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As We Enter 2008, a Look Back Shows Policy Gains for Atlantic Grantees

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

The end of one year and the start of the next is a traditional time for looking both back and forward, and a good time to check in with readers of this column – an unusual experiment in philanthropy that we started in July, a few months after I became Atlantic’s President – on whether it is useful and informative, and how it might be improved.

In any work pertaining to social change there is a tendency to focus more on what you might call bad news – an injustice needing to be righted, a problem to be solved. And in the six months of this column I’ve done much of that – the shameful impact of stepped-up immigration enforcement on the children of the undocumented in the U.S., the unsolved murders of lesbians in South Africa, the appalling rate of traffic injuries and deaths in Viet Nam. But at the same time I’ve tried to focus on what is being done about them, and in particular on the courageous and innovative advocates Atlantic is privileged to support in the countries in which we work.

And on a number of matters I’ve written about, there has been good news in the time since. Most dramatically, in Viet Nam, the comprehensive traffic safety law, requiring all riders to wear a helmet while riding a motorbike, signed by the Prime Minister in July took effect on December 15. On that day, writes Greig Craft of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, an Atlantic grantee, “nearly 100% of Vietnam’s motorbike users left home wearing a helmet. It was an unbelievable sight with a near instantaneous effect. Major hospitals report the number of patients admitted for traumatic brain injuries in the two days after the law’s enactment was much lower than on previous weekends. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, serious traffic accident injuries fell by almost 50 percent compared with pre-helmet weekends.” Jackie Williams Kaye of Atlantic’s staff was in Viet Nam on that day and took the following picture:

Another picture worth a thousand words is the next one, of the amazing day, December 18, on which leaders of Northern Ireland’s devolved government – sworn in at Stormont, the Parliament building in Belfast, on May 8 of last year, with Atlantic founder Chuck Feeney in the gallery – visited Atlantic’s offices to announce the appointment of an Older People’s Commissioner, a long-sought goal of Atlantic’s Ageing Programme grantees. Here is First Minister Dr. Ian Paisley and First Deputy Martin McGuinness with Ken Logue, Atlantic programme executive for ageing and the head of our Belfast office, and other staff and government officials.

In the U.S. last month, Atlantic grantees played a key role in the historic vote by the New Jersey legislature to abolish the death penalty – a landmark moment in the struggle to end this human rights abuse, one in which the United States is regrettably a world leader. In New York two of our grantees helped to secure a landmark 4 – 3 victory in the New York State Court of Appeals, which recently ruled that New York death’s penalty statute cannot be applied in a constitutional manner. The court’s decision took the last man off death row and means that the court cannot reconsider the death penalty unless the legislature acts to fix the old statute or to pass a new one.

In October I wrote about the other huge stain on the human rights record of the United States, the restrictions on civil liberties that have mounted in the wake of the government’s response to the events of September 11, 2001. A number of our grantees in this area have been involved in pursuing strategic litigation. The Brennan Center for Justice secured an important victory in the Al Marri case. The court’s ruling that the military cannot hold enemy combatants within the U.S. represents an important check on President Bush’s attempts to extend Presidential powers. In Al Odah v. United States and Boumediene v. Bush, two cases brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Court will be determining the rights of non-citizens to challenge the legality of their detention at Guantanamo and the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. In Ali v. Achim, a case brought by the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Court will be considering whether a Somali refugee suffering post-traumatic stress disorder was wrongfully denied refugee protection under the UN Convention Against Torture. Both of these cases will be decided before the Court ends its term in June 2008.

In August, I wrote about violence against lesbians and gays in South Africa. Changing this picture will require strong grassroots pressure, and I’m pleased to say that our grant to establish a re-granting agency in South Africa to provide support to small scale projects in rural areas and towns has garnered enormous interest — more than 60 groups have received support, and three other funders have now joined the initiative, which among other things made possible South Africa’s first-ever national gay youth conference.

These few examples just touch the surface of the work being done by Atlantic grantees the world over, a story I have been proud to have this platform to tell. It leaves out the tremendous coalition forged by U.S. youth grantees such as First Focus, Voices for America’s Children, and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, that is working tenaciously to expand children’s health insurance (SCHIP, the subject of my September column) in the wake of the Bush veto, the influence of Atlantic grantees in Ireland and the U.S. on the immigration debates there, and many other efforts to achieve change, which on virtually all significant issues is a long-haul process.

The common thread in all this is that the social justice and human rights challenges of our time cannot be solved by private action alone. What is needed is strong civil society groups, free to advocate policies that only government is in a position to implement. This is true whether the goal is reducing traffic deaths in Viet Nam, torture by U.S. officials and their allies abroad, or effective investigation and prosecution of homophobic violence. This two-track strategy – non-governmental initiative to make government live up to its obligations to protect rights and promote social welfare – will continue to be at the center of Atlantic’s work in the remaining years of the decade ahead.

In the coming months, from time to time other voices will join me in this space, including members of Atlantic’s talented and committed staff and the leaders of organisations we are privileged to support. This is meant to be an interactive process, and I have enjoyed the hundreds of comments I have received in response to past columns.If you have ideas of issues you’d like to see covered here, comments on the work we are featuring, or questions about how Atlantic operates that you think I should address in future columns, please don’t hesitate to let me know, using the e-mail address below.

On behalf of all of us at Atlantic, my very best wishes to you and yours for a healthy and happy New Year which brings us closer to lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people everywhere.

Gara LaMarche