rights abuses.

He fought for funds to support the work of leading intellectuals in their home country or, if they faced threats, to assist them in seeking safety abroad. He helped save the lives and careers of hundreds of Chilean scientists and scholars, many of whom had been detained and tortured. Two such academics of that era—Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ricardo Lagos—went on to become presidents of Brazil and Chile.

Perhaps even more important were the seeds that Peter planted that contributed to the later democratization of Brazil and Chile.

The international response to the overthrow of the Allende government and subsequent events in Argentina contributed to the genesis of the modern human-rights movement.

This early experience in Latin America had a profound impact on the direction of Peter’s life, leading him to form a deep bond with Latin America and a profound appreciation of the relationship among human rights, development, and democracy. He saw a nexus between development work and advocacy that most people did not.

He carried this vision to his roles as an early chair of Americas Watch and a member of the founding board of Human Rights Watch. 

During his presidency of the Inter-American Foundation, an innovative institution created by Congress in the 1970s to focus on what at that time was the novel idea of strengthening grass-roots development in Latin America, Peter engaged the renowned economist Albert Hirschman. Together they linked theory to practice and made a compelling case for making citizen voices a critical element in successful development work.

Perhaps the culmination of Peter’s efforts to champion human rights was his decision to move CARE toward becoming a “rights-based” development organization.

Peter’s idea was that real development could be achieved only when governments re­spected not only citizens’ civil and political rights but also their economic rights.

In advancing this agenda, Peter pushed all of us to see poverty as social exclusion and to fight the policies and barriers that limit the poor from securing the resources and opportunities they need to pull themselves out of poverty.

Peter had come to view poverty as less about scarcity and more about lack of power. The solution lay in enabling the powerless to use their voices and make reasonable demands for the realization of their rights.

I was fortunate to have worked under Peter at the Inter-American Foundation and later as a fellow CEO during his tenure at CARE.

Sharing a deep affection for Latin America and an appreciation of the history of the human-rights movement in that region, we collaborated in developing the unique rights-based approach at CARE and Oxfam America. 

At the time, there were many skeptics within the traditional human-rights movement who believed that human rights should be limited to civil and political rights. They held the idea that universalized standards for social, economic, and cultural rights were pure fantasy, and efforts to advance these rights would detract from the core agenda of the human-rights movement. 

Over time, this argument has given way to a recognition that we must embrace a more comprehensive view of rights. Once again, Peter led the way.

Peter was a builder, one of those rare individuals who can drive an idea very quietly from behind the scenes and feel comfortable watching young, capable staff members carry it out. In the mid-1980s, he worked closely with Ambassador Sol Linowitz, who negotiated the Panama Canal deal, to create the Inter-American Dialogue, an innovative institution de­signed to bridge the historic barriers between language, culture, and geography that separate the two American hemispheres, in pursuit of common agendas in economic cooperation, security, and democratic governance.

Today the organization is the leading think tank in Washington on U.S.-Latin American relations.

At CARE, Peter introduced strategic planning, interna­tionalized the staff, championed concerns for women and girls, and led the creation of the CARE International Confederation, which brought together the dozen-plus independent CARE affiliates from across the globe under a unified organizational structure.

Based at Harvard in his later years, he worked to strengthen nonprofits around the world by gathering aid leaders to advance commonly shared goals.

“Peter generated trust among others in whatever he did as a passionate internationalist who supported the struggles of ordinary peoples for human dignity in a rapidly globalizing world,” said Lincoln Chen, president of the China Medical Board and former board chair at CARE.

Those of us who served with him as staff members, colleagues, board members, or advocates in the trenches will remember him for his generosity, kindness, and gentle good humor. He was a mentor, friend, and model for us all.

As international development continues to evolve in response to new global trends, we need more people who genuinely speak for the poor and see the promotion of rights as the core to alleviating poverty. We need more leaders who are both statesmen and activists. We need more Peter Bells.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America.