Human rights funding in Brazil

The great irony of Brazil’s rapid rise as an emerging power is that the outside world has largely decided, as a result, that Brazil’s human rights groups no longer need their help. Traditionally international donors have provided the funding for most rights work here but in the last decade, foreign funding has all but dried up.  Although studies available are not fully comprehensive, it is estimated, for instance, that in 2003 some 80% of the budgets of 60 percent of Brazil’s rights NGOs came from foreign funding. Available figures suggest that in just a year, between 2008 and 2009, foreign funding dropped by 30 percent and in 2010 it fell by another 49 per cent.

Especially for grassroots groups, the prospects of a sustainable basis for funding in future are suddenly very slim.

Brazilian society is far from ready, however, to fill the gap. Unless people’s perceptions of human rights work change and new local sources of funding can be found, human rights will be left behind however well Brazil’s economy is doing.

Some organizations are already having to shrink because they simply can't get enough funding any more. This is particularly the case for the smaller and more remote organisations. 

What international funding still comes is focused on large organizations with strong management capacity, capable of responding to increasing administrative and bureaucratic demands. A recent internal study on fundraising strategies carried out for the Brazil Human Rights Fund showed that large Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) still rely heavily on international donors. Another study by Fundação Getúlio Vargas also shows a similar dependence. But even these organizations have seen their funding fall.

So why can’t big, successful Brazil support its own civil society groups now?

The answer is simple: Brazil’s society has not changed as fast as its economy. Only 30 years ago, Brazil was still a dictatorship, and its economy was a mess. In the last 15 years, the economy has stabilized, the country emerged as an important player and millions have been lifted out of poverty. But still today, corruption and inequality are huge problems. And there is no acknowledgement that inequality is a structural problem due to a legacy of social, racial and gender discrimination.

Brazil has a long history of traditional philanthropy, often based on charities or religious values of alleviating the suffering of the poor. But this kind of philanthropy does not deal with the root causes of social problems. In the 90’s, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concept emerged as a result of the opening of the economy to the global market, and a large number of corporate Institutes and Foundations appeared as new players in the field. But the idea of social justice philanthropy is only very recent here. 

Vibrant organizations dealing with multiple aspects of human and social development have emerged from the democratization process. While a few large human rights organizations (HROs) are based in the metropolitan areas of the country, many grassroots groups scattered across Brazil have defended the rights of vulnerable groups and minorities, such as indigenous people and traditional populations; landless peasants; women and children; juvenile and adult inmates; AfroBrazilians; the LGBT community, among others.

Brazilian Indians protested in Sao Paulo for the guarantee of their rights and land during what is National Indigenous Week.Juliana Spinola/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

International funders and cooperation agencies in the Northern hemisphere have significantly supported this process, and were crucial to structuring a strong civil society in the country. The diversity and flexibility of HROs, as well as their knowledge of local issues have greatly contributed to strengthening democracy in Brazil.

But, as in many emerging democracies, the end of dictatorship did not bring an end to human rights violations. Wide social income policies have lifted millions out of poverty and this has contributed to an image of a country that is rapidly overcoming social injustice by democratic means. However, in spite of all the positive indicators, Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, where the economic and social divide is reinforced by political and cultural factors. The richest 10% of the population receive half the country’s total income, while the poorest 10% get only 1.1% of it. Over half of Brazil’s population owns less than 3% of its rural lands, and Indigenous Peoples and local communities are often perceived as obstacles to progress.

Although respect for fundamental rights was at the basis of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, the state apparatus has not been effective in preventing human rights abuses of vulnerable groups, and impunity goes on as part of the fabric of Brazilian life. Recent riots in the main Brazilian cities showed a growing disapproval among the population with the persistence of human rights violations and social injustice.

But today, there are only a few local sources of funding for human rights activities, such as independent funds, some corporate and family foundations, and individual donors. Most of them focus in education and children. Government funding is available but it means that organizations lose their independence, so it is not ideal. Although human rights activists tend to see government funds as public funds, usually there is no formal or transparent process for accessing them. It is probably also easier for larger NGOs to qualify, due to the high level of bureaucratic requirements. One of the things organizations such as the Brazil Human Rights Fund can do is access these funds to make them available to grassroots groups. 

There is a huge task ahead to educate society about rights work so that more funding can be generated nationally. Organizations like the Brazil Human Rights Fund, established seven years ago, are at the forefront of that work, trying to create a local constituency of human rights donors. In 2012, we established a Network of Independent Funds for Social Justice Philanthropy, bringing together nine funds and community foundations that are working to diversify the philanthropy culture and increase social justice funding in Brazil. 

Human rights activists set up the Brazil Human Rights Fund to bridge the divide between local grassroots groups and donors in Brazil or internationally who wish to support them. Our funds come from international sources, such as foundations in Europe and in the US, as well as from local individual and corporate donors. We also have a small endowment that covers a few grants and part of our operational costs. Every year, we release a call for proposals across the country to invite HROs to apply for funding. We receive an average of 700 grant proposals yearly, and are able to select and empower organizations working on the frontline all over the country. So far, we have given over USD 2 million in small grants. 

Although the Brazil Fund has experienced difficulties raising funds locally, it has managed to engage a few individual donors and corporations, who have funded some of our grants, choosing from the projects we have selected, which ones they want to support. Projects selected fall into seven main categories: women’s rights; rights of children and adolescents; enforcing the rule of law and combating institutional violence; fight against racism and other forms of discrimination; freedom of sexual orientation; right to land and decent work; social-environmental rights and the impact of large infrastructure projects.  Business figures and major donors seem to be more comfortable delegating project management to a qualified and transparent organization, such as the Brazil Fund, so our model is starting to work. In the long run, we hope, this way, to establish a philanthropy movement for social justice in Brazil. We are planning a major communication and fundraising campaign, building public awareness to engage individual donors and corporate support. We are also starting a program to help our grantees improve their communication and to support education campaigns and efforts to give visibility to human rights cases and causes across Brazil.     

HROs have played a fundamental role in Brazil’s democratization process and we need to make sure that they continue to exist. The best chance now for that to happen is if society here begins to understand what human rights work is all about.