"A Conversation with Peter Bell"

Peter Bell and Al Chambers
Recorded July 28, 2004

AC: It seems to me that your career and your present job are among the more exciting and challenging of anyone in the class. Tell us about a typical day or a normal week or however you would explain it.

PB: I am president and CEO of CARE. CARE is an organization that began immediately after the Second World War responding to the threat of famine in Europe. Our response was the CARE package, which was filled with food for hungry people in Europe. The CARE package is now part of the American lexicon. It was initially viewed as America's hand of friendship to Europeans without distinction as to whether they had been friends or enemies during the war.

Today, CARE is part of an international alliance of organizations, which is dedicated to reducing and ultimately ending extreme poverty in the world. We have within CARE USA, the oldest and largest of the CARE organizations, approximately 12,000 staff working in 70 countries.

My job is to provide direction and support for this organization. On any given day, I may be meeting with our executive team, or attending to a security issue in Afghanistan or Iraq or Gaza. I may be working on an ethical dilemma or programmatic concerns in Darfur, an area of western Sudan with the world's most devastating humanitarian crisis right now, or raising funds from CARE supporters, or trying to persuade US policymakers to respond to the crisis.

Peter at a water project in northern Sudan
Peter at a water project in northern Sudan
(©2002 Christina Chan/CARE)

AC: Since you mentioned Afghanistan and Darfur and they are both very much in the news, why don't you tell us if you view them as ethical or political issues and what you think needs to be done?

PB: Darfur is an area that is the size of France in Western Sudan. Since February, conflict there has escalated into systematic killing, raping and pillaging of absolutely horrendous dimension. CARE is responding on the ground. We are providing water, sanitation, food, shelter and healthcare for literally hundreds of thousands of people in Sudan and other Darfurians who have fled into Chad.

It is extremely important that our humanitarian workers obtain access to all people in dire need. It hasn't been easy in Darfur because of the onset this month of the rainy season, security problems, and obstacles that the Government of Sudan has put in our way. So aside from going all out on the ground, we have been advocates for humanitarian access with the Government of Sudan and the broader international community. Even as we talk, I am awaiting word of meetings we are seeking with Colin Powell, Condeleeza Rice and UN Ambassador Jack Danforth to discuss these issues.

AC: What kind of person wants to be the CARE leader in a place like Darfur and how do you select the right one?

PB: Because CARE has worked in so many crisis areas, we have a whole cadre who are able to step up and take leadership in these situations. They are incredible. They have enormous courage. They are able to work under the most arduous conditions and they somehow are able to function even in the midst of chaos. They really are absolutely incredible. They have to be people who will not succumb to the death and suffering that they see, but rather be motivated by the difference for good that they can make. That's what keeps them going.

AC: Very inspiring. Let's switch to Afghanistan where I know that CARE has been active for a very long time. How have you managed to stay there?

PB: CARE has been in Afghanistan since 1960. We were absent for almost a decade during the Soviet occupation but otherwise we have been there right along. I visited there in 2001 shortly before the terrorist attacks in the United States. Back then, CARE was almost alone among international non-governmental organizations working in the country.

I was tremendously proud of our staff. Nothing moved me more than my visits to rural schools where CARE was working. We were assisting 250 communities with elementary schools and even though the Taliban had forbidden girls to go to school, 43% of the students in those schools were girls. At the time, the Taliban inspectors would come around, open the schoolhouse door, see the girls inside, shake their heads and shudder, and then just close the door. There was so much support in the community that they didn't dare intervene.

As a result, thousands of girls, who would have received no formal education, were able to continue in school during the five years of Taliban rule. Today, CARE is working with more than 500 community schools. We are "graduating" increasing numbers of those schools into the Government system of schools. That is very heartening. We have a thousand staff in Afghanistan working under difficult conditions, but helping to make progress. Some three million Afghan refugees have returned to the country in the past two years, which is impressive in itself.

Peter with project participants in Afghanistan
Peter with project participants in Afghanistan
(©2001 Sherine Jayawickrama/CARE)

AC: I was surprised when Doctors without Borders recently announced that they were going to withdraw from Afghanistan. How do humanitarian organizations make those kinds of decisions? Have you ever withdrawn from a country?

PB: Yes, five members of the MSF staff were recently killed in southern Afghanistan apparently by resurgent Taliban. The Afghan Government just didn't seem to be intent on identifying, detaining and prosecuting the people responsible. Understandably, MSF found that to be intolerable and decided to withdraw its staff.

Heaven knows, CARE has had its problems in Afghanistan over recent months, but we did during the Taliban period as well. On one occasion, a busload of female CARE workers was stopped by Taliban officials. Some of these dedicated CARE workers were taken from the bus and flogged there in the street - for the "crime" of working in public. We suspended our program then. Another time, one of our field offices was taken over by the Taliban and converted into a prison for men whose hair was cut too short. Once again, we suspended our program temporarily. In each case, we negotiated with Taliban officials and eventually reached a meeting of the minds and were able to resume our work. We thought it was important to continue because so many people relied on us at an extremely difficult time.

AC: I am sure that security is a sensitive issue, but something you spend a lot of time on. What about Iraq?

PB: CARE has a program in Iraq. There, we have helped to repair and maintain water and sewage systems and to equip and maintain hospitals and clinics. In Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, we have had rocket-propelled grenades fired through our offices in the dead of night. There is no question that it has caused us to pause. In both cases, however, we decided that the good we have been able to do outweighs the danger that we are running. Remember that the vast majority of CARE workers in Iraq and Afghanistan are nationals of those countries. Their knowledge of the people and terrain provides a measure of security.

There is nothing that keeps me awake more than the security of our staff in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, West Bank/Gaza, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

AC: Let me go to a question about your career, which has spanned time in government, foundations, humanitarian organizations and a bit in the academic world. In the end why did you decide to focus on humanitarian organizations?

PB: For me, CARE just seemed to bring everything together. Starting from the time that I was in high school and then at Yale, I have been interested in issues of peacemaking, social justice, economic development and human rights. I see them as very much intertwined. CARE was an opportunity to head up an organization that brought all of this together. Part of what I have been able to help do is put human rights at the very center of what development is about, to make CARE into a more explicitly principled organization. Even in some of the most difficult settings, we are doing our part to create a world of greater hope, tolerance and social justice, where poverty is overcome and everyone lives in dignity and security. That is the ultimate objective. I am tremendously energized and inspired to work toward creating that kind of world, even if it is a long-term goal.

AC: Did the time at Yale or any particular experience fit into this?

PB: Thinking back on it, a number of strands from my Yale experience were formative for me. I recall the last class of Paul Weiss, a professor of metaphysics. As he was ushering us out into the world, he said (and I think this is the exact quote), "Go out and make the world less miserable." I often think back to Professor Weiss' instruction, usually on my less good days.

I have also drawn from people like Harry Rudin, who taught a class in African history, and Leonard Krieger, who taught about nationalism and the development of the modern state. Perhaps at least as much, I have drawn on my extracurricular activities. I was a deacon at Battell Chapel with William Sloane Coffin and engaged through him in the civil rights movement. I went on Operation Crossroads Africa, as Bill Coffin did. He went to Guinea. They sent me to the Cote D'Ivoire. I helped build a cinder block school in a village and also participated in the independence celebration. That was a formative experience.

When I came back, I helped create the Yale Society for African Affairs, which brought together more than a hundred students from across the campus. We augmented the curriculum by organizing seminars. One of the people we brought to the campus was Eduardo Mondlane, who was teaching at Syracuse at the time. He was from Mozambique and became the President of the Mozambique Liberation Movement. Seven years later when I was with the Ford Foundation, I went to meet with him in Tanzania and we had a really wonderful day talking about his plans for Mozambique when it would be liberated. I returned to the United States and learned a few days after that he had been assassinated. More recently with CARE, I have visited Mozambique and walked down the Avenue Mondlane, passed the University Mondlane, and met with his widow. He would have been a great President, a Mozambique equivalent of George Washington.

AC: You present yourself as an optimist about subjects such as poverty that many people would find difficulty being optimistic about. Is that an essential part of doing the job well or how do you explain that sense of optimism?

PB: It is important not to be romantic, but I don't see how you can do this kind of work unless you are optimistic, unless you believe that the world can be made better. I do not believe that the poor will always be with us, that poverty is inevitable. I have become increasingly convinced that we have the wealth, technology and knowledge in the world today to end extreme poverty - not tomorrow but certainly within the next couple of generations. I just can't believe that more and more people won't come to that recognition. Once they do, there is a tremendous imperative to act on it. What is needed is organization and action.

I am always heartened by the tremendous courage and determination that people in poor communities show as they struggle to create a future for themselves and their children. Every time I see someone turn the spigot of a faucet for the first time, there is their joy at having safe water. Or to see a woman who has just learned how to sign her name. Or to see the desire for education of girls stepping over the threshold of a school for the first time. You have to be optimistic when you see how motivated people are around the world.

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