For almost a century, the Near East Foundation (NEF) has helped the most vulnerable communities in the Middle East and Africa improve their conditions in the face of chronic poverty, conflict, migration and environmental hazards.
As the United States’ oldest nonsectarian international development non-governmental organization (NGO), NEF has played a crucial role in establishing the American philanthropic tradition, and pioneered many of the strategies employed by the world’s leading development organizations today.
‘The American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief,’ as NEF was originally known, was founded in 1915 in response to the massive humanitarian crisis precipitated by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Many millions of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and members of other minority groups were displaced, and over a million and a half died as a result of deportation, forced marches, starvation, and execution. The number would have been significantly higher had it not been for the efforts of U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and the group of his friends and colleagues that would later become NEF’s founding Board. With the help of then-President Woodrow Wilson, NEF’s founders established a small-scale relief operation and began to solicit donations from the American public.
These fundraising appeals—spearheaded by NEF’s first president, Cleveland Dodge—proved immensely successful. In 1921, the organization’s annual report cited a six-year operating budget of approximately 70 million dollars. This money was used to save the lives of at least a million people amidst the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire; treat more than six million patients in NEF-run clinics throughout the region; establish orphanages and provide education to over a hundred thousand Armenian children orphaned in the upheaval.
NEF’s enormous impact in the region attracted the patronage of a host of the era’s most well-known public figures, including former U.S. Presidents William Taft and Calvin Coolidge (setting a trend for Presidential involvement that would later be continued by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, among others), who were all closely affiliated with the organization.
By 1919, NEF had grown to include operations throughout the Middle East and West Asia, and consequently changed its name to “Near East Relief” to capture this expansion. The organization’s subsequent name change in 1930 to the current “Near East Foundation” reflected a shift in emphasis away from relief work to more sustained, long term development-oriented involvement in the region.
The practice NEF established of working in tandem with foreign governments and local organizations was nearly unprecedented at the time, but has since provided a model for many of today’s most well-known development organizations—including USAID and the Peace Corps.
Throughout the following decades, NEF continued to grow and sponsor initiatives throughout the Middle East and Africa, working with local communities on projects ranging from beekeeping to primary school education to microenterprise. NEF’s endeavors continued to pioneer and refine the methods that have become the organization’s hallmark: bottom-up development, local community ownership, and sustainability.
Today, NEF continues to help improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable people in the region—from marginalized social groups to uneducated youth and the internally displaced. Our focus remains to empower local communities and build their capacity to become the agents of their own development.
Please see the archive for further historical information.
 Badeau, John and Stevens, Georgiana, “Bread from Stones: Fifty Years of Technical Assistance,” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966. Page 11.
 “Barton, James, “Story of Near East Relief,” New York: Macmillian, 1930. Page xii