What Kind of Support Do Human Rights Activists Need During COVID-19?
Funders should trust and imitate their frontline partners’ ability to assess their communities’ greatest needs and offer the flexibility to pivot amid a crisis.
Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a major factor in the deepening crisis of human rights and democracy. More than a public health crisis, the effects of the pandemic have exacerbated and brought into focus social problems that have been worsening for decades—including unequal access to health care, poverty, and discrimination—that leave communities exceptionally vulnerable to emergencies like COVID-19, and leaves workers with few if any protections in a precarious position.
Now, as governments grapple to provide relief, local organizations and activists are playing a critical role in responding to the pandemic. But they continue to face increased restrictions, threats, and attacks intended to curtail activism and stifle dissent—and they urgently need sufficient resources and political support from the international philanthropic community to continue their efforts.
The Fund for Global Human Rights initiated a COVID-19 impact survey to assess the challenges and opportunities that emerged for civil society over the first three months of the pandemic. Drawing on a deep global network of frontline activists and organizations from more than twenty countries, the Fund surveyed over 200 grantee human rights organizations in late April and early May to better understand how the pandemic has impacted their work.
The survey offers valuable insights into how the activism landscape has changed—and what kind of support is necessary to sustain human rights work through this period of global crisis and beyond.
Despite the challenging circumstances, frontline activists are demonstrating remarkable resilience and pivoting to respond differently to community needs.
Nearly half of the survey’s respondents reported that they were still able to engage in their core work areas, like advocating for LGBTQ equality or defending Indigenous peoples’ land and resource rights. And 40% of respondents said that they were able to continue some core activities while also taking on new areas of work such as monitoring government actions in response to the pandemic, documenting the impact of COVID-19 on their constituencies, or providing community education on health and safety. Remarkably, 11% of respondents said that they had engaged entirely with these new areas of work or activities, which they had not previously carried out, in order to address the pandemic. A minimal number of respondents—only 3%—answered that they were unable to continue working, and none expected to shut down entirely.
Despite this largely positive outlook, the picture is likely to change over time as groups learn of more lost funding, donors shift priorities, and the public health crisis deepens across new geographies. This change is already taking place as activists working with historically marginalized groups—including Indigenous peoples and religious, ethnic, and racial minorities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19—have seen firsthand.
Around the world, botched or wanting pandemic responses have highlighted deep cracks in global and domestic systems—from massive disruptions in the transnational food supply chain to marginalized workers being excluded from government assistance programs. Human rights activists have demonstrated their capacity to redirect their resources and balance short-term—and often life-or-death—priorities with their longer-term goals. Thanks to this capacity for adaptation and responsiveness, civil society is poised to meet this moment of reckoning.
However, human rights defenders are working under tremendous pressure. The pandemic has generated new priorities and urgencies, even as the immense challenges of frontline activism have multiplied.
From Hungary to Brazil, governments have taken advantage of lockdowns and emergency measures to close civic spaces, curb fundamental freedoms, and stifle opposition. And in an effort to consolidate power, authoritarian or populist leaders are abusing prudent health and safety restrictions to specifically target human rights defenders. Nearly half of survey respondents reported that they had already been targeted by restrictions, curfews, or containment measures.
In Honduras, several prominent activists were arrested on trumped-up charges related to the pandemic, many of whom were attacked or jailed without access to legal recourse. Over 50% of survey respondents reported challenges to the normal functioning of protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.
In addition to these mounting dangers, survey respondents reported that infrastructure issues—including lost funding (37 respondents), sick staff (10 respondents), and reduced staff due to budget cuts (25 respondents)—were impacting their work. A quarter of respondents reported that technical difficulties, such as the lack of reliable internet or access to banks, pose a major challenge. Others mentioned dealing with impacts to their personal well-being, looking after sick family, or lacking access to critical supplies as paramount difficulties—an important reminder that human rights defenders are vulnerable to the same systemic inequalities they fight to overcome.
The imperative for human rights groups to demonstrate their relevance by addressing their community’s needs is made crystal clear by the impacts of the pandemic, which cut across areas of economic and social rights, health rights, migrants’ rights, and beyond. As they fill gaps in governments’ pandemic responses and fight for those most vulnerable to receive the resources and attention they need, frontline groups have the opportunity to continue expanding their grassroots constituencies by demonstrating their value to more people.
In recent years, the international human rights movement has been in a process of rethinking its role and strategies, and the pandemic is accelerating this reflection. This kind of crisis—and the myriad effects reported by survey respondents—begs funders to consider how they balance being nimble, adaptive, and reactive to emergencies such as COVID-19 with the values and strategy of long-term support and movement building.
These examples and data demonstrate the importance but also the effectiveness of partnering with frontline groups that are rooted in their communities and well-positioned to continue their critical, long-term work even as they adapt to shifting priorities. As funders, we must trust our frontline partners to assess their communities’ greatest needs and offer the flexibility to pivot amid a crisis. This means flexible funding, of course, but it also entails support for holistic security and wellness, and emergency funds and political support for activists that are targeted.
As funders, we must trust our frontline partners to assess their communities’ greatest needs and offer the flexibility to pivot amid a crisis.
As different groups learn to navigate this new operating environment, it is critical that funders make space for cross-regional and intersectional exchanges, following the lead and priority of frontline activists, to compare strategies, share learning, and foster solidarity.
More than 70% of survey respondents said they had explored or considered engaging with other groups working on similar issues and were interested in connecting with their peers. But with nearly a quarter indicating they have unreliable internet, funders must play a greater role in providing tech support and the means to collaborate.
The Fund’s COVID-19 impact survey set out to answer the same question activists ask every day: what does our community need? The answers were a heartening reaffirmation of the resilience of civil society, as well as a pertinent reminder that, in times of crisis, our support must meet the demands of the moment.
The pandemic is accelerating the need for adaptation and, as funders, we should take our cue from how local rights groups are nimbly pivoting to address both immediate and longer-term needs. As grassroots activists and advocates overcome mounting adversities to offer life-changing support in a historic moment of global turmoil, funders must learn, adapt, and evolve alongside them.
David B. Mattingly, vice president for programs at the Fund for Global Human Rights, leads an international team of activist grant-makers to resource human rights movements and build stronger, more sustainable organizations. Follow him on LinkedIn.