Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Tale of Economic Hardship: Human Rights First and the Madoff Fallout

I know I do not need to remind anyone of the bleak state of the economy: the impact of the current global economic downturn has been hard-felt and all-encompassing. Indeed, not too long ago, someone in my immediate family lost her job, victimized not by any fault of her own – in fact, she is the most capable and hardworking person I know – but by number-crunching and panicking management, the most potent foes in this deepening recession.

Needless to say, non-profit organizations and foreign policy interest groups have been hit hard by the current downturn; failed investments and less willing donors have damaged their budgets at a time when people are less willing than ever to donate money to fight for issues that do not directly concern them.

Among all these groups, one particular victim stood out to me recently.

Given the current policymaking environment, one would think that Human Rights First (HRF) and other human rights groups would be greatly encouraged. In some of his first executive orders, President Obama ordered the closing of Guantanamo Bay within a year, granted enemy combatants the protections listed in the Geneva Conventions, and required those interrogating enemy combatants to follow the Army Field Manual interrogation guidelines.[1] Such a dramatic reversal in policy is unprecedented in the human rights movement, and for human rights activists it is not only a victory to be celebrated but also an invaluable opportunity to ensure the success of and the prolonging of such policy.

In normal economic times, HRF would be in a great position to encourage and build on such policy. But HRF has not seen normal economic times for a while now; last December, HRF was met with a nasty surprise when it learned that two of its most generous donors, the JEHT Foundation and the Picower Foundation,[2] had their funds managed by Bernard Madoff, who had recently admitted that his firm and the $50 billion it managed was a giant Ponzi scheme.[3] As a result, both foundations were forced to dissolve and had to rescind their annual contributions to HRF.[4][5]

The loss of this funding has left HRF with a $1 million budget deficit for this year, about 10% of its annual budget. Worse yet, HRF was also granted additional funds from the now defunct JEHT foundation for 2010 and 2011, and the Picower Foundation was a regular annual donor, so these losses leave HRF with a $3 million shortfall over the next three years.[6]

HRF’s Refugee Protection Program will likely take one of the biggest blows, as it expected to receive $250,000 from the Picower Foundation this year.[7] It will be a shame if this program needs to be trimmed; the program has been a tremendous help for refugees seeking asylum in the United States, providing them not only with legal representation but also with useful information about the communities they hope to move into, such as the location and contact numbers of public places. This program is one of the largest of its kind in the United States and perhaps does the most practical good out of all of HRF’s initiatives.[8]

HRF is not the only advocacy group experiencing financial trouble in these tough economic times; indeed, the JEHT Foundation, in addition to its grants to HRF, also provided funding to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and numerous other advocacy groups.[9] With such advocacy groups struggling in this downturn, it will be interesting to see just how the political climate in Washington will be affected, in particular how much such groups will be able to monitor President Obama’s agenda of change, both here and abroad.

If you would like to help out HRF and make a donation, click here.

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/executive-orders-to-date/
[2] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2009/01/from-all-iraqi.html
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/12/business/12scheme.html?_r=1
[4] http://www.jehtfoundation.org/news/
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/20/business/20foundation.html?ref=business
[6] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2009/01/from-all-iraqi.html
[7] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2009/01/from-all-iraqi.html
[8] http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/asylum/asylum.htm
[9] http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/funderprofile.asp?fndid=5267&category=79

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