In 1994, the premier human rights activist support research center in the US closed its doors due to lack of funding. At the last minute, as phones were about to be disconnected, a group of foundations stepped forward to save the day. The reason they did was because the numerous high profile activist organizations across the country, that relied on Political Research Associates for vital information, had gone to the foundations to make a case.
For some reason, the idea of the need for research, conferences, local training, regional support, and national coordination of human rights activism had not occurred to the foundations. When the activists and community leaders who relied on PRA met with them, the nature of social change took on a whole new dimension. The activists explained that one of the reasons they were effective is that they could rely on PRA for strategic research; just because they weren't as visible as the activists themselves, didn't mean they weren't essential to their success.
Today, in 2008, the premier indigenous human rights research center in the world, the Center for World Indigenous Studies, finds itself in a similar situation. Invisible to funders, yet providing vital support to indigenous leaders throughout the world, CWIS struggles to maintain its essential services to the activists and scholars these leaders depend on. With the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the war of ideas around truth and reconciliation between nations and states has just begun. Without intellectual support and documentation, the battles will be lost.
(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)