Brazil needs new public mechanisms and laws to fund human rights domestically

Human rights groups in the global South depend heavily on foreign funds, Ron and Pandya note. Poverty and culture are not to blame, these authors say; instead, the real issue is what they call “local philanthropic preferences.”

Brazilian human rights leader Lucia Nader agrees, noting that while emerging economies are becoming more powerful economically, local “human rights NGOs [in these countries] find their budgets shrinking.” International willingness to fund human rights work in emerging economies is dwindling, and donors within these countries are not stepping up.

I live and work in Brazil. From where I sit, it is clear that foreign funding for domestic rights work is indeed getting increasingly scarce. Recent research by colleagues at the Center for Public Administration and Government Studies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) and D3 Alliance, for example, suggests “a significant drop in resources provided by international solidarity cooperation.” The report acknowledges problems of reliable data, but they are nonetheless convinced that the trends are real.

While I agree with Ron and Pandya that “private philanthropic preferences” in Brazil and elsewhere are at fault, their analysis does not get at the problem’s roots, or provide concrete suggestions for change. 

Let’s begin with state funding. In one sense, the Brazilian government is doing a great job of directing large sums towards local NGOs. From 2008-2012, for example, the federal government transferred to NGOs some R$ 6.5 billion (USD $ 2.7 billion), according to official estimates

The problem is thus not lack of public money, but rather the uses to which those funds are put. Most of this money goes to non-profit government contractors, many of whom provide direct services for social security, education and health.

Organizations that work on different problems or that engage in research, advocacy and policy analysis – that do things in the “the human rights style,” as Ron and Pandya put it – do not enjoy similar financial support.

Brazil, in other words, does not direct state funds to organizations that act on behalf of civil society itself. Instead, it prefers to send its money towards non-profit agencies that benefit individuals in the here and now. This does little to change the system, and does not empower individuals or civil society groups to become active agents for growth.

What Brazil needs, in my view, is a public fund that supports the long-term development of civil society, based on principles of international human rights, and Brazilian law. Such a fund would fit with the values of our Constitution, which says that Brazilian civil society must play a major role in the life of the country (see, for instance, article 194, which proclaims that "social security entails an integrated group of actions from state agencies and society"; article 225, according to which not only the state but also society must be part of environmental protection and promotion; or article 227, which entails society's duty to ensure priority to children's rights). The fund should be part of government, but must have sufficient autonomy so as to remain independent of individual policies, legislators, and ministers. 

The idea of this kind of public fund has been on the national agenda for some time, but the Brazilian federal government has yet to take it seriously. 

Brazilian human rights leader Lucia Nader is also correct when she notes the scarcity of private funds for human rights.

Brazilian citizens, Nader argues, must urgently “develop a more robust tradition of philanthropy,” and this is true for both individuals and corporations. As Nader notes, only 30% of the private sector’s charitable contributions in Brazil go to independent organizations, while the rest remains largely within the private sector itself, going to fund social projects executed by companies themselves or institutes created by and linked to them.

There is no doubt, in other words, that we Brazilians must change our “local philanthropic preferences,” and start giving more money to human rights style groups. 

Yet neither Nader nor Ron and Pandya pay much attention to Brazilian law, which is highly detrimental to human rights giving. The law contributes to holding Brazilian private giving back, and it is the law –along with the institutions responsible for applying and overseeing it- that is one of our biggest problems.

With a few important changes, however, a revised tax code could jump-start a new Brazilian culture of philanthropic giving. 

Consider the existing federal tax incentives. There is no coherent policy, but rather the “law of the strongest,” in which the only groups entitled to issue tax-deductible receipts are those with the most lobbying power in government and Congress, or that deal with the kind of issues that already get public support. 

As a result, NGOs working on “safe” issues such as the arts, culture, children, sports, the elderly, health, or disabilities are often empowered to issue tax-deductible receipts. NGOs working on more politically difficult issues, however, such as the environment or human rights, cannot do the same. Very few NGOs, moreover, benefit from tax-free status. Instead, the government typically charges most groups about 4% of all donations received. 

Brazilian tax law, in other words, hits human rights NGOs in two ways. It gives private donors no incentive to donate and then, for good measure, claws back a portion of those funds that do manage to come through.

To build a domestic financial base for the Brazilian human rights community, we must establish an autonomous public fund and lobby for better tax policy. Brazilian rights groups depend on dwindling foreign funds, but that situation can change. Our economy is growing along with our citizenry’s demands for justice, and our government, corporations, and even some individuals have spare money to give.

To channel even a small portion of these available funds to local groups working for human rights, we must change our country’s unhelpful laws and procedures.