This article is part of the Leaders of Social & Political Change series from the Fall 2012 issue of Americas Quarterly. View the full special section.
I was asked to give my opinion on the changes that have transpired in the hemisphere in the past 50 years and the role of philanthropy. Of course, it’s impossible to quantify the contributions of a single person or organization in processes that are so long-term and complex. But there’s no doubt that the Ford Foundation has played a key role in many of the advances we now associate with democratic rights and practices in the region. Three qualities of the Ford Foundation stand out.
Commitment: The most important feature of the Ford Foundation and its officials has always been their commitment to the dignity of the human being and their determination to contribute to the defense of that dignity.
They do so by addressing the immediate without overlooking the long-term. They work with organizations on the front lines of advocacy, as well as with academics on the cutting edge of research and knowledge dissemination—and by doing so, bring issues into the public agenda and influence public policy.
This often means treading into politically incorrect territory. In 1984, the Ford Foundation funded the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos (which I helped found), an organization that promoted the concept that the continued control of the then-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was an expression of U.S. interventionism.
The Art of Dialogue: Some foreigners come to Mexico to tell us what we should do, handing out prescriptions tested in other parts of the world without much thought given to the particularities of our country.
The Ford Foundation is one of a handful of groups that instead looks for partners to establish lasting alliances founded upon respect, tolerance and transparency.
Pluralism: The Ford Foundation adheres to the principle of working with individuals and groups across the political and issue spectrum, believing that it is best to place a long-term bet on developing excellence among a professional cadre that will go on to influence public life in different ways. In Mexico alone, the list of diverse grantees that have enjoyed Ford Foundation support includes Mariclaire Acosta, a pioneer of the progressive wing of the human rights movement; Alejandro Poiré, secretary of the interior in the Felipe Calderón administration; and Luis Videgaray, one of the closest advisors to President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto.
For half a century, the Ford Foundation has accompanied and financed those of us seeking fundamental human dignity. In that capacity, it has become the companion of everyday proponents of orderly, peaceful change, and one of the few institutions that understands the complexity and slow pace of social transformations. Because of this, the Ford Foundation is part of Latin American history.