About Peter Bell
Launched in 2015, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Rule of Law Program honors the memory of Peter D. Bell (1940-2014). As a founder and co-chair of the Board of Directors, Peter Bell was instrumental in shaping the Inter-American Dialogue’s vision and agenda throughout the years. Over three decades, he pushed with vigor and persistence to redirect the tenor of policy and diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere. Peter was a champion of human rights, a defender of democratic values, and a voice for mutual understanding between nations. The broad scope and ambitions of the Rule of Law Program are a tribute to his expansive vision of Inter-American cooperation.
Peter Bell was born and raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was educated in Gloucester public schools and at Yale University. After receiving a Master’s Degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton University, Peter embarked on a 12-year stint with the Ford Foundation, including a decade with its Latin America program. During this time, Peter helped reinvent the Ford Foundation’s mission overseas, insisting that democracy, human rights, and social justice had to be a fundamental part of international development objectives.
During the long period of military rule in many South American nations, Peter helped to preserve critical social inquiry throughout the region through his work at the Ford Foundation and as president of the Inter-American Foundation. In Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, he and his colleagues saved the careers of hundreds of scientists and scholars, many of whom later assumed crucial roles in their countries’ return to democracy. Peter later became Chair of Americas Watch and eventually a member of the Founding Board of Human Rights Watch. He also worked to strengthen social justice and the rule of law in the United States through his work at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter Administration, and later as president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
In 1982, Peter joined Sol Linowitz and Abe Lowenthal in founding the Inter-American Dialogue. At a contentious time for United States policy in the Americas, the Dialogue was designed to address the most important issues in U.S.-Latin America relations, help resolve regional conflicts, and build cooperation among the countries of the hemisphere. Over the years, Peter made invaluable contributions to the organization, serving as the U.S. co-chair and co-vice chair for many years, and participating actively in every major decision affecting the Dialogue’s programs, leadership, and institutional development.
In 1996, Peter became president of CARE USA, one of the largest relief and development organizations in the world, with over 13,000 staff globally. In his decade at CARE, Peter helped to place human dignity and human rights firmly at the center of CARE’s work to alleviate poverty. Peter emphasized the need to go beyond treating the symptoms of poverty to addressing its underlying causes. He argued that extreme poverty could be eliminated in our lifetime.
Peter Bell defined himself as an unreconstructed idealist. His friends recall his vision, stubborn courage, profound intelligence, drive for excellence, and—most important—simple decency. Paying tribute to Peter’s legacy in Latin America and beyond, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil observed, “Today it is relatively easy to act as a liberal and as a democrat. During the years of authoritarianism, when fear replaced common sense and courage, few dared to be disagreeable to those in power, especially if you were a foreigner. Peter did in Santiago the same courageous work he had done in Rio and would continue to do in other places to the benefit of humanity.”
Peter Bell’s wife Karen, son Jonathan, and daughter Emily remain committed supporters of the work of the Inter-American Dialogue and the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program.