Old dogs and new tricks: rethinking human rights business models

As the debate rages over the seemingly viral spread of governmental efforts to reign in human rights NGOs, it is an opportune moment to reflect on a different but related question: how do human rights groups sustain their work?

Arguably, the most pernicious aspect of the global regulatory assault on civil society has been the attack on foreign funding of NGOs. According to data collected by the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), about a third of the measures restricting NGOs now relate to international funding. Or as recently published research shows, 39 of the world’s low- and middle- income countries have introduced laws restricting the flow of funds to domestic NGOs.

An over-reliance on foreign funding has been the Achilles heel of civil society for some time, a structural consequence of 25 years of explosive growth of NGOs around the world. In the field of human rights, these new "voices from the South" offered the promise of invigorating a system built on the practice of international NGOs naming and shaming governments for their human rights practices, as well as deploying diplomatic pressure to curb abuses.

International human rights donors were eager to respond to the opportunity, investing heavily in the new groups. International NGOs developed new resources to capacitate them. And together they built extensive transnational networks to facilitate the distribution of financial and other resources.

The over-dependence on foreign funding has always been a weak link in the otherwise globally burgeoning civic space.

But, in truth, the over-dependence on foreign funding has always been a weak link in the otherwise globally burgeoning civic space, primarily because of issues of financial sustainability and local legitimacy.  As important, there is opportunity cost to the heavy investment in one particular model: the locally-based NGO funded primarily by foreign charitable sources. The development of NGOs expected to meet standards of charitable best practice from outside their own communities—including a whole host of management, governance and administrative burdens—does not necessarily represent the only or best path toward achieving sustainable change for every aspect of human rights.

So while it is imperative to fight against cynical tactics of governments bent on sidelining potential opposition to their power or policies, it’s also important—for a whole variety of reasons—to consider alternative models of achieving human rights aims. Options include looking for local sources of funding or developing social enterprises that rely on business revenue as well as building on open technological platforms that require little if any financial investment at all.

In this latter category, for example, a Brazilian journalist set up an on-line feminist collective called Think Olga, which—with almost no visible infrastructure—was able to execute a massive campaign. Last November, in response to offensive tweets about a pre-teen contestant on the Brazilian spin-off of Master Chef Junior, Think Olga generated 82,000 tweets and retweets in 5 days using a Portuguese hashtag which translates to “my first harassment”. The campaign succeeded in calling attention to pervasive sexual harassment of girls by encouraging women to share their own stories, ultimately spilling over into mainstream Brazilian media and social media in another half dozen countries.

United States Mission Geneva/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

With almost no visible infrastructure, Think Olga was able to launch a massive campaign in Brazil by using Twitter to call attention to pervasive sexual harassment of girls.

Technology and innovative design can also be combined to produce low-cost and effective tools to support human rights mobilization. One example, described by Amel Fahmy, is HarassMap in Egypt, which is a crowd-sourced information platform on gender-based violence designed to raise awareness and support community activism, a model that other activists are now widely replicating. The winner of the Innovating Justice Challenge in 2015—a competition run by Netherlands-based HiiL Innovating Justice—adopted a similar approach: among a large number of technology-related projects, the winner was an app called Five-O created by three African-American teens in Atlanta, Georgia in response to the outrage over police violence in Ferguson and elsewhere in the United States. The app can be downloaded to a smartphone and allows individuals to review and track interactions with law enforcement, incorporating advocacy materials, such as “know your rights” information from the ACLU.

Another finalist for the Innovating Justice Challenge last year was CrowdDefend, an online platform that allows litigants and their legal representatives to crowd-fund litigation costs by presenting details of their case to website users through videos, images and documents.

As I have argued before, the increasing number of locally-based NGOs over the last two decades offered new potential to create the kind of social change that would protect human rights sustainably over the long run, through building genuinely pluralistic and participatory approaches to governance in their own countries. It didn’t take long for rights groups to develop a standard, easy-to-replicate business model, and it became pervasive. Entrepreneurial social and political activists identify a societal harm they would like to address through human rights methods. They come across examples of, or know-how about, how to operationalize their theory of change. Then they network internationally to secure project funding from foreign donors—primarily large foundations or bilateral and multilateral development assistance programs—to finance the operations necessary to execute their theory of change.

The resulting dependence on foreign funding has created vulnerability easy for governments to exploit. Indeed, governments bent on eliminating or controlling pesky watchdog organizations nipping at their heels have now discovered that going after foreign purse strings is both readily available as a regulatory option and difficult for traditional human rights strategies to resist.

Governments can use off-the-shelf regulatory solutions designed to address global harms like money laundering, corruption and terrorist financing. Plus they can do so with strong public support by stigmatizing NGOs in the popular imagination as agents of unwanted foreign interests and values. As Annika E. Poppe and Jonas Wolff have pointed out, to some extent there may even be a legitimate policy rationale for such efforts.

However, as the above examples illustrate, while we develop much-needed new strategies to counter the global assault on freedom of association, there is also an opportunity—indeed an imperative—to rethink the business models for how we protect human rights locally. Nonetheless we should be under no illusions; sorting out what works from what doesn’t—and determining how to sustain the most important advances—will take a good deal of time. Meanwhile, it is critical to find more effective ways to resist the global regulatory trend restricting foreign funding. Human rights donors must continue investing in existing local advocacy NGOs, which remain indispensable.