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Remembering Peter Bell: A global activist who devoted his life to human rights

By Raymond C. Offenheiser
Peter Bell in Mozambique. Photo: Karen Bell/CARE.
The following has been excerpted from the original opinion article by Raymond Offenheiser in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

When Peter Bell died of cancer at age 73 this month, the nonprofit world lost one of its most passionate, visionary and humble leaders.

Peter was uniquely both a statesman and an activist. He devoted his life to reducing poverty, defending human rights, and advancing political freedom in jobs that included heading the nonprofit aid group CARE.

Perhaps the culmination of Peter’s efforts to champion human rights was his decision to move CARE toward becoming a “rights-based” development organization. Peter’s idea was that real development could be achieved only when governments respected not only citizens’ civil and political rights but also their economic rights. In advancing this agenda, Peter pushed all of us to see poverty as social exclusion and to fight the policies and barriers that limit the poor from securing the resources and opportunities they need to pull themselves out of poverty.

Peter had come to view poverty as less about scarcity and more about lack of power. The solution lay in enabling the powerless to use their voices and make reasonable demands for the realization of their rights.

I was fortunate to have worked under Peter at the Inter-American Foundation and later as a fellow CEO during his tenure at CARE. Sharing a deep affection for Latin America and an appreciation of the history of the human-rights movement in that region, we collaborated in developing the unique rights-based approach at CARE and Oxfam America.

At the time, there were many skeptics within the traditional human-rights movement who believed that human rights should be limited to civil and political rights. They held the idea that universalized standards for social, economic, and cultural rights were pure fantasy, and efforts to advance these rights would detract from the core agenda of the human-rights movement.

Over time, this argument has given way to a recognition that we must embrace a more comprehensive view of rights. Once again, Peter led the way.

Those of us who served with him as staff members, colleagues, board members, or advocates in the trenches will remember him for his generosity, kindness, and gentle good humor. He was a mentor, friend, and model for us all. As international development continues to evolve in response to new global trends, we need more people who genuinely speak for the poor and see the promotion of rights as the core to alleviating poverty. We need more leaders who are both statesmen and activists. We need more Peter Bells.

Read more of Raymond Offenheiser’s reflection on Peter Bell’s life in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.