Exploring local possibilities for local rights

Do Northern actors really care about promoting human rights in the global South? Maybe, but geography and cultural distance will inevitably take their toll. After all, it’s hard to truly care about someone else’s problems when they are located far away, and when their suffering doesn’t impact you immediately and directly.

For comparison’s sake, consider the problem of “global terrorism.” Here, Northern actors (of a different kind) really are deeply interested and involved, but this concern is driven by terrorism’s transnational nature. After all, terrorists based far from United States (US) or European shores can still have dramatic impacts on US and European citizens.

Human rights abuses, by contrast, are somewhat different, since abuses in one country do not necessarily translate into immediate and pressing global threats. As a result, Northern actors are often less likely to devote the same kind of care, attention, and interest to Southern human rights problems. Southern rights violations, I believe, are most pressing for people living in the global South.

As a result, it is we Southerners who must fund the human rights work we want to do within our own regions.

The time has come for Southern rights activists to rethink their fund raising strategies. We must stop allowing Northerners to impose their own agendas, even in the name of human rights. Instead, we must set our own priorities, and then go looking for local funds to meet our objectives.

To be sure, some North funders do an excellent job of looking out for their Southern grantees, respecting their ideas and working collaboratively. This is the exception, however. In my experience, Northern funders tend to first decide on their own priorities, and then to identify the Southern organizations they want to work with. In some cases, they even micromanage implementation.

Unfortunately, this kind of heavy hand does more harm than good.

It is strange to me that colleagues sitting in a beautiful office somewhere in the global North make a few calls, surf the Internet, decide that a particular Southern country has a specific problem, and then, on the basis of that hypothesis, prescribe solutions.

Yes, there will always be groups in the global South willing and able to do a Northern funder’s bidding, but the projects that emerge from such initiatives are rarely sustainable. Sustainability requires ownership, but people cannot own a process to which they barely contributed.

The most effective Northern human rights financiers get their hands dirty by seeking information and clarifying their perceptions. They then get local actors to lead the process and remain open to ideas about what works best in particular contexts.

For sure, this is a tedious time-and money-consuming process, but is more likely to it yield lasting dividends. Partnerships built on trust and mutual respect last longest.

To begin building that trust, partners must recognize the value of understanding each other, looking out for one other’s best interests, and advancing those interests together. Unless “partners” in the global South see these ideals and their own ideas crystallizing in their relationships with Northern benefactors, North-South relations will continue to suffer.

Yet in many cases, Southern groups will not be able to persuade Northern funders to change their mind, and it is for this reason that Southern rights groups must begin looking inward.

Previously on openGlobalRights, US-based philanthropy expert Christopher Harris did an impressive job of identifying new funders “based in and indigenous to the global South,” groups that now “speak to Africa, from Africa.”

There are two problems with these “African funders for Africa,” however.

First, there is no guarantee that these funders will not be equally uninterested in the importance of local context, working with local partners, and understanding local nuance. After all, distance is distance, even when measured within the African continent.

More importantly, however, some of these “African funders” still rely on Northern funding. They may be autonomous intermediaries in the North-to-South funding chain, but they are still largely funded from abroad, not from within.

This is where we must change direction.

It is possible to find financial support for human rights work within Africa, and there are African individuals, companies and corporations able and willing to support innovative projects. Sometimes, they are on the lookout for new opportunities to engage with.

In Nigeria, for example, the NGO Alliances for Africa collaborated with the multinational corporation Unilever to offer entrepreneurial training and start-up support for over 100 women across four states in 2011. This experience suggests that multinationals in Africa can provide financial support for good ideas, and implies that it might even be replicated elsewhere.

In another case, private lawyers in Nigeria funded an effort organized by the NGO, Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI Nigeria), to develop the skills of students working in law clinics dedicated to advancing the rights of indigent citizens.

African rights groups can help by providing space for local activists and potential funders to meet. From the very start, however, domestic rights groups must protect their autonomy to investigate, report on, and campaign against violations, even when it is their own financial supporters who turn out to be the perpetrators.

Although difficult, it is possible to begin reframing the narrative for human rights funding, and we no longer have to rely solely on Northern funds. There are possibilities within our own region, and with meticulous reflection and testing we can, ultimately, turn these possibilities into realities.

At the very least, we must start trying. After all, we won’t succeed in developing African resources for African rights until we begin exploring African possibilities.