In 2002, after three decades of running some of the top U.S. universities, George Rupp had come to a crossroad.
“I’d been involved in higher education for really all of my career, and fairly enjoyed it,” he said.
But Rupp said he wanted to work for a smaller organization, and he “hoped it would be international in character and preferably involved in Third World issues.”
Rupp recalled that during a long dinner conversation, William Bowen, then-president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, told him, “George, there’s only one organization that I can think of that pulls together all of these trends that you have been talking about, and that’s the International Rescue Committee.”
Rupp was intrigued, and three months later, IRC just happened to be searching for a new president. The search committee eventually chose Rupp.
Rupp earned bachelor’s degrees from Princeton and Yale, and a doctorate in divinity from Harvard. In 1969, he embarked on a two-year trip to study Buddhism in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The ordained Presbyterian minister began working in higher education in 1973 as vice chancellor at the University of Redlands in California, and within six years had gained the prestigious post of dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Six years later, he was hired as president of Rice University, where he remained until 1993.
During his tenure, applications for admission nearly tripled, federal research support more than doubled, and the value of the Rice endowment rose by more than $500 million to $1.25 billion, according to his IRC biography. Rupp left Rice to become president of Columbia University, where he helped raise nearly $3 billion during his nine-year tenure. These successes led Rupp to look elsewhere, and he finally stumbled upon IRC - and he never looked back.
“Every day, there are interesting new issues, challenges, problems that need to be addressed. They require getting people to work together to look for the best way to address those issues or problems,” he said. “The set of activities required at a place like the IRC, it’s also what is required in trying to lead a complicated university.”
Of course, there are differences. In Rupp’s last year there, Columbia’s operating budget was $2.4 billion. When he started at the IRC, the budget was about $140 million. To Rupp, this presented a unique opportunity.
“I thought the work we did was done extremely well, but we were much less well-known. There was an opportunity to raise our profile and also to grow,” he said. “That’s what I think we have been doing for the last five years.”
Perhaps his greatest coup was winning the support of Not on Our Watch, an organization that seeks an end to the genocide in Darfur. In June 2007, Not on Our Watch - which is backed by Hollywood actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and Brad Pitt - donated $2.75 million for IRC’s humanitarian work in western Sudan. A year before that, Rupp brought Cheadle and Clooney to Darfur.
The trip “had a fundamental shaping experience on them, because they had a chance to talk to individual people and their families who have been uprooted from Darfur,” Rupp said. “They had a vivid sense of just how grave the challenge there was.”
The connection has continued to bear fruit: Clooney and Cheadle led a successful campaign to have the proceeds of the blockbuster film “Ocean’s Thirteen” go toward IRC relief operations.
Unlike some critics, Rupp is not dubious of the role of celebrities in raising awareness about international crises such as Darfur.
Their fame can “make a real difference,” he said. “So I applaud the fact that they’re involved; I wish all celebrities used their celebrity as effectively.”
Not as high profile, but arguably more important, has been IRC’s progress toward local capacity development. Building local capacity - so that communities are able to respond to their own needs and are not dependent on international aid in the long run - has been an oft-cited but too-often-elusive objective of international development organizations. IRC, however, has translated words into action.
IRC employs 13,000 people worldwide. It hires 97-98 percent of its staff locally, and many of IRC’s international experts were former local staff members whom the organization has trained in another setting.
“That means we are from the very beginning training and developing staff [for] when we finally leave,” he said.
In addition to its global staff, IRC has about 2,500 volunteers assisting in the resettlement of refugees through its 25 resettlement offices in the United States.
IRC uses private donations to leverage government aid, which “allows us to set our own agenda, decide what our priorities are to work in countries where we think the needs are greatest,” Rupp said. For every dollar in private donations that it receives, IRC obtains $7 from international development agencies such as the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the European Commission.
Rupp’s favorite story from the field - which happened during IRC’s relief operations in Aceh, Indonesia, following the 2004 tsunami - reflects his commitment to capacity building.
“When I arrived in Aceh just a few weeks after the tsunami hit and went to a distant fishing village, you could only get to either by sea or helicopter because the roads had been washed out,” he began. “I got out of the helicopter and I was walking toward our assembled staff. One of them ran forward in flowing white robes and said ‘Mr. George! Mr. George! I bet you’d thought you’d never see me here.’”
Rupp explained that the man was an Afghan water engineer named Akbar John. He had worked for IRC for 20 years in Afghanistan but had never been out of his country until he was called in to help design a potable water system for tsunami-devastated Aceh. For Rupp, this was local capacity building in action.
Still, Rupp sees many challenges ahead. In particular, he points to the National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan, under which local communities elect counsels who help design their own development projects. Afghan government funding has already been cut from three years to two due to a budget crunch.
“Now there is an example where a very successful program that’s having fabulous impact at the very local level with projects that are embraced by the community members themselves is being starved for funds,” said Rupp. “That’s crazy! We need celebrities to call attention to that. We need to have the World Bank under pressure to increase funding and the U.S. government as well!”
In a world with a growing need for humanitarian relief organizations like IRC, Rupp likes to remind G-8 leaders of a promise they made at their 2005 summit: to create an international rapid response force.
“It would be a huge asset to the international community if there were a rapidly deployable international response force that could nip conflict situations in the bud before they generate huge insecurity in the way in which they have in a place like Darfur or northern Uganda,” Rupp said.
So what would this international development leader say to the G-8 leaders if he could address them personally?
“Keep on making promises,” he advised. “But keep them!”