In defense of 'professional' human rights organizations

There have been a number of articles recently, including on openGlobalRights(most  recently V. Suresh’s "Funds and Civil Liberties") raising several issues that have dogged the global human rights community for decades, especially in the Global South. These articles raise doubts about the legitimacy or effectiveness of human rights NGOs by juxtaposing them against social or grassroots movements, extolling the virtue of volunteerism vs. 'professionalism,' and criticizing “NGOization,” excessive reliance on foreign funding, and accusing them of corruption.

Having been involved in these debates in the Arab region for over 20 years, I take issue with some of the assertions made about 'professionalization' of human rights work. Certainly a self-critical engagement with those questions is necessary but it seems to me that some (not all) of the criticism is misdirected, and perhaps places too great an expectation on human rights actors.

First, I disagree with the assumption that effective defense of human rights is an either/or proposition: to be broad-based grass roots social/political movements committed to longer-term vision of equality and justice, or institutionalized and career-minded professional advocates. The struggle for social justice requires both. Grassroots social movements can and should take up human rights as advocacy tools towards democratization and a more just and balanced social order. Indeed, everyone should do so. Such a social movement approach can exist side by side with the more 'professionalized' rights defenders working on specific cases of torture, land rights, forced evictions or freedom of expression. They play different and complementary roles.

What distinguishes human rights from other moral systems (whether political, social, religious, etc.) is that they are legal. They require law and legal advocacy in defense of individuals and communities. While it is important to inculcate human rights values in all aspects of social and political work, what makes them rights is law and accountability, notwithstanding the personal political views of authorities or advocates. This requires a different set of skills, which I believe are equally important as social mobilization skills. To say that either skill-set is better, more legitimate or more important than the other would be fundamentally wrong. We choose where to focus based on our proclivities and preferences, personal assessments of what is more effective and yes, even our political views. 

I also disagree with V. Suresh’s view that working on individual cases results in a “depoliticization of endemic human rights issues” since they “focus primarily on superficial, less contentious incidents… instead of institutionalized abuse of police and state power …[and other examples].” In my experience, legal work on individual cases has most often included calls for legislative amendments or new legislation (e.g. criminalizing violence against women), procedural improvements (e.g. security sector reform, oversight mechanisms), even constitutional commentary and advocacy.

Many of those same organizations engage in intensive human rights education efforts to challenge governance modes and mores, social perpetuation of inequalities including harmful social practices and patriarchal systems among other broad structural issues. They are 'professional organizations' and may not match social movements’ mobilizing capacity, yet they provide the legal analyses necessary for social movements to take up. 

I agree that there are pitfalls that human rights advocates can fall into, particularly the near-total dependence on foreign funding and its effect on local and national human rights agendas. International donors’ priorities often do contribute to setting an agenda that may not always be consistent with the priorities at the national level. Indeed there are politics in social justice philanthropy, which is one of the reasons why, five years ago, a number of us established the Arab Human Rights Fund, the first such regionally owned philanthropy for human rights.

To date, we still are unable to reach anywhere near the volume of funding provided by European and North American donors, as potential national donors continue to fear being associated with what is perceived as a 'political' issue. In many countries in our region governmental authorization is required even to raise funds locally let alone receive them from the outside. These issues, however, are symptoms of broader social and political problems, not those of the organizations themselves.

I don’t dispute occasional accusations of corruption, misappropriation of funds, or over-spending on salaries and administrative expenses as opposed to “help[ing] a rape victim or torture survivor” as Suresh says. Corruption does happen and it requires daily vigilance, but it is not a problem unique to those professionalized organizations dependent on foreign funds. We see it in social movements, in trade unions, political parties (of course), in grassroots development organizations and yes, in donor organizations as well. It is a human trait that must be fought with higher ethical human traits. But to point the finger at donor-dependent organizations and singling them out as endemically corrupt, albeit with exceptions, seems unfair to me.

Finally, the assumption that social movements somehow can be free of political manipulation and simply operate on higher moral or ethical grounds is not necessarily well founded. In the Arab region, many human rights groups started as membership organizations with a social movement model in mind. Very quickly, and probably because of the lack of real political participation in the region, struggles for political control took place within those organizations, leading to paralysis and ineffectiveness.

Eventually nearly all human rights actors opted for the 'professional' institutional model with a self-selecting board of directors or trustees, where they can go about their work free of partisan political interference. Despite doing very good work, debates continue as to their 'failure' to establish or motivate social movements for human rights. By contrast, we have seen more and more development organizations, such as the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), adopt human rights language and the rights-based approach.

The Arab revolts since early 2011 have reinvigorated the social and political movements of the region, particularly with the participation of youth and the technological tools they brought. These movements, however, have not yet succeeded in creating a democratic alternative to the dictatorships of the past, although they are still trying. On the contrary, they have been under increasing threat, and their leaders are being imprisoned for speaking out and demonstrating, particularly in Egypt. Meanwhile, the 'professional' human rights organizations continue to defend them and to articulate a law-based vision of social, political and legal justice. Social movements need to ally themselves to these organizations, rather than compete with them; they need each other.