Addressing systemic inequality in human rights funding

The funding terrain for human rights activism is profoundly inequitable. The majority of funds come from the West and go to the West, even for use elsewhere in the world. While there has been an increase in funders supporting social movements and human rights NGOs in the global South, most of these are also dependent on funders in the global North. To catalyze a human rights ecosystem relevant to meet the challenges of the changing global context, most notably increased geo-political significance of regions and declining moral valence of the West, Ford embarked on the Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide (SHRW) global initiative in 2012—a $54 million, five-year campaign that involved long-term, independent funding to several cohorts of grantees. In 2016, nearing the end of the campaign, Ford commissioned an independent review to assess what the initiative did (or did not) accomplish and what the field could learn from this. This Learning Review has revealed a wide range of innovative processes that show how the international human rights movement can further shift its ways of working to more closely reflect the diversity of experiences across the globe and in so doing, become more effective.

Tep Vanny, prominent Cambodian land rights defender, escorted to Phnom Penh Municipal Court in February 2017’.
Photo © Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) 

In the SHRW initiative, Ford committed core funding for five years, which allowed global South groups to shape their own agendas based on their engagement on the ground, rather than only being able to influence the movement or system when INGOs invited them to the table. Key institutions need this long-term support that enables them to ensure they are institutionally sustainable and to take advantage of unexpected windows of opportunity. In fact, the SHRW review demonstrated that with core funding for an extended period of time, national human rights organizations that would otherwise be dependent on INGOs to access others in the movement or decision-makers they need to influence, can shape their own agendas, learning and advocacy partnerships and modes of influencing decision-makers. Their experiences demonstrate that ways of understanding human rights challenges at local level and innovative strategies to address these can directly contribute towards new ways of understanding and addressing the issues internationally.

The division of human rights strategies into local or global simply does not deliver the best possible results. Both the funders who responded to the Review’s survey and those interviewed critiqued the continued approach of most human rights funders that it remains appropriate for Western INGOs to work “on” the human rights issues of the global South. It is possible that these Western INGOs give substantial emphasis to partnerships, but it is still they who decide where to focus their energy, and those living with human rights abuses seldom have the resources to shape the global strategies that may be needed to address their issues.

"A managerial approach frequently requires human rights groups to predict their results in an unpredictable world."

In addition, a managerial approach frequently requires human rights groups to predict their results in an unpredictable world, and funder discomfort with core support prevents institutional resilience of human rights groups. As Stefania Kapronczay, Co-Chair of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), noted: “Human rights work is long-term work. It’s a struggle. It doesn’t happen overnight, it changes. So you need a partner, a funder who is committed for a long term, but who is flexible enough to understand that you are operating, as everyone else, in a changing context, and that requires adaptation, and you are not able to say what would be required or what would be impactful in three years time from now.”

The review showed that a funding strategy aimed at increasing equity in the ecology of the human rights movement needs to have several key ingredients. The strategy needs to involve grantees in collectively developing a clear theory of change and agreed upon signs of progress so that there is as much synergy as possible in all groups’ efforts and they are able to leverage each others’ capacities. In addition, there must be bonds of trust, or enough time to develop such bonds, between groups with similar goals but different capacities, as well as networks that cut across North-South divides as well as thematic divides. Ethical ways of working need to be assessed in relation to international organizations or networks funded, especially regarding whether their work is driven from the bottom up or top down, and how relationships are built and sustained with both national NGOs and social movements. For example, an INGO may be excellent at achieving its own goals, but may not be doing so in ways that add value to or enhance the capacities of groups at national or local levels to engage the global space except on their own local issues. In addition, the funder needs to give attention to leadership shifts in case leaders within key grantee organizations (or the funder) move on.

More attention is needed on creating unique funding allocations depending on the goals articulated by the local organizations. The amounts of money needed by human rights groups for “internationalizing” the work of Southern human rights groups depends on these goals and whether they include long term or one-off interventions. The initiative’s  decision to provide a set amount of money for all grantees globally did not consider: a) the different value of the US dollar in different countries and b) that the amount of funds needed to develop a new and long-term institutional initiative for the human rights movement (such as an annual conference, or a journal or a training program) or to engage the system (such as having a staff member located in Geneva) are quite different from the funds needed for a single event bringing the movement together to strategize on how to address an immediate crisis, or a topic-specific intervention at one moment in time.

Indeed, the best way to operationalize a funding strategy in one part of the world may not resonate with another because of different levels of capacity and diverse cultures of organizing. There may be many groups already pursuing the goal that the funding initiative aims to enhance. The funder needs to be careful not to anoint one group, thereby interfering with the ecology in the country or region and should rather explore ways of making funds available to those already moving the needle on the issue, such as, in addition to their core funding, the funder (or an existing network of the key groups) holding a pot of funds that any groups can apply to for collective strategizing or for implementing a very focused strategy at the regional or global level. In the SHRW initiative, what was striking was how all the funded groups, but especially the first cohort of groups from the global South, increased their collaborations with each other over this period, including collaborative litigation.

Challenging inequities, even in a field of people committed to human rights, takes time. Changing the field will not happen in five years. Even as the largest international human rights NGOs are decentralizing or moving headquarters to the South, this is not shifting the balance of power. To move the needle, international organizations need to stop working “on” the problems of the global South and instead use their immense financial resources to empower local and national organizations to shape their own agendas, in particular advocating to funders to provide direct support to such groups. And funders in the North and South need to focus their attention on ways of building the confidence and competence of philanthropies in the global South to support human rights work.

Whilst the majority of human rights abuses happen in the Global South, over half of all funding goes to rights related work in North America and Western Europe. Leading human rights figures debate what funding priorities could have the most impact in championing the rights of the world’s most vulnerable. 

This video is a product of the independent Learning Review of the Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide global initiative of the Ford Foundation.