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Introducing this week's theme: Funding for human rights

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Human rights work depends on the voluntary efforts of activists, concerned citizens, and government personnel. Big transformative ideas, however, also require organizational infrastructures, and these require resources to thrive. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Funding for Human Rights.

James Ron
10 November 2013

openGlobalRights’ first theme, Emerging Powers and Human Rights, addressed the rise of newly powerful states and their place within the global human rights system. Those articles presented a series of debates over the challenges to realizing rights within specific countries and regions, while also looking at some of the larger trends characterizing rights work today. The difference between international and local agendas became especially pronounced as authors debated whether human rights movements are products of masses or elites.

Introducing this week’s theme

How do human rights groups worldwide mobilize the money and other inputs they need? What impacts do these methods have on their work and relations with governments, the general public, and others? During this week’s new theme, Funding for Human Rights, openGlobalRights editor James Ron and authors from around the world share their views:

The week kicks off with J. Brian Atwood, former head of the Development Cooperation Directorate and, before that, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID),who chronicles the increasing collaboration between development, democracy-promotion and human rights groups. Over the last decade, these diverse actors have increasingly overlooked their competing ideologies, techniques and priorities to embrace a common “rights-based approach” that seeks to develop civil society capacity and empowerment. Lori Allen examines the limits of this approach, however, in the case of Israel/Palestine. Without a political solution to that conflict, she argues, foreign funding does little to affect the broader system that creates abuses while forcing human rights NGOs to spend far too much time demonstrating accountability to international donors.

On Tuesday, Ravi Nair, Executive Director of the Delhi-based South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, discusses the challenges Indian human rights groups face when seeking international funding. The Indian government, Nair says, wields an “antiquated law” on foreign funding like a surgeon’s scalpel, controlling civil society and pushing Indian rights groups to engage in self-censorship. Then, Ana Valéria Araujo of the Brazil Human Rights Fund  highlights problems of NGO financial dependence on foreign money in her country. As the country’s economy grows, she says, international donors have begun limiting their support to Brazilian rights groups. Will domestic funders help replace that money?

On Wednesday, James Ron & Archana Pandya present research on the importance of foreign funding to local human rights groups worldwide. With little work done on the subject before, they have interviewed 233 human rights-related workers from 60 countries, including in-depth, representative samples of NGO workers in Morocco, Mexico and India. Foreign funding, they find, is indeed a major component of most rights-based NGOs’ budgets. Can the human rights style of donorship catch on in the Global South?

Speaking to the heart of this question is Alice N’kom, the first Black woman called to the bar in Cameroon, who describes working towards the decriminalization of homosexuality in her country. Local funding and political support for her cause are in short supply in Cameroon, forcing her to look constantly for funding abroad. 

Christopher Harris, a former long-time Ford Foundation staffer, adopted a more optimistic tone on Thursday, describing the exciting potential of today’s rights organizations in the Global South. Many are pioneering innovative funding structures, he argues, overcoming dwindling Northern aid and its increasingly heavy bureaucratic burdens.

On a more pessimistic note, however, Noam Sheizaf, editor of +972 Magazine, describes the funding predicament of Israeli rights groups working on conditions in Palestine; without foreign aid, they would have very little money indeed.

Dr. Elie Abouaoun, former Executive Director of the Arab Human Rights Fund and current staffer at the US Institute of Peace, makes similar claims about funding for human rights work in the Arab world. Local rights groups often suffer from negative press, and local Arab funding will struggle to emerge until that image is overcome.

Bringing the week to a close, Lucia Nader, Executive Director of the Brazilian rights group Conectas, offers an overview of her country’s “funding vacuum.” Brazil’s rights groups have long depended on foreign funds, she says, but international donors are today giving them less and less. The economy of Brazil and other emerging powers are growing, and donors no longer view their civil society as needy. William Nee, development director at the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, finds similar challenges in China. Although the economy is growing and international donors are pulling out, the country has yet to develop a culture of domestic philanthropy for rights-based civil society.

And finally, Christen Dobsen of the International Human Rights Funders Group and LucÍa Carrasco Scherer and Emelienne de León of the International Network of Women’s Funds offer findings from the first ever data-driven effort to track human rights funding by private foundations.

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