Local funds for local issues: raising the bar

Over the last few months, openGlobalRights authors have vigorously debated the pros and cons of international aid to local human rights groups. Is foreign money for domestic human rights promotion good, bad, or a bit of both?

My own view, based on seven years of working for rights groups in Africa, is that foreign aid is both necessary and insufficient.

Yes, external money to local rights groups is important and yes, it must continue. But no, these funds cannot, on their own, solve Africa’s human rights problems, and will not ensure a thriving domestic rights sector. African groups will continue to use foreign money, but must also learn to raise more funds locally.

In Defence of Foreign Aid

Foreign aid to African rights groups is not a bad thing. Human rights are universal, and all people, regardless of their citizenship, are connected to, and responsible for, each other.

As American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Extending financial aid to human rights advocates is beneficial to all, regardless of the money’s geographic source.

The inter-relatedness of all peoples is clear in my home region of West Africa, where political conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger and Togo are adversely affecting both these countries and their neighbours. Even populations not directly implicated in the instability must pay to defend their borders, care for refugees, and overcome economic disruptions.

Helping local rights workers in these conflicted countries thus benefits Western Africa as a whole, as well as the taxpayers worldwide who fund the related peacekeeping and development work of the African Union and United Nations.

All is not well in the world of international aid to domestic human rights, however. The global financial crisis has hit donor countries hard, and many are reviewing their overseas commitments. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), for example, says it is shifting its focus to economic development and reducing its financial support for conventional human rights issues. The Australian government’s Human Rights Grants Scheme, which has helped many local rights groups’ initiatives in Africa and elsewhere, recently announced it will suspend funding activities for 2013-2014.

International donors are increasingly interested in finding local solutions to local problems. African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka, for example, suggests that the African private sector must start funding local NGOs. Many private companies already support corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, enabling them to contribute  tax-deductible funds to a variety of social causes.

These CSR funds can be problematic, however. Whenever NGOs collaborate with the private sector, they tend to become implementers of the company’s CSR agenda, rather than autonomous grant recipients. A study by the U.K.-based International Training and Research Centre demonstrates that relations between NGOs and CSR programs are often challenging, and that more often than not, the parties do not agree on shared goals. Not surprising, of course, as their purposes and interests often differ quite radically. Aligning the interests of African NGOs and private companies is thus crucial, but hard to do.

Critics of foreign aid say it undermines local NGOs’ autonomy and introduces the profit motive into a hitherto value-based activity. There is no guarantee, however, that contributions from African sources will not have the same, or even worse, effects. African donors, after all, are just as likely as their international counterparts to be driven by political considerations or ideological fads, and African money can just as easily subvert the voluntarism of domestic rights workers. Problems of this sort don’t magically disappear when donors are based in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, rather than in Australia, Canada, Europe or the U.S.

Still, there is no doubt that African rights groups, like any civil society organization, should depend on a broad mix of resources. They should pursue foreign aid as well as local financial support, conduct income-generating business activities, raise membership fees, and benefit from bequests and legacies by African supporters. The more broadly based its funding, the more likely any NGO is to retain its autonomy.

Challenges to Local Giving

Although many Africans regard human rights groups positively, our continent has no tradition of donating to social justice NGOs. Instead, ordinary people with extra money typically prefer to support members of their own extended families. Most African philanthropists, moreover, prefer to support charitable projects with tangible results, such as schools, hospitals, or other buildings.  

Also, many Africans know that rights groups receive foreign funds, and believe these monies are likely sufficient for the NGOs’ needs. This perception is misguided, however. Yes, rights groups receive foreign funds, but only very few have enough money to meet their needs and carry out their programs. Usually, a project’s efficacy is limited by how many people an NGO can reach; local rights groups will have more impact if they can secure more funding, both local and international.

The immediate legal and policy environment also matters. In many cases, African governments make it hard for local rights groups to raise funds and operate. In Ethiopia, for example, the government labels all NGOs receiving more than10% of their funding from overseas “foreign organizations,” and bans them from working on human rights. The African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), similarly, limits advisory status to only those African NGOs who derive at least half their income from membership dues, automatically excluding most African foreign-funded groups.

Many African governments, moreover, are suspicious of NGO business efforts such as book selling or office leasing, making it hard for the most entrepreneurial of groups to support themselves with profit-making activities. To change these conditions, African NGOs must advocate for the reworking of local tax laws, and then learn to comply with new accounting requirements.

Still, there is no doubt that African NGOs must work harder to raise local funds. Some groups are already doing this. One potential income source is membership fees, something achieved more easily by professional associations with many members. The International Commission of Jurists – Kenya, for example, raises money from members to support its human rights advocacy work. Others make money by providing for-fee services, such as the Africa Regional Sexuality Resource Centre, which charges clients for training in sexual health and human rights.

Some groups are also using technology in new ways to raise money. A new and intriguing crowd-funding site in Nigeria, 234give, offers a platform for local human rights organizations to source funds locally.

With creativity and tenacity, my colleagues in the African rights and NGO community will find the resources they need. Although our sector will continue to use foreign aid for years to come, we must increasingly cultivate a circle of locally based supporters able and willing to financially underwrite our shared vision.