Freedom House

Founded in 1941 in New York City, Freedom House is a nongovernmental, bipartisan organization committed to promoting peace and democracy around the world. Early leaders included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (honorary chairman) and 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie.

The organization was originally founded to counter American isolationism during World War II, and played a role in pushing the United States to get involved. Formed to confront Nazism, Freedom House expanded its role after World War II, promoting trans-Atlantic partnerships and vehemently opposing McCarthyism.  

In 1947, Freedom House urged New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey to create a state university that would “accept all qualified students regardless of race, color or place of habitation.” (Dewey would later sign legislation that created the State University of New York.) This marked the beginning of the role Freedom House would play in the civil rights movements. 

Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the March on Washington, served as the chairman of Freedom House’s Executive committee, and was part of the organization throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Also among Freedom House’s leadership was the notable civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP during the critical years of the Civil Rights movement.

Its Purpose is Freedom

Freedom House describes itself as …

an independent nongovernmental organization, support[ing] the expansion of freedom in the world. Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.

In the 1970’s, Freedom House identified threats to freedom and democracy in the developing world, in form of extremist regimes (on both the Right and the Left) in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. 1973 marked the release of the group’s first Freedom in the World annual survey, which has become a hallmark of the organization and is universally relied upon for accurate information regarding freedom and democracy around the world.

The fall of the Soviet Union saw Freedom House expanding into a new role of training young leaders to nonviolently press for freedom and democracy, particularly in Eastern Europe. Freedom House merged with the National Forum Foundation in 1997, expanding its capacity there. Freedom House also began institution building, supporting newly democratic countries in establishing strong institutions of democratic governance and civil society.  

Freedom House took an active role in the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, specifically in training the nonviolent student movement, known as Otpor. Formed in 1998 at the University of Belgrade, the organization adopted an organized strategy to turn the people of Serbia against Milosevic in the 2000 election. 

The student leaders’ saga was documented in “Bringing Down a Dictator,” a documentary released by Peter Ackerman, the former Freedom House board chairman   Otpor’s efforts inspired other pro-democratic nonviolent student movements across Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and around the world.

As an indicator of the expertise that Freedom House provides, it was designated the official measure for civil liberties used in the allocation of development resources through the Millennium Challenge Account, administered by the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Freedom House has taken a more active role in the Middle East and Central Asia, and continues to work around the world for freedom, civil liberties, and democracy.

Core Research Products

  • Freedom House is perhaps best known for four core studies and surveys that it releases annually:
  • Freedom in the World (which surveys civil liberties and political rights);
  • Freedom of the Press (which surveys media independence in 193 countries);
  • Countries at the Crossroads (an analysis of 70 countries of the developing political situation in strategic importance); and
  • Nations in Transit (which focuses on post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia).

Freedom House employs about 120 people of various political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds from around the world. They also release a variety of other studies on issues relevant to democratic freedom around the world.

Funding Freedom House

Freedom House is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) group, relying mostly on donations and grants from foundations and government agencies. According to its 2007 Annual Report, Freedom House receives 66 percent of its funding from the United States Federal Government, specifically from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State, and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Government grants to Freedom House in 2007 totaled $10.5 million, compared to $3.83 million in private contributions. Other top government funders include the Australian Agency for International Development and the Government of the Netherlands (Human Rights and Peacebuilding Department).

Also in 2007, then-chairman of Freedom House Peter Ackerman and The Smith Richardson Foundation also contributed more than $250,000.

Freedom House offices around the world

FreedomHouse operates offices in Washington, New York, Budapest, Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Amman, Belgrade, Kiev, Bucharest, and Johannesburg.