Originally published in the Philanthropy News Digest on March 6, 2007, Jonathan Fanton discusses democracy, digital learning, and juvenile justice in the 21st century.  

For then-President George H.W. Bush and the Washington policy establishment, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union heralded the birth of "a new world order." After decades of conflict and violence, fascism and communism stood defeated, and history, as neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama famously put it, had come to an end — by which Fukuyama meant not just the end of an especially bloody era in human affairs, but "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

How different things look fifteen years on. The largest and most important Western liberal democracy, the United States, has run aground in Iraq, and fascism and authoritarianism are again on the march — fueled, quite literally in many cases, by the West's unquenchable thirst for petroleum. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has pointed out, the Berlin Wall fell after a decade in which the price of oil hovered around $20 a barrel; now that it's at $60 and poised to go higher, Fukuyama's predicted "triumph of the West" looks less certain.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Jonathan Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the nation's largest grantmaking foundations, about democratization in Russia and Nigeria, two of the most important oil-producing countries in the world, as well as new domestic initiatives the foundation has launched in the areas of digital learning and juvenile justice reform.

With assets of more than $5.5 billion, MacArthur makes grants and program-related investments in the United States and abroad totaling more than $225 million annually. Internationally, it works in the fields of human rights and international justice, biodiversity conservation, population and reproductive health, international peace and security, and migration and human mobility, while domestically its programs encompass community development, housing, juvenile justice, and education.

Fanton became president of the foundation on September 1, 1999. Before that, he had served for seventeen as president of the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he led the integration and enhancement of the seven divisions of the university, expansion of the Greenwich Village campus, and development campaigns that increased the university's endowment ten-fold.

Mr. Fanton sits on the board of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, and served as the organization's chairman for six years, before stepping down at the end of 2003. He is also an advisory trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a member of the board of trustees of the Chicago History Museum, the founding board chair of the Security Council Report, and co-chair of Chicago's Partnership for New Communities.

A graduate of Yale University, where he earned a baccalaureate degree in 1965, a master's in philosophy in 1977, and a doctorate in American history in 1978, he is the author of The University and Civil Society, Volumes I and II and co-editor of John Brown: Great Lives Observed and The Manhattan Project: A Documentary Introduction to the Atomic Age.

He lives in Chicago with his wife, Cynthia.

Philanthropy News Digest: As George Soros was announcing the end of his philanthropic involvement with Russia in 2003, he noted that some people viewed Russia as an open society, while others saw it as a corporate state where big business and government acted in concert, the judicial system was compromised, the media was censored, and elections were anything but fair. Then he said the truth lay somewhere in between and that "the pendulum of history could swing in either direction." Why does it matter how the world views Russia? And which way do you think the pendulum is swinging?

...What is happening in Russia is one of the most critical transitions under way anywhere in the world....


Jonathan Fanton: It's an important question, and I think the truth does lie somewhere in between. What is happening in Russia is one of the most critical transitions under way anywhere in the world at the moment — and in recent history. With that in mind, the MacArthur Foundation has made a judgment that two kinds of investment could be helpful to the transition. One involves building up independent scholarship and strengthening universities, independent think tanks, and journals. The other aims to build civil society in Russia, especially in the field of human rights and the rule of law. We believe a vibrant, independent intellectual life and a strong civil society are essential ingredients to a healthy democracy. Civil society is one of the most reliable indexes of how a country is doing with respect to democracy. It's hard, if not impossible, to find a democracy anywhere in the world that does not tolerate strong independent universities and embrace academic freedom. The reverse is also true: Where you don't have academic freedom, you almost always find an authoritarian regime. And our investment in, and support for, Russian universities, think tanks, and human rights groups to date has been a very good experience and gives me cause for optimism.

PND: In 2006, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced what media in the West referred to as a crackdown on foreign-based NGOs operating in Russia, with special attention paid to human rights groups. MacArthur has had an office in Moscow since 1992, and the foundation's investment in the country is its single largest financial commitment outside the United States. Given MacArthur's longstanding engagement with Russia, do you believe the operating environment for NGOs there has deteriorated over the last year or two?

JF: First of all, President Putin did not announce a crackdown on NGOs. That's how others have characterized a new law that regulates non-governmental organizations operating in Russia. But if you look back at the legislative history of the law, you'll see that the first draft of it was more restrictive than the final version. Civil society groups and others were able to voice their concerns, which led to some significant changes for the better. I see some cause for optimism in the back-and-forth that took place between the government and civil society and international organizations over the content of the law. The law does require vigorous reporting of activities by both local NGOs and international organizations such as MacArthur. It also gives the government the right to demand a lot of information, and if vigorously pursued with the intent of cracking down, it could be very troublesome. But there were a lot of predictions that as soon as last summer's G8 Summit in St. Petersburg was over, we would see the law used to drive NGOs out of business or out of the country. That hasn't happened. MacArthur supports sixty human right groups across Russia, and, so far, they tell us they continue to operate free of direct harassment or censorship by the government.

Now, that doesn't mean we have not seen examples of organizations that have had their tax returns audited or run afoul of technicalities in the law. Whether those actions reflect real problems within those organizations or an early warning of things to come is difficult to tell. But we can say with some certainty that the most dire predictions about how the new law would affect civil society in Russia have not come to pass.

A foundation like ours has to make choices about where to put our resources to work. We work in sixty-three countries, and, as you mentioned, Russia is our biggest investment. Now, when we ask ourselves where can we add value, how much risk we should take, where we can do the most good, and so on, Russia ends up pretty high on the list — not because we're certain it is moving in the right direction with respect to democratization, or because we're naïve about worrisome signs that the opposite might be true. It's because Russia's transition to democracy, should it succeed, would be among the most important of its kind currently under way anywhere in the world. And it simply doesn't do us any good to be pessimistic about that transition, or to give up the reputational equity we've built as a reliable and objective funder and walk away from our investment. So, knowing the facts and given a choice, we still think Russia is a good place for us to be. And if pushed, I would say I lean toward being optimistic that it is making slow, incremental progress toward a more open and democratic society. One clear measure of that progress is the continued growth of Russian civil society, which to date has not been all that adversely affected by the new law.

PND: In fact, you've even suggested that the law could bring some clarity to the size and nature of the civil society sector in Russia by generating more information about the organizations that are required to re-register.

JF: That's right. We're members of a group called the Donors Forum, an association of local philanthropic organizations and international funders. The forum has acknowledged that the NGO legal framework in Russia was not as clear as it should have been and that there would be benefits to having a more orderly set of regulations. So the new law is not all bad.

PND: If we grant that Russia is a country in transition to democracy, and that any such transition is inherently messy, what should Western stakeholders in that transition expect the end-product of the process to look like? Should we insist that it conform to Western ideas of what democracy is? And if not, what is the best we can hope for?

JF: Well, that's a large question — not just about Russia, but about how foundations relate to the world. So let me mention a couple of premises that guide MacArthur's work. First, we take the long view and believe that transitions to democracy — in Russia or anywhere else — typically unfold over decades, not years. Just look at America's own democratic development: it took us decades to develop a stable, two-party system. And it's certainly not going to be any easier for a country like Russia to move from a totalitarian regime to a society in which free and fair elections with wonderfully able, independent candidates are held on a regular basis. It's going to take time, and we are patient.

Secondly, we do not believe there is a single form of democracy that works uniformly well everywhere in the world. Every country is different and has its own historical legacy and cultural traditions; that creates different constraints and opportunities. That means we need to be sensitive to the culture and historical context and look at progress toward democracy as a net proposition. There are going to be steps forward and steps backward, some things you like and some things you don't, good and bad. But, if, at the end of the day, a form of government evolves that respects civil society and gives citizens significant say in decisions that affect their lives, then we can say progress is being made.

With respect to our human rights work in Russia, we are not trying to impose U.S. conceptions or standards on Russia. We aim to build a network for indigenous Russian organizations that seek to hold Russia accountable to its own constitution and monitor its performance against international treaties it has signed.

PND: Even as the urban middle class in Russia prospers, the country itself faces a demographic crisis of daunting proportions. In fact, if current demographic trends continue, the population of Russia in 2050 will be about 150 million people — about 30 million fewer people than its current population. As a longterm investor in Russia and Russia's future, do you worry about those demographic trends?

JF: We're aware of the trends, and I would note that President Putin in his State of the State address last year elevated the demographic issue to a very high priority. We finance an online journal in Russia, Demoscope Weekly, that covers demographic issues, and we support think tanks and university centers that are concerned with migration, gender, and youth policy, all of which are pieces of the demographic question.

PND: Let's switch continents. MacArthur has had an office in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, since 1994. Nigeria will be holding critical elections this spring. Why are those elections critical? And why should Americans care about the results, or what happens in Nigeria for that matter?

...Nigeria has the potential, real as well as symbolic, to be a success story — something Africa and the world badly need right now....
JF: Well, as you said, Nigeria, with 135 million people, is the most populous country in Africa — larger, even, than South Africa. It is the source of approximately 20 percent of America's gas and oil. It is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, with a mix of Christians, Muslims, and those of other faiths trying to work together and harmonize traditional Muslim sharia law with civil law. And it is a leader — a regional leader, but really a leader for the entire continent — in both the political and diplomatic arenas. In other words, it is a large, complex, ethnically and religiously diverse country that is trying to shed a colonial past and make the difficult transition from military rule to a full-fledged democracy. And it has the potential, real as well as symbolic, to be a success story — something Africa and the world badly need right now.

PND: Do recent developments there cause you to be optimistic about the country's future?

JF: Yes. I'm hopeful about Nigeria's future, with the same caveat I just mentioned in regard to Russia. Hopeful but not naïve. The election, which will be held in April, features three candidates representing three different political parties vying for the presidency. But no matter who wins, it will be the first time executive power in the country will have been transferred from a democratically elected president to his democratically elected successor. This is a tremendously important moment for Nigeria.

Let me come back to the civil society and academic freedom tests I mentioned earlier. Nigeria has a vibrant university system in which we — along with the Carnegie Corporation and Ford, Hewlett, Mellon, and Rockefeller foundations — have invested significant resources. Nigeria has a vigorous free press — although television is subject to more restrictions. Nigeria has a robust civil society that is growing by leaps and bounds. MacArthur supports perhaps a hundred civil society groups there in two areas of focus: population and reproductive health, and human rights and the rule of law.

So I expect we'll hear vigorous debate in the upcoming election — in fact, it's already under way. I would also note that President Obasanjo has improved his cabinet in his second term. He has attracted many expatriates back home, giving the country a new generation of talented ministers in the areas of health, education, and so forth with a strong commitment to fight corruption and improve services.

PND: You've suggested that democracy is only viable in an environment where human rights are allowed to flourish. As a practical political matter, how does one square the demands of a human rights agenda in developing countries with the messy realities of a transition from civil war or chaos to something better? In other words, to whom or what should NGOs or international funders like MacArthur be accountable when working in countries like Nigeria and Russia?

JF: Everywhere we work, we start by having conversations with local government and civil society leaders to see where we can help and add value. Take an issue like police reform in Nigeria. If you look at our grants portfolio, you'll see that it features support both for civil society groups that are monitoring the police and grants to the national police force for a center on community policing. We've also worked with the minister of justice, who asked for help in reviewing the laws of Nigeria to identify edicts put on the books by earlier military dictatorships that are inconsistent with Nigeria's constitution and international obligations. And we've supported groups like the Centre for Democracy and Development and the Center for Law Enforcement Education that have been critical of government but work with progressive reform-minded elements in the government.

PND: MacArthur has been a staunch supporter of the International Criminal Court and an expanded international system of justice. Are you concerned, as officials in the Bush administration have been, that the ICC undermines the sovereignty of individual nation-states at a time when the relative decline of the nation-state seems to pose a threat to the world's collective security?

JF: I believe the opposite. I believe the International Criminal Court strengthens nation-states by raising the standard of justice and fairness within individual nation-states. The ICC is a court of last resort. Cases are brought there only when a nation is unwilling or unable to handle a case of gross human rights abuse within its own legal system. What we would like to see is nations raising the bar with respect to their legal systems so that they can adjudicate politically charged cases at home and not have to refer them to the ICC.

...I think an international system of justice...raises the bar and encourages judicial reform around the globe....
When we talk about an international system of justice, we're talking about more than the ICC. We're also talking about regional human rights commissions and human rights courts. We support groups in Russia like the Independent Council of Legal Expertise, which took cases that had not been satisfactorily handled in the Russian system and had them referred to the European Court. There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that because Russia really doesn't like to see court cases referred to the European Court, the standard of judicial proceedings in Russia is improving. So in the final analysis, I think an international system of justice, whether we're talking about the International Criminal Court or the Inter-American Court or the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights or the European Court of Human Rights, is going to raise the bar and encourage judicial reform around the globe. We're already seeing evidence of that.

PND: I'd like to switch the focus to your domestic grantmaking. Last year, MacArthur announced a five-year, $50 million Digital Media and Learning Initiative that will explore the ways in which digital technologies are changing how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. What was the genesis of that initiative?

JF: MacArthur has spent twenty years trying to strengthen public education in this country, and we continue to work in that area in our hometown of Chicago. But as we looked back at our work over those twenty years, as well as at what others had done, we began to have some doubts whether foundations are well suited to promoting and pursuing systemic reform. People always ask, "Do foundations ever fail? Are they afraid to admit mistakes?" We funded a comprehensive effort in Minneapolis called the Learning Partnership, a systemic educational reform effort we thought might eventually be replicated in several cities. But because there were flaws in the design and in how it was executed, we failed to fulfill our ambitions. That experience, in turn, caused us to step back, question our school reform work, and say, "Maybe there are other ways we can be useful in helping young people learn and develop the skills they need to succeed in the twenty-first century."

So we began to educate ourselves about some facts of life. Young people today average more than six hours a day with one form of media or another. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. teens now use the Internet, and half of those go online every day; two-thirds of teenagers online use instant messaging; 64 percent of teenagers have downloaded music from the Internet; 40 percent have cell phones; 32 percent have created a personal Web site or Web page; eight out of ten teenagers online play video games. Those are big numbers. And you have to ask yourself, what percentage of kids' actual learning and socialization and capacity to make informed judgments is acquired during the course of a normal school day and what percentage is acquired in the out-of-school hours and perhaps online or through the use of other technologies. Common sense suggests that more and more of what kids are learning, how they relate to each other and the world around them, how they form their values, is happening outside the formal school day; yet we don't know a lot about that part of kids' lives.

So we announced a five-year, $50 million initiative designed to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. Our primary objective is to learn. We're also interested in the implications of what we discover for institutions such as schools, libraries, and other learning environments such as the family and peer groups. We don't expect schools to disappear, but we think it's quite possible that technologies that are having such a profound impact on young people eventually will change the way schools are organized and how kids are taught. Indeed, new technologies could create a kind of seamless environment in which school and afterschool, formal classroom and informal online learning, and even play will come together in unpredictable but mutually beneficial ways.

Let me also say that we are approaching this set of questions with an open mind. We are not uncritical boosters of new technology. But we believe these technologies are here to stay. We do believe they have the potential to create significant benefits but there may also be some downsides which need to be understood and countervailed.

PND: Fifty million dollars is a lot of money. But it's also a huge area of study that has implications for many other fields and disciplines. How will you know five years from now whether you achieved your objectives?

JF: Well, let me describe what we're doing, and maybe then I can come to the question. We're starting by trying to develop a research base. To that end, we've asked researchers Professor Mimi Ito at the University of Southern California and Peter Lyman at the University of California at Berkeley to conduct a multi-site ethnographic study about how, and to what effect, young people use digital media. A minute ago I cited a lot of statistics, but statistics don't tell you what a day or week in the life of a typical young person is really like. We're also supporting Joe Kahne at Mills College, who's studying the effect of digital media on young people's civic engagement, and Howard Gardner at Harvard, who's looking at how immersion in the Internet affects the way kids develop values and their capacity to make ethical judgments. These are just a few of the efforts to which we've already committed funds, but in each and every case the idea is to try to add to our knowledge and create a research base.

We are also trying to build an interdisciplinary field of study and innovation. There are many scholars around the country who have begun to look at these questions but who are not recognized as part of an emerging field. Understanding that, we are supporting the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, an annual series of books that will be published in print form and also online. The first round will address a range of topics, including volumes on civic engagement, individual identity, race and ethnicity, the very important issue of the credibility of what young people encounter on the Internet, and the world of video games. Those are just some of the topics, but again the overarching idea is to start building a field.

Beyond field building, we're looking at specific applications. For example, we've given a grant to Professor Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, to help define what we mean by digital learning and media. He has written a useful paper that describes literacy skills in the digital age. He is also developing curriculum for media literacy based on these skills. Young people need to know about many things that we did not encounter early on. They need to know about copyright and intellectual properties issues, they need to understand the power of images, the need for cultural sensitivity, and all the rest. We've awarded another grant to Nicole Pinkard, at the University of Chicago, who has developed digital media afterschool programs for Chicago public schools near the university that are based on the Jenkins curriculum.

Another aspect of our work has to do with video games. Earlier, I cited the rather eye-opening statistic that 80 percent of kids online are playing video games. One question we'd like to explore is how video games can both entertain and promote learning. James Gee at the University of Wisconsin is not only exploring that question but is also looking at how designing games themselves can be a learning experience.

...The digital divide today is a participation divide — it's about the quality and depth of engagement with digital technologies and the opportunities they create....
A lot of attention has been focused on the digital divide. But the digital divide isn't what it was a decade ago. It's no longer a divide between kids who have access to computers and the Internet and kids who don't. The digital divide today is a participation divide — it's about the quality and depth of engagement with digital technologies and the opportunities they create. We are very concerned that young people in urban settings should have the same opportunity to engage with new media as kids in affluent suburban schools do.

Those are some of the early directions our work is taking. At the end of five years, I hope and expect that we will know a lot more about how kids are using digital technologies, and that there will be curriculum modules in schools across the country that help kids to be literate in a digital age. I also hope we will be looking at other institutions, such as libraries, to see how they might be more than just passive purveyors of written material. Who knows, maybe there'll even be library of the future that would have a room where kids can go after school to tinker and create their own digital learning materials.

PND: You've created a Web site through which you plan to post and disseminate a lot of this information, correct?


JF: We have. We're hoping not only to disseminate information but to create a Web-based network where people in the field, or people interested in the field, can come together, interact, and learn from each other.

PND: I was impressed by the number of cutting-edge social-web tools you've incorporated or are planning to incorporate into the site. Has your work in the digital media area changed the way the foundation is using technology in its other areas of interest?

JF: That's a good question. We are making a conscious effort to use technology to advance our work in many fields. For example, a MacArthur grant is supporting the use of GPS imaging to pick up deforestation in the Amazon earlier than otherwise might have been the case. A grant to Benetech supports the development of a secure Web site where people can report human rights abuses and allow patterns of ethnic cleansing and potential genocide to be spotted early. We hope to be using the Web tools you alluded to in our juvenile justice work and our affordable housing work, enabling people in those fields to share best practices and talk with each other directly without having to go through a central gatekeeper.

PND: You mentioned your juvenile justice work. You've launched a new initiative in that area called Models for Change that aims to create successful and replicable models for juvenile justice system reform through targeted investments in four key states — Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Can you tell us a little bit more about the initiative?

JF: Models for Change is part of a $100 million commitment MacArthur has made to the field of juvenile justice reform. We began our work with an inter-disciplinary research network in adolescent development and juvenile justice, which looked at a number of questions, including the developmental differences between young people and adults as they encounter the justice system. Among the questions we asked were, At what point are young people able to judge the consequences of their choices? And at what point are they competent to stand trial?

There's a lot more to it, of course, but the important point is that there is now a research base for the field that can be used to inform practice. As you mentioned, the Models for Change program aims to create model juvenile justice systems in four states initially — Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington. We will also create what we call "action networks" around two critically important issues in another ten states. Those issues are reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system and bringing state-of-the-art mental health screening and services to kids who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. The numbers vary from state to state, but approximately 60 percent of the juveniles who are in trouble with the law have emotional or mental health problems that need to be treated.

...The fundamental premise of our juvenile justice work is that young people are different from adults....
The fundamental premise of our juvenile justice work is that young people are different from adults, and they ought to be handled by a juvenile justice system that offers alternatives to incarceration rather than by a system created for adults. The evidence shows that kids who go through a juvenile justice system with redemptive options do better when they are released than kids who do "adult time for adult crime," as the saying goes. In fact, studies we've supported show that young offenders who go through a juvenile justice system rather than adult courts are 60 percent less likely to re-offend in a short period of time. There is an important insight that emerges from this work: When you do the right thing for an individual in trouble or in need, you're also pursuing sensible policy in the interest of the larger society. This is something of a paradigm shift from older views that saw the interests of those in trouble or need in opposition to the interests of the larger society. A juvenile justice system that offers redemptive options and supportive services to young offenders not only is more likely to help that young person get his or her life back on track and become a productive, contributing citizen, it will also lower crime rates and save taxpayers money.

We see a similar pattern in supportive housing, pre-school education, programs that give ex-offenders a second chance. MacArthur has begun a comprehensive initiative to document complex costs and benefits of government programs that help people in trouble and need.

PND: How did you select the four states in which you're piloting the initiative?

JF: We did a nationwide scan, with the help of a panel of experts, for states that were ready for reform, that had good executive leadership, and that had members of the legislature who got the picture and judges and prosecutors with the desire to make the system work better. Sometimes, as in the case of Illinois, they also had a history of experimenting with juvenile justice systems. The four we chose are states that have already started down the path of reform, and we hope to be able to help them harness and accelerate initiatives already under way.

Let me just add that the letter s in the initiative's title is important. It's Models for Change for a reason; we are not trying to impose a single model. It's really about a set of principles we believe all four states have bought into, and we understand that each will go about reforming its system in its own way. Our initiative is designed to help each state pursue its own course, and to that end we've chosen to work with a lead organization in each state. In Pennsylvania it's the Juvenile Law Center; in Illinois, the Loyola University ChildLaw Center; in Louisiana, the Board of Regents; and in Washington, the Center for Children and Youth Justice.

PND: Many of the things we have been talking about — civil strife and political instability, human rights abuses, disruptive technological change — have been around for millenia. What's so different about the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century that makes them such urgent challenges at this moment in history?

JF: That's a profound question. It's true, strife is all around us, whether in northern Uganda, which has been racked by a twenty-year civil war, or the eastern Congo, where ethnic and tribal divisions have claimed the lives of more people than any conflict since World War II, or the unfolding disaster in Darfur, which the world seems powerless to stop. And as you say, these kinds of civil wars and strife have been around for a very long time; we just haven't known about them or felt the responsibility to do something about them.

For its part, MacArthur, following the lead of the government of Canada, supported the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention that developed the concept of the "responsibility to protect." In a nutshell, the commission said that the essence of national sovereignty is the protection of its citizens, and when a state can't or won't do that — or worse, is the transgressor against its own citizens — the responsibility to protect should flow to the international community. The report also articulates a set of norms that were adopted last year by the United Nations and are becoming part of international discourse. So we've seen progress in this area, even though the killing continues. Now it's up to the international community to develop the political will and practical steps required to intervene in situations like Darfur before they turn into genocide.

PND: Do you think we will see the international community moving in that direction?

JF: Darfur is a test case of the Responsibility to Protect and so far the international community has been slow to act. The UN needs to supplement the African Union force on the ground — and soon. Recent indictments by the International Criminal Court are encouraging. With indictments in Sudan, northern Uganda, and the eastern Congo the message should be clear: Those who commit crimes against humanity will face justice. Let us hope that the growing number of prosecutions will have a deterrent effect.

PND: Well, thank you, Jonathan, for your time today.

JF: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Digital Media & Learning, Human Rights & International Justice, Juvenile Justice, Education, Human Rights, Justice, Nigeria, Russia, Youth