It is easy to be a pessimist these days. Tales of corporate scandal and greed; corruption in Hartford; unchecked terrorism, striking indiscriminately, from New York to Madrid to Istanbul; a rising tide of all sorts of fundamentalism, at home and abroad; deeply troubling atrocities in Western Sudan, deadly local conflict in Northern Uganda and Eastern Congo, resurgent ethnic nationalism in Kosovo, ongoing fighting in Chechnya, renewed hostilities in Iraq and a seemingly endless cycle of violence in Israel and the West Bank.  In the midst of it all, we have a presidential campaign that accentuates the negative and world leaders who seem concerned only by the immediate and who lack long-term vision.

The temptation to give in to the forces of fatalism and despair is real, but I urge you to resist those impulses and to engage with public issues, not withdraw into private space.  We are at one of those pivot points in history, with choices to make and opportunities to seize.  How your generation approaches the world will make a difference, but you have to work at it. I am an optimist about the future and I want to tell you why. 

First, a few words about my experience and my professional life. As President of the MacArthur Foundation for five years, and as a Board Member at Human Rights Watch for almost twenty, I have seen a lot of the world.  MacArthur works in 80 countries, seeking to preserve the environment; to promote sensible population policies based on access to reproductive health and rights; to advance human rights and an international system of justice; and to reduce the dangers from weapons of mass destruction.  In the U.S., MacArthur concentrates on community development, housing, and system reform in juvenile justice, mental health, and public education.  We are best known for the MacArthur Fellows — the so-called genius awards — given to 25 creative individuals every year, and for our support of public radio and television.

We are one of the 10 largest American foundations, making almost $200 million dollars in grants and low interest loans every year — about $1 billion of philanthropy in my time so far. Almost 85% of that amount has gone to not-for-profit organizations. MacArthur has funded 4200 of them in its 25-year history.

If you ask me how the world today differs from when I was preparing for college down the road in Wallingford, I would say this: the role of non-governmental organizations and direct citizen action is much more important now.  Engaged citizenship is more than voting or joining service clubs with bland agendas. And it matters in ways it never has before.

All over the world, people like us are joining together to influence governments and confront problems, from the environment to human rights violations, directly through the power of civil society. 

By “civil society,” I mean non-governmental groups that do careful research and monitoring to expose problems, propose specific remedies rooted in law and reality, and pioneer models of direct service: The Nature Conservancy, Amnesty International, The Population Council, CARE, Save The Children, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam International, The Global Fund for Women, Transparency International, the World Wildlife Fund. The honor role is wide and deep.

These groups play an indispensable role in the policy process and at the same time advance the prospects of creating and sustaining healthy democracies around the world.  They give voice to ordinary citizens, check governmental excesses, fill in service gaps, and prod international agencies to establish norms that express humankind’s highest aspirations for justice and fairness. 

And so here is my bottom-line message to you:  Get involved — you can make a difference.  Financial contributions are important and absolutely essential, but they are only the beginning.  Time, expertise, emotional commitment: that’s where the real action is.

Let me illustrate my point with a few vignettes, taking you around the world to introduce you to some of the groups MacArthur supports, concluding with an autobiographical note, and then opening up for discussion.  Remember: the theme is why I am an optimist and why citizens like you need to become involved with the issues of the day.

We start in Northern Uganda where a civil war has raged for 18 years between the Lord’s Resistance Army and government forces.  The LRA is especially known for kidnapping, torturing, and killing children, though they harm adults as well.1  A local non-governmental organization — called Human Rights Focus, in Gulu, Uganda — working with Human Rights Watch worldwide, has carefully documented the atrocities: some 20,000 children abducted, and tens of thousands more killed, wounded, or disabled. This evidence convinced the new International Criminal Court in The Hague to open an investigation into the situation in Northern Uganda — its very first case.

The International Criminal Court, or ICC, is the most important new institution since the founding of the United Nations.  It aims to bring to justice the Milosevics, the Pinochets, the Hissène Habrés, and the Saddam Husseins of the future. Ninety-two countries — though not, alas, the United States — have become members of the Court. That is more, and much more quickly, than anyone supposed possible because of a group called The Coalition for the International Criminal Court, an alliance of 2000 local NGO’s working around the world for ratification. A stunning example of civil society’s power to make a difference.

Come with me now across the world to Papua New Guinea, to the island of West New Britain, to look at the work of Mahonia Na Dari, a local environmental organization whose name means “Guardians of the Sea.”  There are 19 “hot-spots” around the world, as they are called, where there are incredible risks to plant and animal species under immediate threat of extinction.  MacArthur works in 9 of the 19, including one in Melanesia, a vast expanse stretching 3000 miles across the islands and into the South Pacific.

Destructive fishing practices by both outside and local agents are killing the coral and with it marine life.  Some 400 species of coral and  900 species of fish found nowhere else on earth are endangered because those catching fish for aquariums in Europe and the U.S. stun them with cyanide and dynamite blasts – both of which kill the coral.

Land and coastal environments in that part of the world are held in common by communities, so effective reform requires local engagement.  Mahonia Na Dari was responsible for establishing the first protected marine area in Kimbe Bay; they have since convinced other communities to establish ten more, covering 50% of the coral reefs in the area.  With MacArthur support, the new model is now spreading to other islands through a network of twenty additional local, national, and international NGO’s working in more than 100 communities.

Now let’s transit to Russia.  You have probably been reading about the uncertain progress of democratic reform there, but that’s a Moscow story.  In the provinces, human rights groups are flourishing, some 3,000 by one count.  Local people are coming together to tackle police abuse, protect freedom of expression, promote tolerance and respect for minorities, advance women’s rights, and insist on the rule of law. 

Here is an offbeat example of how Russians are using the courts to defend their rights.  In the summer of 2001, one of the world’s worst dictators, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, traveled across Russia by train. The overbearing security arrangements for this trip created massive disruptions across the Russian rail system.  In the Urals region of Perm, the Perm Regional Human Rights Center, on behalf of local citizens, sued the Russian government for violation of consumers' rights in their handling of the Kim fiasco – and won.  Imagine a Russia in which ordinary people can sue their government and win.  The penalty was paltry – only $35 for the ticket plus $400 in damages – but the principle is fundamental.2  

This kind of case was simply unthinkable in Russia just 10 years ago. The growth of civil society is the best indication that the Russian transition to democracy is real and not likely to be reversed.

The final international example takes us back to Africa, to northern Nigeria, which is largely Muslim.  You may have read about state efforts to impose Sharia or Muslim law and the infamous case of Amina Lawal, 30 years old, convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.  A MacArthur-supported community group, Women Living Under Muslim Law, took up her case, using their local expertise and cultural sensitivity to help craft a defense based on aspects of both Sharia and Nigerian law. By holding the justice system accountable to its own rules, Women Living Under Muslim Laws not only saved Amina’s life but also demonstrated that there are legal options for women living under Sharia law.  A source of my optimism: here are local women providing essential legal aid – and offering hope for a more just Nigeria.

Now come with me back home to the United States.  Despite all the negative talk about America’s cities, the facts show real progress.  Cities are no longer simply places of problems and deficits; they are also full of untapped assets and opportunities. 

Some of the credit for these improvements goes to the Community Development Movement, a coalescing of local neighborhood groups that brings community residents together to work on housing, economic development, crime reduction, school improvement, and all the rest.  12 years ago, MacArthur joined together with 17 other foundations and banks to strengthen the movement in 23 cities. Today there are almost 4000 of these neighborhood groups across the country.

Let me tell the story of the Center for Economic Progress in Chicago. There are many families in Chicago – and around the country – where one or both parents work, but they are not paid enough in wages to meet their basic needs, like rent, food, or utilities. A federal program – the Earned Income Tax Credit – provides tax relief for individuals and families making less than $35,000 per year.  But obtaining the benefit makes filling out your tax return even more complicated than it already is, so many that could benefit do not.

Every year around tax-time – yesterday, April 15 – the Center for Economic Progress coordinates a network of volunteer accountants throughout the city who donate their time to help families in need fill out their tax returns to take advantage of this tax credit. In some cases, this can mean almost 40% more annual income. An amazing gift and an example of how anyone – even accountants – can use their expertise to make a difference.

But local groups can do more than help provide social services.  All across the country, citizens – not governments – are forming networks to tackle other issues; for example, promoting economic development.  I think of the Near West Side Community Development Corporation in Chicago, which is working to ensure that low- and moderate-income residents of a gentrifying neighborhood are able to stay in their homes, even as the community improves and rents rise all around them. 

They are led by Earnest Gates, a local business-owner and long-time community figure. Thanks to the efforts of Earnest and other concerned citizens, Near West is building a neighborhood shopping center that will have stores catering to people of a range of incomes: the 3000-square foot Starbucks that wants to sell “double-tall” cappucinos to the young professionals who have recently arrived in the community, as well as the grocery store that keeps prices on basic foods affordable for people on low- or fixed-incomes. Everybody can shop there – and the entire community is better for it.

I could go on, but you get the point.  All across the United States and around the world, engaged people are making a difference.

And now to end on an autobiographical note.

Nearly twenty years ago, I became involved with Human Rights Watch through its Europe and Central Asia Division, which I chaired in the late 1980’s.  That work took me to every country in the former Soviet Union, including places like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all now in the news.  I just retired as Chair of Human Rights Watch worldwide, an organization that is active in more than seventy countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia, from Columbia to Sierra Leone, from China to Russia. 

Our goal is to hold countries accountable to their own constitutions and to international accords they have signed, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (the Convention for the Prevention of Torture, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child).  Our method is to put staff on the ground to document human rights abuses and then tell the story to the public, to the United Nations, to the European Community, and to the United States government.  We work in partnership with courageous local human rights groups, supporting their efforts on the ground.

Twenty years ago you could read The New York Times front page for weeks but rarely – maybe, never – see the term “human rights” mentioned.  Now hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a story in the Times on human rights violations somewhere in the world. Back then, Human Rights Watch had a staff of twenty, mostly lawyers and journalists.  Now it has grown to more than 150 and there is an entire profession called “human rights,” with law school centers, here and abroad, training students for the many human rights organizations around the world. Good people are shining a light on terrible abuses almost everywhere. 

The list of accomplishments is too numerous to recount, but here are two examples:

  • During the NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, HRW issued an urgent bulletin on the indiscriminate use of cluster bombs near civilian populations.  Two days later, after considerable press coverage, President Clinton issued a secret executive order curtailing further use of cluster bombs during the war.  That lesson was applied in Iraq, where cluster bombs from the air were not used near civilian areas, greatly reducing the number of civilian casualties. 
  • Just 10 days ago, the world marked the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda, a shameful testimony to the world’s indifference and America’s moral failure.  Human Rights Watch helped call the world community to account by documenting the abuses and demonstrating that governments and international organizations were aware of the atrocities and their enormous scale – but chose not to act.

Having been exposed for their indifference, a number of countries have apologized for their inaction – though not, I should say again, the United States. Anew doctrine, “the responsibility to protect,” has been born.  The doctrine tries to determine when military intervention on humanitarian grounds is justified, who has the right to intervene, and how the world decides. The notion of “humanitarian intervention” seemed unthinkable in 1994, when the international community refused to defend civilians by fighting the government-organized gangs that were engaged in mass executions throughout Rwanda. They argued that such combat would be inappropriate for so-called “peace-keeping” forces.

I have to say that of all the things I have done in life – jobs, volunteer work, Boards – my association with HRW has meant the most to me and contributed the most to my personal development.  I have a sense – in a modest way – of having made a difference, and not just on a grand scale. The contact with dissidents in Warsaw and Prague in the darkest days of Soviet repression, which they say gave them hope; verbal warnings to the revolutionary government of Romania, which may have encouraged restraint; the visit to Tashkent that for a few months helped dissidents find more space to live and work; a back channel meeting with President Akayev of Kyrgyzstan to encourage him to stand for re-election rather than extend his rule through constitutional amendment – all done as an unpaid volunteer.

So I end where I began: being engaged in community organizations, issue advocacy groups, as well as religious and service institutions, will add value to your lives and make a difference in our society and beyond as we search for a more just and humane world at peace.  And as you feel the difference you are making, you will take heart that the deadly forces of fatalism and despair can be turned back by the power of individuals coming together directly, unmediated by governments. 

That is the way of the future in our race against global warming; against the ravages of AIDS; against the growth of terrorist networks; and against the potential of social explosion, as rising expectations clash with the stubborn persistence of poverty.

The most powerful force for good in our time is the worldwide mobilization of citizens to act directly: sometimes to supplement government action, sometimes to resist it; most often to bring compassion and competence, hope and determination, when formal mechanisms fail.  I hope that you will all join in.


1       HRW report, “Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda,” 
         March 2003, Vol. 15 (7).
2       See, “Kim Jong Il-s train condemned in Russia,” Pravda, December 2, 2002, 
         http://english.pravda.ru/main/2002/02/12/26357.html

Community Development, Education, Youth