Berkeley non-profit wins $750,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation

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The Berkeley-based nonprofit organization International Rivers has been recently awarded the 2013 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

The honor, the first major recognition International Rivers has received from the foundation, includes a $750,000 grant that the organization will use to expand its programs. The organization plans to use the funds to strengthen regional offices, improve infrastructure and technological improvement, build capacity and cash reserves and advance a sustainable approach to development, according to Community Engagement Manager Berklee Lowrey-Evans.

International Rivers is one of 13 organizations that have won the award for “strong leadership and stable financial management” and having “reached a critical or strategic point in their development.”

“It’s an honor and a privilege,” said Lori Pottinger, editor for International Rivers’ World Rivers Review, a leading publication on rivers and freshwater management. “They are such a thoughtful foundation. They’ve supported so many wonderful groups over the years.”

International Rivers has worked to advocate for people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The organization assists people in regions throughout the world that are directly affected by the construction of large-scale dams, which often destroy river ecosystems that many local communities depend on agriculturally and economically.

In the last 60 years, large-scale dam construction has displaced tens of millions of people from their homes and impacted hundreds of millions more who live downstream from affected areas, according to the MacArthur Foundation.

“If we think of forests as the lungs of the planet, then the rivers are most surely the arteries of the planet,” said Executive Director of International Rivers Jason Rainey in a video produced by the MacArthur Foundation. “They nourish ecosystems, they nourish communities. These arteries are being clogged by dams.”

One of the central features of the organization’s work is empowering and educating individuals in the efforts to protect their communities. Though workers will often go abroad to lead campaigns, local community leaders are increasingly taking over campaign efforts themselves in places like India, Brazil the Mekong region and China. Through direct advocacy, locals are encouraged to become involved in their community’s public policies.

“When I started at the organization, we did our Africa work in Berkeley,” Pottinger said. “We had workers on the ground, but not for every campaign. Now we have a woman from Zimbabwe heading up our Africa program out of South Africa.”

International Rivers will use the funds from the award to make its programs even more accessible to those affected by large-scale dam construction around the world.

Lowrey-Evans hopes the award will draw more attention to the issues and the people that International Rivers seeks to help and protect.

“We often help people create environmental and social justice movements that didn’t really exist before,” Lowrey-Evans said.

Contact Jennie Yoon at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly labeled the award as the MacArthur Area for Creative and Effective Solutions. The correct title is the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. In addition, a quote stated that a woman from South Africa was heading a program in Africa. She is actually from Zimbabwe.