Category Archives: Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, 12/1/2006

In this letter to The New York Times, Jonathan Fanton highlights recent political developments in Nigeria.

Published: December 1, 2006 by The New York Times

To the Editor:

Money and Violence Hobble Democracy in Nigeria” (front page, Nov. 24) rightly emphasizes the importance of the April 2007 election. But its negative conclusion that “a political culture of graft and intimidation … has led to widespread neglect and disillusionment” is a harsher judgment than facts on the ground warrant.

I visited Nigeria 10 days ago and came away with a more hopeful view. No doubt the coming election will tell us a lot about the future of Nigerian democracy. But it is not the whole story.

As we have seen elsewhere, an election does not secure democracy. Other markers like the growth of civil society and the rule of law are prerequisites.

Civil society and a free press flourish in Nigeria. Judicial reform is promising. A talented and committed younger generation is emerging in key leadership positions. Some of them are running for governor in important states, opening the possibility for reform at the state level.

It is useful to shine a spotlight on Nigeria, one of the most important transitions to democracy anywhere in the world. But it is not helpful to showcase only the negatives. There is another story to tell.

Jonathan F. Fanton
President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Chicago, Nov. 29, 2006

“Taking Human Rights Seriously”

On January 10, 2006 the Chicago Tribune published the article below, written by Jonathan Fanton, on revising the structure and leadership of the UN Commission on Human Rights.  

Taking human rights seriously

By Jonathan Fanton,
president of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
and a former chairman of Human Rights Watch

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On its Web site, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights describes itself as “the world’s foremost human rights forum.”

Unfortunately, given its membership and structure, the commission has become little more than a punch line for late-night comics. Its current members include Sudan and Zimbabwe, nations with their own dubious human rights records. In 2003 Libya, widely recognized as one of the world’s most repressive governments, chaired the commission. The commission meets only once each year, failing to act on egregious rights abuses that occur between its meetings.

Politics, which should not be a consideration, have too often come to dominate the commission’s work. For example, Sudan helped to water down language and constrain discussion of the flagrant human rights violations occurring in Darfur.

The UN must play a leading role in setting international standards and offering a forum to air and address human rights grievances. When governments fail to protect their citizens or abide by their obligations, the international community has a responsibility to act–a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and to hold nations accountable. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed in September that human rights become the third pillar of UN activity, along with security and development. He recommended the current commission be replaced by a smaller council with new membership selection procedures to decrease the likelihood that human rights abusers would serve on the council.

Council membership must not be a tool for bad actors to avoid criticism or thwart international action. Members should be elected on an individual vote by a two-thirds majority. Regions should be required to nominate more candidates than there are slots, ensuring more competition in the voting. The council needs to meet more often to ensure public attention and international criticism is never far away for countries violating human rights.

We should be pleased the U.S. is backing such reforms. But we must not let slide this historic opportunity to reform the UN and strengthen its focus on human rights. American officials and other UN member states should be more forceful in advocating the importance of the Human Rights Council and should ratchet up their role in the negotiations, which resume Wednesday.


“The Putin Paradox”

On October 30, 2005, The Boston Globe published the article below. Written by Jonathan Fanton, it describes the growth of civil society and private universities in Russia. While Dr. Fanton acknowledges that Russia’s political system is not always transparent and/or respectful of civil liberties and free expression, he argues that foundations like MacArthur play a crucial role in nurturing the country’s “fragile democracy.”

 The Putin Paradox

By Jonathan F. Fanton

October 30, 2005

The Boston Globe

HEADLINES IN the Western press are pessimistic about Russia’s commitment to democracy. The arrest and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky; the takeover of NTV; constitutional reforms that replace elected regional officials with appointed governors; vague assurances from Vladmir Putin that while he would not run for a third term in 2008, he would not disappear from Russian politics. All paint a portrait of sharp retreat from the Yeltsin era.

But the picture in Russia is more complex. Leaders in higher education and civil society have a more nuanced story to tell.

Changes underway in higher education are a good indicator of the deep transformation taking place in Russia. Private universities are gaining strength, and state universities are being encouraged to modernize by opening themselves and their curriculum to the West.

For instance, cutting-edge science is being conducted at 16 Research and Education Centers across the country. Affiliated scientists have produced thousands of publications. In the past year alone, more than 70 patents have been filed and 16 new enterprises have been started. Nine other campuses host Centers for Advanced Study and Education in the social sciences. They are building a cadre of policy experts that advise the government on issues like sustainable economic development, migration and ethnic diversity, human rights and the rule of law, and healthcare.

At the national level, the Ministry of Education and Science is bringing Russia into the ”Bologna process,” which is creating a Europe-wide higher education area. University systems in 40 countries will have a common framework for undergraduate and graduate degrees, transferable credits, shared standards for academic quality, and mobility for students and faculty.

The isolation of Russian intellectual life is over. Although much more must be done before Russia’s universities will fully recover from years of neglect and repression, the progress is real. These developments in higher education do not square with the image of Russia moving backward into isolation and suspicion of the outside world. No government bent on long-term authoritarian control would promote Internet connectivity, faculty and student exchanges, and the adoption of a Western model of higher education.

The MacArthur Foundation has been active in Russia since 1992, making a 20-year, $100 million commitment to building a robust system of higher education and to strengthening the country’s intellectual life. In the area of human rights, we have made almost $20 million worth of additional grants.

The number of civil society groups is growing, and there is positive movement on fundamental issues. To be sure, the situation in Russia is paradoxical. On high profile cases of political sensitivity, the Kremlin interferes with the judicial process, is willing to use force to put down demonstrations, and violates civil rights in the pursuit of terrorists. Yet Russia has begun to improve prison conditions. A new criminal procedures code is making incremental improvements in the justice system. And a broad network of human rights groups across the country is working undeterred, often helping the government reform itself.

For instance, the INDEM Foundation is developing a registration process at police stations in 15 precincts in Moscow and Kazan. Because most instances of police torture occur during the first hours spent in custody, booking detainees, logging the charges against them, and other procedural improvements are an important step for combating abuse.

To monitor the police and the courts, human rights ombudsmen are at work in 31 of Russia’s 89 regions, and there are plans for significant expansion. An umbrella organization of the ombudsmen is developing a common, automated system to register complaints and track their disposition. A USAID/Russia project on legal reform has helped more than 1,000 judges attend training seminars in the United States and has been building a database of Russian court decisions to enhance consistency and strengthen the judicial system.

Russia is at a critical crossroads. There is no question that Putin is tightening his grip on various sources of power — political, economic, media. But so far, he has allowed civil society to grow, scholars to pursue their work, and niche media to criticize the government. The West needs to be open to a more nuanced view of Russia’s progress while continuing to criticize the backward steps that Putin takes. This is a moment of paradox and new voices that requires patience as the country’s fragile democracy takes root.

Jonathan F. Fanton is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


“Investing in the Future of Africa Through Its Universities”

 On September 25, 2005 Weekly Trust Magazine, a national newspaper run out of Abuja, Nigeria published the article below. Written by Jonathan Fanton, it describes recent advances in the higher education system in Africa, with a particular focus on the MacArthur Foundation’s work in Nigeria. 

Investing in the Future of Africa through its Universities

By Jonathan F. Fanton

September 25, 2005

Last week, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, the presidents of Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique, and representatives of the continent’s most distinguished universities gathered with six of America’s largest private foundations to celebrate remarkable progress being made in African higher education.

Five years ago, the MacArthur, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations and the Carnegie Corporation of New York joined together to act on their conviction that higher education is essential to economic development and the growth of democracy in Africa.  Seeing momentum for change, we formed the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.  In the last five years, our foundations have provided over $150 million to more than 40 universities and higher education organizations in six African nations, including Nigeria.  Last week, joined by the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations, we recommitted ourselves to this important work. Over the next five years, our six foundations will invest an additional $200 million in Africa’s most promising universities.

As the Secretary General said, “The time is certainly right to re-launch this partnership.  The international community is giving unprecedented attention to Africa’s efforts to realize its potential.  …No single group or institution can meet these urgent needs on its own.  All of us — the Partnership, UNESCO and other UN agencies, and university networks and associations – must work together to support governments and higher education institutions in Africa.”

For the MacArthur Foundation, the decision to focus our investments in Nigeria was an easy one. MacArthur has funded creative individuals and organizations here since 1989, and we have had an office in the country since 1994. We make grants to Nigerian groups working in population and reproductive health, human rights, police reform, and the justice system, as well as higher education. We chose to work with four Nigerian universities showing strong leadership, reform-minded faculties, and a strategic vision for improvement (the Carnegie Corporation is also working with two of them). Our hope is that their progress will encourage other foundations and corporations – as well as government – to invest in the entire system of higher education in Nigeria.

Although many needs remain, the results so far are encouraging:

  • The University of Ibadan is greatly expanding its links with universities in the United States, Europe, and other countries in Africa.  More than 60 staff have completed internships abroad, and thirty international research collaborations are being planned. A multidisciplinary biological research laboratory is being established and equipped with electron and laser microscopes, as well as equipment for molecular biotechnology research.
  • The University of Port Harcourt has forged relationships with private industry to improve its campus. Last year, I toured a new center for information technology funded by Shell Petroleum with hundreds of workstations for teaching and research. And Elf Petroleum Ltd has helped finance a new Institute for Petroleum Studies, which is training a new generation of Nigerians for the country’s oil industry.
  • Bayero University has increased the number of faculty with PhDs, and doubled the number of programs with academic accreditation from the National Universities Commission.  A new Department of Agriculture has state-of-the-art offices, laboratories, classrooms, and equipment; 109 students are currently enrolled.
  • Ahmadu Bello University, known for its science education and research, has used MacArthur funds to equip laboratories in several departments, including Agricultural, Mechanical, Chemical and Civil Engineering, Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Microbiology, and Drug Development.  Other investments have been made to institute a university-wide strategic planning process.

Each of the four universities has made significant investments in information technology, vastly expanding the numbers of computers on campus and the electronic holdings in their libraries.

Indeed, universities in every country where the partnership is active have made such technology a priority.  For example, the Bandwidth Initiative is a joint effort by 11 universities in six nations to expand the availability of Internet bandwidth sevenfold.  93,000 kilobits per second of bandwidth will be purchased from the satellite service provider Intelsat –increasing capacity by almost 700 percent.  By bundling the demand of several universities, the schools will pay less than one-third of previous costs.  Even more important, students and faculty will be able to access information at speeds approaching those of peers on other continents.

These are only a few examples of the progress being made by universities in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda – countries where the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa is active. The gains are heartening, but they are only a start.  We know that to relax, even for a moment, is to slide backward. We believe that the new generation of university leaders and faculty members will accelerate the pace of reform.  And we are confident that new sources of funding from the public and private sectors will continue to grow.

There are many building blocks that comprise a nation—a strong constitution, a well-run legal system, a strong party system, transportation, the right kinds of foreign investment, and more.  All of these depend on leadership educated and trained at high quality universities.

For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity.  For communities, it is the source of common values that can hold a diverse people together.  For nations, education is the source of economic growth.  For citizens who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy, guided by respect for individual dignity and rule of law.

The Partnership’s support for higher education is a pragmatic investment in Africa’s future, helping build African institutions to produce African solutions for Africa’s most profound challenges: poverty, economic development, disease, political stability, and the rule of law.  Africa’s universities—in Nigeria and elsewhere—are cultivating the continent’s most important natural resource: its people.

Jonathan F. Fanton is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.