To truly internationalize human rights, funding must make sense


What does internationalization really mean for grassroots movements, and to whose end? Does it mean bringing a handful of people from small NGOs to meetings with billionaire philanthropists, foundation executives and academics, to demonstrate that there are “Africans in the room”? Does that make the human rights movement truly inclusive?

In Africa, we are working on critical issues for which we can make significant progress, but these successes are not sustainable if donors make weak or incorrect investments. Global funders need to recognise that human rights advocacy investments must be strategic. And for them to be strategic and sustainable, they need to be informed by the target beneficiaries and responsive to the specific needs those people articulate.

We want global funders to buy into our ideas and strategies and support them, because that allows us to do what we need to do, in the way we need to do it. International donors need to listen and see themselves as enablers of the work that needs support. Foundations outside of Africa must recognise that they cannot truly know the priorities of African movements, but they do know organisations that know the priorities, and they can make honest, respectful partnerships with them. No matter how well meaning northern-based donors or international organisations are, they are not African, and they are not African LGBTI activists working in an African space.

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Foundations outside of Africa must recognize that they cannot truly know the priorities of African movements, but they do know organisations that know the priorities, and they can make honest, respectful partnerships with them.

We know what is important, because we don’t just work in the field, we are the field. We know exactly what we can accomplish. We know how we can be useful because we exist in our movements and are part of these movements. We are not struggling with an existential problem of who we are or whether or not we are relevant. We know exactly where we want to go.

LGBTI work in Africa needs to be funded sustainably. A series of one-off emergency support or one- to two-year project support does not sustainably help, and can even be counterproductive. We need to start thinking long-term because our opponents are already investing for the long haul. Look at the anti-gay children's rallies that the Museveni government has sponsored in Kampala, for example. The global Christian right is a very powerful force that we have to contend with. American and other foreign Christian groups are investing seriously in anti-LGBTI work, and they are in Africa for the long haul. They are investing in an upcoming anti-LGBTI generation that will occupy the academic spaces, policy spaces, legislatures and judiciaries of our African continent. This should give us pause, because similar investments are not being made in African LGBTI movements. Instead of investing in systemic and structural changes, in law and policy reform, movement building and civil society strengthening, or social justice, the funding narrative is heavy on security and rescue.

African governments have a need to hold onto power now more than ever, and will increasingly use gay rights as a wedge issue. Pan-African organisations are trying to push back but with small pots of money, spending all their time fundraising. If the level of investment that we actually need were available, African activists could strategize and accomplish so much more.

Many western donors still see Africa as the 'dark continent.' They don’t know whom to trust, and they don’t believe that local actors are truly capable. 

So why don’t global funders invest sustainably? The problem is that many western donors still see Africa as the “dark continent”, a place where they are scared, uncomfortable and uncertain. They don’t know whom to trust, and they don’t believe that local actors are truly capable. They prefer to invest in global human rights organizations that will go on to identify and work with “local partners on the ground”. Instead of directly investing in an African designed strategy, for example, they pay for a few Africans to join a strategy session in Geneva or New York designed by global north organizations. Once there, the activists will likely articulate the agenda of the one who paid for their travel.

We must push against this fear of engagement. We cannot afford the time to let fear hold us back. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed in early 2014, and UHAI immediately supported local activists to challenge their government in Uganda’s constitutional courts. This was an expensive investment. But we knew it was the right investment, and it paid off: the law was since overturned. But global funders that have the capacity to make large investments were shy and cautious about our choice of strategy. Many preferred to talk about support for rescue efforts instead.

Then, there is the fear of African accountability. This is an equally disappointing concern because when you look at UHAI as an example, our financial audits and internal control systems audits have been flawless, and all have been undertaken by international audit companies using international standards of accountability. So it is simply incorrect to say that mechanisms of accountability don’t exist.

We also have a quickly shrinking civil society space in Africa. One important way the LGBTI movement can contribute to opposing oppression is by having sufficient resources to invite mainstream organizations to our space, and not the other way around. That takes an investment that doesn’t allow for fear. LGBTI movements in the global north dictate what qualifies as relevant investments for their nations. Similarly, we must start listening to and investing in Africans.

If the big human rights donors truly want to internationalize the human rights movement, they’ll have to start trusting us with their money. Sending support down the funding chain, from group to group, from New York to Africa, doesn’t work. As each group takes a cut, the sums get smaller, but the reporting and accountability obligations get bigger. And the local groups’ actual level of control, and their ability to work effectively, disappears. This kind of piecemeal, broken-telephone strategy wouldn’t work if the funding were heading in the opposite direction, from Nairobi to New York. Why, then, do they think it will work in Africa?

Small, short-term grants are not adequate support to prepare Africans for the scale of work that is necessary to improve our circumstances. We must provide African organisations with substantial, sustainable investments that can make a real difference in strategy. Enough with the pocket change.