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From aid to investment: funding women's rights groups

A paradigm shift in funding from human rights toward 'investments' and 'business solutions' is threatening women’s rights organizing and the rights-based approach to development. We need greater understanding of these new trends and engagement with new players. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Funding for Human Rights.

Angelika Arutyunova
6 December 2013

From being pictured on the cover of Newsweek to becoming a focus of the World Bank’s 2012 Annual Development Report, women and girls are high on the global development agenda. Today, every major funding sector is paying attention, at least rhetorically, to the role of women and girls in development. Why, then, is this enhanced interest not reflected in the among of money available for women’s rights organizations worldwide?

For the past eight years, the international Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), where I work as a manager, has been observing shifts in the funding landscape. Our most recent report, “Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots,” notes a disturbing trend: As the private sector becomes more involved in funding women’s issues, donors are prioritizing support for individual women and girls - the “leaves” - rather than on sustained, collective action by women’s rights activists and organizations - the “roots.”

A good example is the Third Billion Campaign, launched last year by a global alliance of corporations, governments, non-profit organizations, academics, foundations and individuals to help a billion women participate more fully in the global economy by 2025. The campaign’s title comes from the notion that over the next decade, the impact of women will be at least as significant as that of China’s and India’s respective one-billion-plus populations.

Campaigners argue that the resources requires to help women reach their full economic potential include increased access to finance, education, markets and legal protections, such as better land rights and property ownership, and improved working conditions. The campaign presents “investments” in women as “smart economics” that will bring more prosperity to all.

Yet AWID’s researchers have also witnessed an overall decrease in funding to women’s organizations from official bilateral and multilateral aid agencies. The reasons include the 2008 global financial crisis, increasing numbers of conservative governments, and public pressure to decrease progressive foreign aid.

International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), one of the traditional funding sources for women’s rights groups, have transitioned from the role of “intermediaries” to on-the-ground implementers, expanding their local presence in emerging economies and competing with women’s rights organizations to tap into funding for development work.

Headlines don’t tell the story

Whatever the headlines, the numbers tell a different story: for all the talk of “investment” in individual women and girls, there is no evidence of more funding for women’s rights organizations.

In 2010, women’s rights groups, which AWID defines as organizations or groups “with a primary focus on promoting women’s rights, gender equality, and/or empowerment,” had a combined income of $106 million USD. Compare this to the funds available that same year for the big INGOs, including $309 million for Greenpeace Worldwide, $1.4 billion for Save the Children International, and $2.6 billion for World Vision International. Simultaneously, INGO contributions to women’s rights groups were also down significantly. In 2005, 14 percent of women’s rights groups’ income came from INGOs; in 2010, that number had dropped to 7 percent.

Instead, women’s organizations are increasingly generating income from other sources. AWID’s 2011 global survey was completed by 1,119 women’s organizations from more than 140 countries, the largest number of respondents to date. Of these, 645 specified their funding sources; 38 percent said they received support from individual donors, 37 percent raised money from membership fees, 29 percent relied on income-generating events, 28 percent said they received money from women’s funds, 13 percent noted contributions from multilateral organizations and public and private foundations, and 11 percent said they received funding from bilateral agencies, national governments and INGOs.

Historically, women’s funds such as the Global Fund for Women and Mama Cash, as well as many national and regional women’s funds, have provided the most flexible funding. Collectively, however, these groups do not provide sums significant enough to sustain the women’s movement. In 2010, 42 women’s funds worldwide reported income of about $54.5 million. Private foundations are an important source of support as well, but foundation giving to women’s rights is largely stagnant overall.

As the numbers show, individual giving is emerging as a new trend, with membership fees and income-generating activities as primary sources of support for more than one-third of the sampled organizations.Further, 17% indicated they had never received external funding from donors, but had relied on combinations of income-generating activities, membership fees and other self-generated resources. Respondents noted that self-generated resources help provide a basic level of financial security and can be used as a stop-gap measure in times of funding constraints, providing freedom and flexibility in resource allocation. However they do not account for a very substantial amount of overall income.

As always, there is a need for a balance between local and international funding. The problem is not whether external funding comes with a western or private-sector agenda, but whether local activists and populations have a say in how those agendas are set and addressed. If funders make good faith efforts to work with local communities, there will be no confusion over whose needs are being met, and whose values are being upheld.

A shift from ‘aid’ to ‘investment’

It is one of the striking paradoxes of the moment: On the one hand, progressive civil society actors and funders argue for development cooperation and funding to fulfill state and international commitments to human rights and environmental standards. On the other hand, development agencies and the private sector search for “best practices” to spark “investment.”

In 2010 for example, the MasterCard Foundation launched a partnership with Equity Bank Kenya, the Equity Group Foundation and the Kenyan government, committing $15.5 million to support employment for more than 600,000 Kenyan women and youths. The three-year program includes financial education and one-on-one mentoring and training for select “high-potential entrepreneurs.” The program was to provide scholarships for top-performing students at risk of not completing secondary school. Equity Bank made available up to $200 million in credit for women and youths in the training program, and the Kenyan government set up a $40 million fund “for financial institutions to engage in lending to youth.”   

This “aid-to-investment” paradigm shift reflects the growing influence of the private sector and rapidly changing notions of development and philanthropy. Investments in individual successes and empowerment are important. On their own, however, these contributions cannot ensure lasting change for generations to come. The aid-to-investment shift also threatens the survival of women’s rights and other social movements, and threatens their work for structural change.

Time to update strategies

Women’s rights organizations and donor allies need to assess this changing funding context and figure out how best to engage with new actors while maintaining their transformational strategies.

AWID has proposed a number of possibilities, including:

  • Move out of the comfort zone: Women’s rights groups need to understand the tremendous diversity among funders, and ask themselves: “Who else is working with women and girls, and how can we work together?”
  • Be at the table, not just on the agenda: Women’s groups can learn from their counterparts in the labor and other movements about when or if to engage with relevant actors and spaces. It is important that this effort be proactive, so that our proposals and priorities are shaped by us and not for us.
  • Communicate what counts: Women’s rights groups should keep pushing back against the current mania for short-term results and “return on investments.” Instead they need to focus on communicating meaningful change and work collaboratively to communicate the women’s movements’ broader impact.
  • Collaborate on mobilizing resources: Working together to raise money can create tension, but it also can “expand the pot” and reduce time and energy wasted on competition.

Women’s rights organizations and movements have never enjoyed easy access to financial support. Yet none of the historic and global advances in women’s rights –reproductive choice, access to education, and freedom of movement – would have been possible without their persistence and resilience.

We must build on this legacy and overcome, yet again, the challenges of mobilizing resources for lasting change.

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