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The lunch plenary at the Council on Foundations summit featured an all-star cast of human rights activists including Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now a member of The Elders, Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of CIVICUS and Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Some excellent points were made, particularly about the foundational role of human rights in sustaining many of the changes that global and domestic philanthropists are often seeking to bring about. While no one referenced Amartya Sen’s famous quote about democracy, a free press and famines, it would certainly have been apropos. Several of the speakers also made the important point that funding for human rights advocacy has generally suffered in the last ten years as many donors have put their focus on more easily measurable and short-term results. The fact that changing a society’s tolerance for violence against women, for instance, takes many, many years does not make it unworthy of philanthropic dollars.

Unfortunately, all three speakers also succumbed to the tendency in philanthropic circles to hyperbole regarding the role and impact of their particular cause, hyperbole that ultimately undermines their message.

Ms. Robinson spoke with conviction about the “undeniable connections” between human rights and economic development, citing the example of Liberia and programs launched there by new president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to emphasize gender equality and the protection and empowerment of women. Of course it’s far to soon to judge the impact of such programs—and a post-conflict situation is probably not the fairest ground on which to assess them. Meanwhile, none of the countries that have lifted the most people out of poverty in the last 30 years—China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.—would be held up by activists as an example of respect for human rights.

Mr. Naidoo, a South African, related a story about a visit to Zimbabwe last year when government agents suggested that his organization shouldn’t be coming down so hard on Zimbabwe given the US’s action in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. While we can deplore and fight human rights abuses committed by the US government, it’s disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that Zimbabwean government would not be beating, torturing, and killing political opponents if the US was not operating the prison at Guantanamo. Governments which perpetrate human rights abuses will grasp at any excuse to hand to justify the unjustifiable. Human rights abuses around the world were as prevalent in 1998 as they are in 2008.

Mr. Romero suggested that 10 years ago no one would believe that such things as waterboarding, suspension of habeus corpus rights, and warrantless wiretaps could happen in America. The only people who might not have believed that must have had no knowledge of American history. The Bush administration has not done anything that at various times was not done by the Jackson (ignoring the Supreme Court’s orders to stop deportation of American Indians), Lincoln (suspension of habeus corpus), Wilson (domestic censorship), FDR (Japanese internment) or Johnson (warrantless wiretaps) administrations. While we should learn from our past mistakes, we also have to assume that without constant vigilance those mistakes will be repeated.

Why does this matter? It matters because this tendency in philanthropy to overstate impact plays a key role in undermining the confidence of the public in philanthropy and non-profits. Several studies have shown that such confidence is at an all-time low. When philanthropy makes assertions and promises it cannot meet, it encourages public cynicism. In the case of human rights, isn’t it enough to say that all human beings deserve to live lives of dignity without appealing to grander claims?

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