Reducing dependence on foreign aid—what will it take?

Photo EFEMEX / Sáshenka Gutiérrez

Human rights organizations in the global South often prefer to raise money internationally because the distance from foreign donors gives them autonomy. In the image, activists and relatives of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa (Mexico) march in honor of the young people who were disappeared in 2014. 

Human rights groups in the global South depend heavily on foreign aid, while governments worldwide are cracking down on this funding. In at least one case—Ethiopia—these new restrictions have led to the wholesale collapse of a domestic human rights NGO sector. Many countries are feeling the rising wave of governmental regulatory pressure on NGOs, inspiring activists and donors to think of new solutions.

There are several possible reasons for the widespread dependence on foreign funds in the global South. First, given global currency and wealth differentials, it is easier for local NGOs to ask for modest inputs from abroad than to invest the vast amounts of time, resources, and effort required to raise money locally.

Political repression also plays a role: human rights NGOs are frequently active in politically repressive countries and potential local donors are often too scared to donate money to rights-oriented NGOs for fear of government retaliation. And fear is not the only public attitude affecting funding. Some people in the global South (and the global North) find human rights principles unattractive for many reasons, leading to a weak donor base for less popular rights, such as those pertaining to LGBTQI issues.

In addition, human rights organizations in the global South often prefer to raise money internationally because the distance from foreign donors gives them greater autonomy. When NGOs receive money locally, they find it harder to maintain their independence.

Yet, this relationship with foreign donors often creates a clashing of North–South philanthropic repertoires: individual and institutional donors in the global South often prefer brick-and-mortar human service programs and projects—such as the construction of schools and hospitals, or feeding programs—over policy and advocacy work.

Finally, foreign donor behavior is a significant influence. Foreign donors provide local NGOs in the global South with little encouragement, incentive, or support to build local fundraising capacity. Foreign donors assume that the above five reasons dominate, making local fundraising unrealistic.

If the first five reasons are the entire story of foreign aid dependence, there is not much to be done in the short-term. If, however, at least part of the explanation is the last one—foreign donor behavior—then something can be done, and quickly. In countries where donor behavior can be altered—where local fundraising is possible—foreign donors can help local NGOs build local fundraising capacity.


The experiment: how much will people give to human rights?

In 2016, our research team received a grant to explore whether ordinary people might donate to local rights groups in Mexico City, Mexico and Bogotá, Colombia. We began with a survey of a representative sample of 960 Mexico City adults and discovered that many people are in fact willing, if asked in the right way, to make small donations. These small contributions could, over time, add up to serious money.

The most exciting results came from an experiment in which our twenty-plus enumerators gave each of the 966 respondents a small bag with MXN $50 (roughly USD $3.5 at the time), denominated in five-peso coins. Given that the daily minimum wage in Mexico City is roughly 72 pesos, this sum was not inconsequential. We told respondents the money was theirs to keep, but if they wanted they could donate some, or all, to a “Mexican human rights organization.”

To see which type of organization the public was more likely to support, we randomly allocated 240 respondents into four groups, each of which received a different organizational description. For the first group, we described a “Mexican human rights organization” that was fiscally trustworthy, and rigorously audited. For the second group, we described an organization that was highly effective at changing laws and policies, highlighting its ability to get things done. For the third group, we described an NGO that had helped an individual, ordinary Mexican citizen with his troubles, whom we identified by name. For the fourth group, our control, we described a generic Mexican human rights organization with no specific attributes.

The results of were promising. Overall, almost 80% of respondents donated at least something to one of the “Mexican human rights organizations”, and 22% donated the entire sum. The average donation, controlling for other relevant factors, was 21.6 pesos, or 43% of the 50-peso gift we had given each respondent.

Our analysis suggests that the “fiscal transparency” story had the strongest effect, since respondents in that first group donated four pesos more, on average, than the baseline sum. Importantly, even the poorest respondents donated some money. The rich donated a greater absolute sum, but the poor donated much more in relative terms, given their smaller asset base.

To be sure, raising money from individual donors costs money: human rights NGOs would have to hire new staff, create new advocacy and fundraising messages, generate new community relationships, build new computer and accounting systems, and much more. Yet, international donors can help wean local groups off foreign dependence by investing in precisely these types of new capacities.


Outcomes: what are local rights groups doing now?

Upon completion of the public opinion survey, we approached the human rights NGO community in Mexico City, asking them if they would use our results to motivate their own domestic fundraising work. In the end, we were able to meet in person (or via Skype) with 12 groups, or roughly 30% of Mexico City’s entire NGO human rights sector, and many of the local rights groups we engaged were interested in exploring local fundraising strategies.

For example, one group asked us to write a concept note about building local fundraising capacity. After we did so, we worked with that NGO to write a full funding proposal, which they intend to send to a foreign donor. Another rights group held its first fundraising event for local citizens in Mexico City, inspired by our work.

In addition, one of Mexico’s leading women’s rights groups asked us for a demographic analysis of potential donors in Mexico City. Based on our analysis, they targeted a subset of the population—older women in specific neighborhoods—for ticket sales to a local fundraising event. Another larger Mexican rights NGO asked us to submit a proposal for a survey on philanthropic giving in the whole of Mexico. We did, and they are planning to take that proposal to specific entities, including USAID, the Mexican government, and others.

Members of one group are starting their own organization and asked to meet with us to discuss making local fundraising an integral part of their financial strategy, and another group asked us to present our research during an institutional development workshop. Finally, one group asked us to present our results to other members in their organization.



To thrive, local human rights organizations in the global South need to develop a broad mix of resources, including both external and domestic funds. Many groups have spent at least 20 years building their capacity for international fundraising; the time has come to build the capacity and the research base to support fundraising at home. Of course, domestic resources are not appropriate at all times, for all issues, and in all places, but they must become a bigger part of the human rights budgetary toolkit.

***This article is an adaptation of the author's book chapter found in Rising to the Populist Challenge: A New Playbook for Human Rights Actors.