With the death earlier this month of Peter Bell—human rights defender and advocate for political freedom—the world lost a true visionary.
Bell worked for the Ford Foundation for 12 years. In the 1960s, as a young program officer in the foundation’s Brazil office, and later as head of the foundation’s office in Chile, Bell marshaled resources to support victims and opponents of oppressive regimes, helping to save the lives and careers of hundreds of leading intellectuals. “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,” Raymond Offenheiser, president of OxFam America and a former Ford representative in Bangladesh and Chile, wrote in a tribute for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “He saw a nexus between development work and advocacy that most people did not.”
In a 2012 interview with the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paolo, Bell reflected on what he called “one of the most important and rewarding grants awarded during my tenure at the foundation,” to the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), a human sciences think tank:
Dedicated to reducing poverty, defending human rights, and advancing political freedom, Bell went on to serve as president of the Inter-American Foundation, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and CARE; as senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He was an early chair of Americas Watch and a member of the founding board of Human Rights Watch, and a founder of the Inter-American Dialogue, the leading think tank in Washington on U.S.-Latin American relations.
“[Peter] did more to shape American philanthropy over the last five decades than perhaps any of his contemporaries,” wrote Chris Stone, president of Open Society Foundations, in a tribute to Bell’s life and legacy. “[He] pushed philanthropy beyond its comfort zone for the sake of justice.”
“We are grateful for Peter’s passion and conviction, which survive him at Ford as well as in the many other organizations he helped shape,” said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. “His commitment will inspire us as we continue to fight for the principles to which he dedicated his life.”
“The CEBRAP not only helped keep Fernando Henrique Cardoso [an influential academic who served as president of Brazil from 1995-2003] and his colleagues engaged productively in Brazil, but also became a leading center of research and social analysis there and throughout Latin America. Although Fernando Henrique was not a politician at the time, he became a major force in the restoration of democracy in Brazil....More than four decades after our initial support, I was moved when he sent me an email saying that at the time of the greatest difficulties in Brazil, the foundation made it possible for him to write what he wrote and did what he did.”