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Foundations and the Freedom Not to Forget

January 15, 2013

(Bradford K. Smith, president of the Foundation Center, wrote about Lucy Bernholz's annual look at trends in the social economy in his last post.)

Agent_orange_sprayedRecently I had a front-row seat for two profoundly moving presentations that highlighted philanthropic freedom in action. Both involved groups of forgotten people -- the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam and rural Americans without Internet access -- and one foundation, the Ford Foundation.

First, Charles Bailey, the former representative of the Ford Foundation in Vietnam, spoke to staff here at the Foundation Center about the "Make Agent Orange History" campaign. During the Vietnam War, the United States dumped 12 million gallons of a herbicide known as Agent Orange on South Vietnam, exposing in the process some 4.5 million Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands soldiers from America and other nations. Agent Orange contains the chemical dioxin, which remains toxic to living things for hundreds of years and is concentrated in contaminated soil, or "hot spots," throughout the Vietnamese countryside. The Ford Foundation quietly began working on the issue of dioxin remediation at a time when there was no official dialogue between the American and Vietnamese governments and none of the sixteen corporations that had produced Agent Orange would accept any liability for its devastating side effects.

Subsequently, in 2000, Ford announced its Special Initiative on Agent Orange/Dioxin, which was transferred to the Aspen Institute in 2011. Over time, other foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies began to contribute to the effort and Congress started to act. Today, while lives have been restored and hot spots have been cleaned up, legal action has yielded almost nothing and millions of people remain at risk. The effort lives on, however, spearheaded by Bailey and the Aspen Institute, in partnership with the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin.

Later in the evening, I stopped in at the Ford Foundation to hear Susan Crawford talk about another group of forgotten people: the millions of Americans without Internet access. Crawford opened her remarks by painting a vivid picture of a mother and daughter sitting in a car outside the local library after dark. Why? So the child could piggy-back on the library's wireless connection to do her homework.

Crawford, a dynamic professor of law at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law here in New York City, is the author of the just-released Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, which chronicles how a combination of bad policy and corporate power have turned the U.S., once the undisputed leader in all things Internet, into a nation that pays higher prices for slower download speeds than virtually any industrialized country in the world and where Internet access is anything but universal.

That Ford was sponsoring such an event should come as no surprise. Crawford's work and that of other scholars and activists inform the foundation's Advancing Media Rights and Access initiative -- which has supported a number of high-profile public events under the banner "Wired for Change," as well as grants to organizations around the world working on these issues. (Many of those organizations also can count on the Open Society Foundations for support.) Tackling issues like "net neutrality" (which is anything but neutral) and supporting research that often runs counter to the "facts" and analysis provided by industry giants such as Comcast can be controversial. But Ford has been a leader in this space.

Indeed, issues like Agent Orange remediation and the digital divide receive relatively little foundation support compared to more traditional causes. The fact that a handful of foundations like Ford choose to take them on tells us something important about philanthropic freedom. More than just a tax code-enabled right, private foundations' freedom to work on issues of their choosing is also a unique asset, one that must be used responsibly and, at times, courageously.

What an inspiring day that was. It reminded me of the many ways in which private foundations -- free from the bottom-line pressure of markets, the partisanship of electoral politics, and the demands of fundraising -- can use their independence to do remarkable things, whether it's taking on issues that no one wants to touch, sticking with an issue for decades if required, or keeping the rest of us from forgetting the millions of people who, through no fault of their own, continue to be harmed and/or excluded by war, economic injustice, disease, and discrimination.

-- Brad Smith

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Posted by Akwasi Aidoo  |   January 20, 2013 at 02:41 PM

Many thanks, Brad, for highlighting these initiatives. Yes, it’s times and examples like these that give those of us in the philanthropy sector hope and satisfaction. The two initiatives on Agent Orange and the Digital Divide show exciting impact. Equally important, to my mind, is the idea that it’s all in the “appetite” – for the marathon approach of “quietly” preparing the ground over many years and leading on controversial issues.

In many ways, it reminds me of Ford’s leadership in quietly supporting the movement for medial pluralism in West Africa in the early 1990s, and the Open Society Foundation’s pioneering work in supporting the training of Black South African students during some of the toughest years of apartheid. I can’t imagine a more democratic West Africa than we have today (despite all the continuing challenges) without the plethora of community radios and independent print media that Ford helped to grow. And the same goes for the pivotal role of higher education equity in securing South Africa’s democratic transition (a lot more still remains to be done, obviously).

The challenge now is to have such an approach/appetite become the norm across the field of philanthropy.

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