An ICBM in Moscow. ID1974/shutterstock
An ICBM in Moscow. ID1974/shutterstock

As the United Nations marks its 75th year, it’s worth reflecting on its original mandate—one in which philanthropy plays a limited but important role—keeping peace around the world against the rise of nuclear armament.

It took the devastation of two world wars, two nuclear bomb deployments, and the deaths and displacement of millions to get the first 51 countries to come to the table in 1945 to seek common ground on peace and security, justice, equality and human dignity. Like other multilateral world structures, the United Nations has become increasingly fragile, and faces valid questions of relevance and effectiveness. But despite cold wars and hot spots, there’s evidence that it’s made the world a safer place. So far, members have avoided a third world war and a third nuclear event.

Which isn’t to say things are moving in the right direction. Achieving global nuclear disarmament was the subject of the General Assembly’s first resolution in 1946. Yet today, 13,400 weapons remain. And the number of nations believed to have nuclear capabilities has grown from one to nine. Diplomacy and the idea of mutually assured destruction have led to a series of international bans and agreements between state actors, mostly stabilizing formal structures. But the threat of weapons of mass destruction landing in the hands of terrorists and rogue actors continues to blink red.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Beyond the staggering human toll, the fallout from nuclear warfare would disrupt the world for generations, shattering humanity’s gains in education, healthcare, the economy and the environment.

So it may come as a surprise that a recent report showed grants to the peace and security sector writ large account for less than 1% of overall philanthropic giving, at roughly $435 million in 2019. The shortfall in funding is especially jarring, given philanthropy’s unique potential to bring a principled approach, financial resources, and long-term thinking to this work. In 2018, IP Editor David Callahan made the case in The Nation that, even as philanthropy rushed to respond to new threats arising from the surprise election of Donald Trump in 2016, funders largely overlooked peace groups and the danger of escalating international tensions. And these days, the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably drawn foundations’ attention to yet another global threat.

There is, however, a growing band of foundations devoting resources to issues of nuclear security, some of whom have been working in concert for decades to tackle intractable problems in innovative ways. Three key examples—the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Ploughshares Fund demonstrate an approach that Alexandra I. Toma, executive director of the Peace and Security Funders Group, says allows them to “punch above their weight.”

Building Networks

The Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG) was founded 20 years ago by major philanthropies that realized that the millions they were spending on everything from preventing conflict to peace-building needed coordination. Since then, it’s grown three-fold. Today, its more than 50 members join together to build bridges between philanthropy and the public sector, create communications and funding networks, and raise the sector’s profile and capacity.

Since 2012, the group has worked with the Foundation Center and Candid to issue five iterations of a valuable tool, the Peace and Security Funding Index, which helps interested parties understand the work underway and allows funders at all levels to make an impact.

The index captured 1,471 grants in 2018, totaling roughly $240 million, with a median size of $40,000. The top three funders—Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—represented nearly 40% of that total. The leading focus issue was general support for stable, resilient societies at $46 million, followed by nuclear issues at $37 million, though that has changed over time.

Here’s a look at a few of the key philanthropic players in this space.

Carnegie Corporation of New York

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has a 109-year history of supporting International Peace and Security.

The corporation began its nuclear work in 1983, when Cold War tensions were high, with a program called “Avoiding Nuclear War” that sought to head off the arms race through scientific and diplomatic exchanges. In total, it has invested some $250 million in reducing nuclear risk over the past four decades through work in multiple program areas.

Work currently focuses on five areas: nuclear security; addressing how global geopolitical dynamics shift instability; transnational movements in the Arab region; peace-building in Africa; and deepening connections between policy-makers, researchers and academia on cross-cutting problems.

Many of the early Russian and American program participants went on to become important contributors to nuclear reduction initiatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the 1990s, for example, they were central to corporation-piloted initiatives that led to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), a U.S.-Russia collaboration that secured and eliminated vast quantities of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and materials from former Soviet states.

In 2020, Carnegie will continue to prioritize avoiding nuclear war with around $8 million in grants on nuclear issues. Investments will explore how technological and geopolitical changes may spur nuclear engagement, and approaches to mitigating negative trends. The corporation also supports efforts that “strengthen international governance of nuclear activity, prevent nuclear proliferation, and move toward a world free of the nuclear threat.”

Carl Robichaud, program officer, International Peace & Security, reminds funders that threats are easily obscured: “Nuclear weapons, and the decisions around them, are hidden from view. But we cannot lose sight of the reality that nuclear war is still among the greatest preventable threats to humanity. Philanthropic foundations, which can afford to take the long view, continue to play a vital role on this and other peace and security issues, which might otherwise be neglected for a lack of natural political constituencies.”

MacArthur Foundation

MacArthur Foundation’s nuclear response program, Nuclear Challenges, is one of the four “big bets” it made as part of its latest program realignment, along with Climate Solutions, Criminal Justice and work in Nigeria.

The program sustains a long history of investments in global security issues going back to 1984. Since then, it’s made roughly 2,000 grants totaling $550 million to support work in the former Soviet Union and Asia; science, technology, and security; and conflict resolution. Since 2015, Nuclear Challenges has made grants of around $20 million per year, equaling about $100 million of the total. Investments support policy research and dialogue, and work to strengthen the nuclear policy field.

Peace is a core to MacArthur’s mission. Valerie Chang, managing director of programs and interim director of Nuclear Challenges, says working to reduce nuclear risks “is closely aligned with MacArthur’s mission to build a more just, verdant and peaceful world. Just one nuclear detonation in a populated area would upend efforts for peace, change the contours of global society, and represent a grave injustice to the many lives lost.”

As a “catalyst, connector and collaborator” in the space, the foundation aims to reduce the security risks posed by nuclear weapons and technologies, and to decrease the availability and deployment of weapons-usable materials. The two key ingredients for nuclear weapons—plutonium and enriched uranium—are widely available, and security measures to keep them out of the wrong hands vary greatly around the world. MacArthur estimates that the stockpile of materials available for repurposing is 2,000 tons.

At the same time, MacArthur recognizes the value of harnessing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, like powering carbon-free energy.

Nuclear Challenges focuses on five issue areas: U.S. nuclear policy, tough cases in countries like North Korea and Iran that may be building weapons programs, threshold countries that may be questioning their nuclear status, addressing tensions between the countries that have nuclear weapons and those who don’t, and the global fuel cycle.

Representative grants include $700,000 to the European Leadership Network, which brings nearly 200 leaders together to find “real-world” solutions to political and security challenges; a $330,000 investment in South Korea’s Wonkwang University to support a project challenging pyroprocessing by which weapons can be repurposed, and $240,000 to the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Virginia, for a project to prevent allied proliferation. The application process is by invitation only.

Short-term outcome goals include stabilizing nuclear regimes and building relationships between countries based on issues. In the long term, MacArthur is working to advance policies to end the production of weapons-usable materials and eliminate stockpiles.

Like other funders in nuclear security, none of the work happens in a vacuum. Says Chang, “We collaborate closely with a number of other funders in the field, and we value this partnership. Just 1% of total foundation giving each year is dedicated to addressing peace and security issues, and funding to reduce nuclear risks is a small subset of this. For our investments to have the most impact, we believe it is important to partner with other funders to share information and ideas, coordinate efforts, and fund projects together when appropriate.”

Ploughshares Fund

Ploughshares Fund was founded in California in 1981, with the mission of stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, controlling the sale of conventional weapons, addressing the environmental legacy of nuclear weapons, promoting new approaches to conflict mitigation, and building regional and global security.

Its program invests in initiatives aimed at preventing the spread and use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of war, and mitigating the factors that lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Funding categories include nuclear weapons and materials, biological and chemical weapons, missiles and space, and regional security. Grants carry no minimum or maximum, and are equally available to large funders and individual researchers working to address its mission.

Its strategy is rooted in a belief in the importance of engaging citizens in reducing nuclear threats, particularly those who’ve been most affected by weapon creation, testing and use, and the idea that eradication can only be achieved if the world eliminates existing weapons, prevents proliferation, and addresses the conflicts that drive acquisition and retention.

Dr. Emma Belcher, the fund’s president, commented on the new challenges the sector faces from the pandemic: “COVID-19 has laid bare all too starkly how our safety and security is linked to people and places on the other side of the world. This global pandemic has reinforced how important it is to cooperate on a global scale to avoid a nuclear exchange; without it, recovery might be impossible. It has also reinforced the need to redirect excess spending on nuclear weapons to issues that truly keep us safe and secure, and the world just and peaceful, like climate change, racial justice and healthcare. This worldview is informing our strategy.”

The pandemic hasn’t slowed the fund down. Since March of 2020, Ploughshares has made more than 40 grants totaling nearly $3 million to promote diplomacy with Iran and North Korea, cut nuclear weapons, promote no-first-use and other “sane” policies, extend arms control treaties, and address moderating conflict in hot spots like the Middle East and Asia. Also toward that end, nearly $1.5 million went to nine projects sitting at the intersection of stopping wars and reducing U.S. spending on nuclear armament.

Two grants made in June illustrate the scope of its work. One, for the International Civil Society Action Network’s Innovative Peace Fund Program in Pakistan, recognizes that providing COVID relief in conjunction with peacebuilding efforts will prevent extremist groups from co-opting vulnerable populations. Another, to Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation, supported the organization’s hands-on work with over 250 signatories to a joint letter about racial justice in the peace and security community following the murder of George Floyd. The letter outlined an ambitious plan to combat racism.

An Evolving Field

Ploughshares’ evolving strategies mirror the work of the entire sector. PSFG’s Toma says, “Just like the United Nations, PSFG is constantly evolving. We didn’t look like we do 10 years ago, and we won’t look like this a decade from now. Today, our membership includes many that didn’t think of themselves as “peace” funders, but are now seeing that peace and security is foundational to their work—be it on climate, cyber, or gender challenges.”

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