Mismatch: why are human rights NGOs in emerging powers not emerging?

Middle-income BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries are becoming more politically prominent, appearing on the covers of magazines and newspapers in the developed world, and being taken more seriously by the big investment banks.

This increasing clout is also reflected in international human rights arenas. In the marble corridors of the U.N. Human Rights Council, I often hear that it is now necessary to “have Brazil on board” to pass this or that resolution.

It would be healthy to expect that human rights NGOs in the BRICS are also gaining in strength. Surprisingly, this is not so. The mismatch between strong economic growth and fragile local human rights organizations is now very apparent in Brazil.  

Historically dependent on both public and international funding, many Brazilian organizations now find themselves in a “funding vacuum,” an unanticipated victim of their country’s remarkable economic success. 

Consumers before citizens

Brazil has democratic institutions, reasonable economic growth and social policies that have enabled millions to rise above the poverty line and to begin consuming goods and services. Despite all this, citizens do not have access to basic human rights. Long-standing violations, such as the systematic torture of prisoners and displacement of indigenous groups to make way for hydroelectric dam construction, continue apace.

Anti-Belo Monte graffiti in Altamira, Brazil. Karen Hoffmann/Demotix. All rights Reserved.

A recent newspaper headline reported that people living in northeastern Brazil, the country’s poorest region, are buying washing machines even though they do not have running water, a basic human right and a state responsibility.

Alas, the consumer has come before the citizen, and Brazilian human rights organizations are at a critical juncture: They must continue their national struggle while at the same time consider internationalizing. This involves building closer relations with organizations from other countries, monitoring and influencing the foreign policy of the Brazilian state, and tracking the activities of Brazilian companies overseas. Most important, perhaps, Brazilian human rights NGOs must continue to help channel social demands into progressive advocacy and policies.  

But this is possible only with sustainable and predictable funding.  

The funding crisis triad

Three factors contribute to the financial erosion of human-rights organizations in Brazil: dwindling international funds, inequitable public funds, and scant private funds.

Historically, human rights organizations in Brazil depended on international funding, particularly from bilateral cooperation agencies and development organizations linked to churches and political parties in the Northern Hemisphere. In the 1980s and ‘90s, experts claimed that some 80 percent of Brazilian human rights NGO budgets came from international funding – even if there is no reliable data to support this number.

Over the past decade, however, international assistance to Brazilian rights groups has suffered. After the global financial crisis of 2008 and Brazil’s graduation to middle-income status, at least 10 agencies withdrew their financial support, reformulated their priorities, or drastically reduced their allocations.

Other organizations began to focus on specific issues – especially the environment and agriculture – and concentrated their grants among a small group of organizations, or opted for partnerships with “more efficient” government organizations.

Today, experts estimate that between 40 percent and 50 percent of Brazilian human rights NGOs’ budgets come from international funding. Again, this number is debatable, but the downward trend is clear. Some agencies and foundations continue investing in Brazilian human rights groups, including the OAK FoundationSigrid Rausing Trust, the Canadian International Development Research Center, and the Open Society Foundations. Some also are investing in strengthening the ability of civil society in Southern countries to act internationally. Such, for example, is the aim of the Ford Foundation’s “Strengthen Human Rights Worldwide” initiative. Still, less international funds are available today for human rights work in Brazil.

Public funds in Brazil are also not a sustainable funding source. Today, less than 5 percent of the funds transferred by the Brazilian government to civil society are allocated to human-rights organizations. The rest goes to organizations that do social work or fill gaps in health, education, and the like. In addition, organizations that receive public funding are subject to extremely bureaucratic processes, and find it hard to maintain their independence and autonomy.

The situation would not be so difficult if Brazilian philanthropy had “emerged” at the same pace as the country’s international political and economic prominence. Brazilian companies invest $3-4 billion per year (U.S.) in social projects, but this is not enough, given the size of Brazil´s social problems. Furthermore, only 30 percent of this money is allocated to grant making for independent organizations. The rest is spent on corporate social responsibility projects run by the companies themselves. 

National philanthropy: a necessary (and long-term) commitment

The current weakness of the Brazilian international-public-private triad has led many local human rights organizations to rethink their fund-raising strategies and sustainability models.

Clearly, an increase in international funding would be welcome. This would have to involve not only an increase in dollars but also greater grant predictability and duration. One major challenge today is for international grant-makers to understand that when a Brazilian NGO wants to act legally and responsibly, its operating costs are much higher than they used to be. Legal fees, salaries, real estate, and other costs are rising in emerging economies, and are often even higher than in the global North.

There is no doubt that Brazilian private foundations could strengthen their support to human rights causes and organizations, as well as that public funds should be distributed more equitably and transparently to civil society organizations. The state must also boost its social investments, making sure that at least some of this new money finds its way to organizations that challenge the status quo, as human rights groups often do. This requires a review of the legal framework and an overhaul of the archaic practices that still govern state-society relations in Brazil. 

Brazilian citizens must also develop a more robust tradition of philanthropy. The country currently ranks 83rd among 147 countries listed in the World Giving Index, which uses Gallup polling data to measure national populations’ propensity to donate time and money to charitable activities and help strangers. To improve their country’s ranking, Brazilians must increase the amount they donate.

Human rights have a bad name

Many Brazilians see the country’s human-rights organizations as contributing to the high rates of murder and overall urban violence. The reasoning goes as follows: Brazil currently has around 50,000 murders per year – a number that exceeds the casualty counts in several international conflicts. By attempting to reduce police violence, prison overcrowding and torture, human-rights organizations are perceived as “protecting” impunity and generally contributing to societal fears and insecurities. Reversing this perception will be no easy task.

Human-rights organizations have several challenges ahead. They must redefine their funding priorities and improve their fund-raising operations, and they must become better communicators about the positive impact of their work. 

National fund-raising must become a pillar of organizational development, integral to human-rights groups’ strategic planning. It’s essential to rethink fund-raising “know-how” – beyond such initiatives as crowd-funding and other new tools. New fund-raising capacities are vital, especially with regard to the Brazilian economic elite. There is no magic bullet: Human rights groups need money to restructure and learn how to raise more money locally. Sadly, it’s hard to focus on growing an organization’s fund-raising capacities in an era of austerity, where most available funds are tied to specific projects.

All this should be accompanied by innovation and investment in new communications strategies. Human-rights organizations must move from the defensive to the offensive, and focus on winning over more allies to the cause. This is not impossible: After all, younger generations seem to be looking for a cause as shown in the massive street protests that recently took over Brazilian streets.

There is one more challenge, and it’s about building mutual trust. The lack of national private funding for human-rights organizations, in a format that maintains their autonomy and independence, severely impedes their ability to be “anchored” in their own societies. They need not only financial support but also domestic constituencies. Human rights organizations must emerge not only from the funding vacuum, but also from a vacuum of public trust and political support. 


Conectas receives funds from some of the foundations cited in this article.