Interview with Jonathan Fanton: Without Human Rights, You Can't Have Stable Democracy
March 30, 2007 | Commentary | Human Rights

Originally published in Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper on March 30, 2007, MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton discusses grantmaking targeted towards human rights, reporductive health, and maternal mortality. 

Mr Jonathan Fanton, is the President of MacArthur Foundation, one of the leading private institutions in the United States of America that gives grants in support of worthy cause . MacArthur Foundation is dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition. Through the support it provides, the Foundation fosters the development of knowledge, nurtures individual creativity, strengthens institutions, helps improve public policy, and provides information to the public, primarily through support for public interest media. With assets of over $6 billion and grants and program-related investments totaling approximately $225 million annually, MacArthur is one of the nation’s largest private philanthropic foundations.

The Foundation believes its grantmaking is most effective when focused on relatively few areas of work, combined with sufficient resources over a long enough period of time to make a measurable difference. The Foundation makes grants and loans through four programs. The Program on Global Security and Sustainability focuses on international issues, including human rights and international justice, peace and security, conservation and sustainable development, higher education, migration, and population and reproductive health. MacArthur grantees work in 65 countries, and the Foundation has offices in India, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia.

The Program on Human and Community Development addresses issues in the United States that include community and economic development; housing, with a focus on the preservation of affordable rental housing; juvenile justice reform; and education, with an emerging interest in how digital media impact learning. The General Program supports public interest media, including public radio, television, and the production of independent documentary film. The Foundation benefits in its work from diversity at all levels of its operations. In working with other organizations and individuals, the Foundation values those who understand and share its commitment to diversity.

Mr Fanton spoke to Vanguard Law and Human Rights on some of the programmes the orgainsation has been supporting in Nigeria over the years.

Q. Could you give us a brief introduction of your organisation?

I am the President of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and it is one of the 10 largest private foundation in the United States of America and it is governed by an independent board. The board met in Nigeria last week. We give away $225million every year and we work in the US and also 65 countries around the world. Outside the US, we work on conservation, population, human rights,  international peace and security and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. We have new initiatives, looking at migration and mobility. In the US, our work concentrates on urban neighbourhood revitalization, housing and education, by trying to improve schools and also improve juvenile justice.

Q. If you say human rights, does that include democracy?

The two are related. You really cannot have a stable democracy without respecting human rights.

Q. In the area of democracy, in what way has your organisation assisted Nigeria?

We have been working in Nigeria since 1989 and we then began in the area of population, which was all we were allowed to do under the Abacha’s regime. When democratic government returned in 1999, we expanded to include higher education and human rights. We have given away over $80million in Nigeria to 300 organisations and individuals in the area of human rights. We have three points of focus. We are interested in helping Nigeria protect human rights, we are interested in helping Nigeria reform and improve its police force, particularly, reduce police abuse. And we are also interested in building strong human rights organisations,  in what we call anchoring institution for our programme.

Q. Does that mean collaborating with the electoral body?

We are not directly on democracy building, but we did make a grant to the CLEEN foundation to conduct polls on how the public is viewing the electoral process and the questions they asked in the poll ranged from; “Are you registered to vote, do you plan to vote, do you believe the Independent National Electoral Commission is competent to conduct a free and fair elections, do you fear electoral violence and will that keep you away from the polls”.  The purpose of the poll is to get public opinion on the polls and to point out areas of concerns, so that the authorities can address them and improve the process.

Q. From the report you got from the institutions you are funding, are you satisfied with their work?

I think the poll was well done. If you read the report, you will note that they did a very good job.
You have highlighted the areas of interest to your organisation in Nigeria, do you intend to extend your support to some other areas, particularly the area of democracy promotion. Most Nigerians are particularly concerned that we do not have democracy in the country yet, at best that what we have is a civilian government.

Q. Does your organisation intend to support institutions that are working on entrenching democracy in Nigeria?

I spoke to a group of our invitees in Abuja and I expressed hope that democracy has come to stay, I hope I was not naive. I realised that there are challenges, democracy takes a while to take root and I reminded the audience that in the United States, 12 years passed from the first articles of the confederation to the time the United State had a ratified constitution and the it took a whole generation before we had a stable party system. So,  the United State I think is a success story of democracy, but it did not happen in eight years. It took longer. The question is not whether Nigeria has reached a high level, but the question is what is the direction. And I believe that the election next month is very important.  It should be free and fair and who ever wins should command the mandate of the Nigeria people, so that that person can lead. The prospect of transferring power for the first time ever from one elected government to another is a significant moment in the country’s history.

Q. Obviously, the transfer of power from one elected government to another is of great importance, but there is equally the need for the transfer of power to be genuine and not a situation, where power is transferred to surrogates, who are not really the choice of the people. How do you see this?

I understand the point you are making, that is why I made reference to American history, because I am an American historian and it took a generation before the party system began to function properly in a stable way. Democracy is best when we have stable party system and it takes a while before those parties develop rules, have primaries, at which  they select candidates in an open way and it is clear that democracy in Nigeria is a working progress and the question is what is the direction, is it getting better? You asked about our work in democracy, we supported the Federal Ministry of Justice some years ago in the review of some laws in the country, some of which were passed during the military regimes and they were compared with laws that should be obtainable under a democracy and we understand that some of the laws and edicts that were passed by the military, have either been repealed or presented to the national assembly for them to be repealed and this is the first time is was done in Nigeria.

We also support the Legal Aids Council and we are working on a pilot project to develop a record keeping system, so that people who enter the criminal justice system don’t get lost or stuck there years and the objectives is to prevent the case files from getting lost in the system, so that cases can be monitored from time to time, so that we know the cases that go to court and the major goal is to reduce the number of years people spend awaiting trial. And piece by piece, we hope we are helping Nigeria to develop a good legal frame work in good order.

If people don’t trust the justice system and they cannot trust the police which is the face of government the ordinary people see most often, then it will be difficult to get people to trust the government itself. It is very important to improve the quality of policing and to limit or eliminate abuse by the police and reduce pre-trial detention, cut down on the number of people languishing in prison, develop a criminal code that has alternative to incarceration.

Q. People hear of MacArthur Foundation working in Nigeria,  what really are the targets of your organisation in Nigeria?

Speaking on human rights, our target area is to cut down on incidence of police abuse. In the population area, we have two themes, one is reproductive health and HIV/AIDS courses in the schools and we have for example, worked in Lagos with a group called Action Health. It has designed a curriculum and is working with some schools in Lagos area and our plan is to move what we have established in those schools to other states.

I think there are 25 other states that have begun to include HIV/AIDS courses in their curriculum.  And the objective here is to get good information to the young people about their rights and responsibilities,  hoping to encourage sensible behaviours, but in the end we help stop unwanted pregnancies and push back the date of first child birth and allow young people to stay in school longer, because they will not drop from school because of pregnancy. Secondly, it has to do with women’ s health and our focus is on reducing maternal mortality.

Nigeria has a very high rate of maternal mortality. 45,000 women die every year during child birth and that is rather too high and  we know what it takes to reduce that, which includes education, creating awareness and the need for women to go for pre-natal care and counseling. It means having some training for traditional birth attendants, it means having a system where if a woman gets into trouble in the course of child bearing, she can be taking to a clinics or hospitals.

These are fundamental needs and the way we are approaching this is to work in a number of villages to try to pioneer model systems and once these are perfected, our objective which is in line with government goal, which is to reduce the number of women who die by childbirth by half in the next half doze years would have been achieved. In the higher education area, our objective is to work with four leading federal universities, to help them get better and hope that the examples will inspire and help other universities.

At the moment, we have chosen four, Bayero University, Kano; Ahmedu Bello University, Zaria; University of Ibadan and University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. We have been working with these universities for six years and have given significant money, I think we have given an average of $6 million to each of the universities. And they have shown great improvement in the areas they choose to work on.

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