What's a funder to do?

A few weeks ago, the director of one of India’s oldest and best-known human rights groups, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ (PUCL), wrote in openGlobalRights of his organization’s principled rejection of both foreign and domestic funding.

PUCL director V. Suresh was responding to a series of openGlobalRights articles debating the dependence of domestic rights NGOs on international donors.

Suresh’s stance is admirable, but leaves many questions unanswered. Most importantly, if he is correct in asserting that international funding for human rights work is unhealthy, what should international funders do?

Should they simply stop sending money and close up shop? This solution seems problematic, as it takes the decision away from local human rights actors, and assumes they cannot, or should not, determine for themselves whether to seek foreign aid.

One could argue that it is still funders’ ethical responsibility to withhold aid, even if it does undermine the independence of local human rights organizations. If Suresh is correct, the need to decrease dependence overall trumps the right of individual, domestic NGOs to make their own choices. International funders’ ethical responsibility, after all, is to the human rights movement overall, not to this or that organization.

Under this logic, the most ethical course of action would be to stop providing aid, especially in countries that already have strong domestic human rights movements, such as India.

Indeed, research by Tsveta Petrova, an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, suggests that human rights organizations typically begin as solidarity-driven actors focused on their ideas. Over time, however, they often become more instrumental, focusing increasingly on the priorities of the global funders who pay their bills. Political philosopher Michael Sandel, moreover, argues that the introduction of money into areas that are otherwise domains of moral responsibility undermine volunteerism, much as Suresh fears.

Yet does this really mean that the human rights movement would be better off with less international aid? Can all domestic human rights organizations survive without international funding? The Indian PUCL appears to have flourished, but is this feasible for others? If other groups can’t survive without foreign money, is the work they do worth the price of obtaining international aid?

Consider this. The professionalization of human rights work attracts more paid workers; more international funding, more salaries, more human rights staffers. This, presumably, is a good thing. But these workers may, on the whole, be less selfless and dedicated than the smaller number of volunteers working for human rights without international funding. Which is better?

Or, consider this. A local NGO that receives international assistance may be more likely to focus on a problem favored by funders, such as improving girls’ literacy. They may invest then in literacy programs that have measurable outcomes, rather than in the long-term struggle to transform the political and economic systems that perpetuate inequality. Is this emphasis on improving the lives of individuals worth displacing the collective struggles that may have few clear victories in the short term?

And how universal are the answers to these questions? Perhaps international aid should be reserved for causes that are unpopular locally and hence less likely to survive without funding. For example, perhaps it makes sense for aid to go to advocates for the rights of people who are HIV positive, in a place in which such people are stigmatized. But perhaps an organization fighting for better wages for workers, which could garner broader support, should do without such funding. But then organizations would probably position themselves to serve only the stigmatized rather than any majority, exacerbating the problem with which Suresh is concerned.

The answers to these questions should not need to be so absolute. Ideally, funders could alter their own structures to better recognize and support local priorities. But such an effort has long been part of the discourse and official aims of international funders. Suresh seems to suggest that the problem is intrinsic to the nature of such funding, not something that can be tinkered away. If that is the case, then what should funders do?

This problem can be addressed by clarifying the proper role of international funders in the human rights movement. A fundamental ambiguity plagues this issue. On one hand, funders set substantive aims for their work that align with international standards such as the Millenium Development Goals. “Best practices” dictate that they should evaluate the progress grant recipients have made toward such goals.

On the other hand, though, most international funders emphasize the importance of supporting local goals. This is typically one reason why they have given funding to a local organization in the first place, rather than implement a project themselves.

The staff of both international and local organizations often speak informally of how these goals conflict. Stories abound of the international staff that visits the field to find that the local NGO used the funding in ways that conflict with the funders’ goals.  Just as often, one hears of the international funder who fails to understand the realities on the ground, and insists on approaches or goals that make little sense to the staff of the local organization.

These problems give rise to great discomfort, but rarely lead to serious discussion of the fundamental purpose of international funding organizations. In order to address the question of whether and how funders should contribute to local organizations, we must first evaluate what we think funders should be and do. Do they exist to guide the human rights movement and evaluate its ends? Or are they there to fund, to provide support for movements that are local and appropriately beyond international control?

Framing the issue in this way leads to surprising conclusions. If international funders should play a substantive, guiding role in the human rights movement, then their ethical responsibility is to evaluate the results of their funding for the movement overall. If  Suresh is right, then they should cease to give competitive grants to local organizations. Perhaps they could find other ways to offer support that would have a less coercive effect on local priorities.

If instead one concludes that international funders should not make strong evaluative judgments and should exist solely to support local NGOs, then Suresh’s argument has no ethical implications for funders. They should continue on as before, providing support for local NGOs regardless of the consequences, because their purpose is to enable local NGOs to operate based on their own choices.

There is irony here. If international funders have a substantive role to play in shaping the human rights movement (and if Suresh is right about the ill effects of aid), then they should withdraw their funding from local organizations. If funders should not try to shape the movement but only support it, then even if Suresh is correct, there is no ethical reason for them to withdraw funding. The stronger a role one believes international funders should play, the weaker the case for their involvement with local organizations…if V. Suresh is right.