Intersectional work in West Africa needs intersectional funding to match

Rosalie Nezien and Rebecca Reeve

Most funders have a niche – any website of public and private philanthropies alike will highlight the region, issue, or criteria that its philanthropy works on. But the issues facing many of us today are too complex for a niche. They call for an intersectional approach.

Foundation for a Just Society explores how intersectional work being done by feminist and LGBTQI activists to address the interconnectedness of global crises currently playing out in the Sahel region of West Africa can offer a blueprint for a new funding ecosystem.

Many of the most prevalent issues in West Africa are rooted in global phenomena and systems. While funders may be stuck working in regional or thematic silos, feminist and LGBTQI activists across the Sahel and West Africa region are building impressive coalitions and movements that are taking on these global challenges with comprehensive and intersectional analyses, and working to elevate and support those most affected in their region – all the while working in partnership with other movements to get there.

The challenges facing the region are many, but the organising being done to combat these challenges is stronger. The funders that support this work need to be ready to transcend thematic and regional silos and build a multi-tiered and responsive funding ecosystem that is ready to boldly and flexibly fund the intersectional organising work that West African feminist and LGBTQI activists are leading.

The Sahel region: Global connections to a local crisis

The Sahel region in West Africa has been in the midst of tremendous geopolitical change for some time. Over the past two years, and against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the region has been rocked by a series of coup d’états: in Guinea in September 2021, two coups in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, in Chad in May 2021, and most recently in Burkina Faso in January 2022 and again in October 2022. This wave of political instability in the Sahel region is extremely complex, with internal and external interconnected causes. Internal factors include insecurity due to violence by extremist groups and community militias; forced displacement; consequences of climate change; corruption; and impunity for economic and political crimes. As for external causes, according to some analysts, Russia may be involved in the return of the military to power in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso. There is also a drastic increase in illicit weapons flowing into the region, making the situation increasingly dangerous.

According to an article published by US media outlet The Intercept, US-trained military officers have led coup attempts in the West African region at least nine times since 2008. In addition, the influence of France, with its colonial past and strategic interests in West Africa, is often perceived by the average citizen as one of the greatest catalysts of the ills that plague the subregion. While this last point may raise some eyebrows, it is undeniable that the international community has been somewhat oblivious to the gravity of the consequences of the political instability and insecurity that are prevalent in the region, leading the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to label it as the world’s ‘most forgotten crisis.’ Ultimately, the longstanding insecurity has led many people in the region to question the effectiveness of democratic institutions altogether.

Funders that support this work need to be ready to transcend thematic and regional silos and build a multi-tiered and responsive funding ecosystem that is ready to boldly and flexibly fund intersectional organising work.

In addition to the geopolitical shifts and the rise in military-led governments, West Africa more broadly is experiencing the effects of climate change, which is a major threat multiplier. In a 2018 USAID climate risk report, West Africa – and the Sahel region more specifically – were named as a global climate change ‘hot spot,’ where rising temperatures are set to make an outsize impact on food security, livelihoods, agricultural yields, and economic and governance stability. The Sahel is already experiencing a dire food crisis, that is only growing as a result of the war in Ukraine and the import of foreign grain, which is dampening local production. Climate change and industrial agricultural policies geared towards export are also noted as central influencing factors. It is known that oil, gas, coal, industrial logging, agribusiness, and large-scale mega development projects such as dams are seriously contributing to the climate crisis, yet international financial institutions, such as the African Development Bank, continue to invest in the proliferation of these industries on the continent.

West Africa is also experiencing the same rise of right-wing extremism that is being felt all over the world. Alongside the closing of civil society space, the backsliding of democratic norms, and the rise of military-led governments comes an increased presence and influence of international and domestic conservative forces that have been successful in pushing hateful rhetoric against LGBTQI people. This hateful rhetoric has in turn led to very direct consequences for the LGBTQI community – including a substantial rise in violent attacks (especially in Ghana and Senegal), and a slate of new proposed bills that criminalize LGBTQI people and condone violence against them. The forces behind the anti-gender ideology movement are nebulous and many, but the increase in anti-LGBTQI sentiment aligns with the massive influx of funding from roughly 20 United States Christian Conservative organisations known for fighting against LGBTQI rights, access to safe abortion, and other sexual health and rights, amounting to more than $54 million USD since 2007.

Intersectional activism in the region

These are just a few of the many examples of seemingly localized and regional phenomena and issues that are in fact directly linked to global trends and influence. Whereas many human rights philanthropies may not yet have incorporated a systemic and intersectional analysis into their grantmaking strategies, activists and organisers working on these issues in the Sahel and West Africa more broadly, most certainly have.

Feminist organisations across the region are leading the way by making spaces and platforms for civic and political engagement. Their work that touches upon the entire spectrum of human rights and intersect with social change, gender justice, bodily autonomy, safe abortion, food sovereignty, climate justice and labour rights issues. National human rights coalitions and networks in West Africa are working to preserve civil society space for everyone – no matter the issue organisations work on. They are creating new spaces of reflection, collaboration and building alliances with peer groups looking at different angles of the large struggles affecting their well-being and rights.

A prime example is Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF Africa), a feminist pan-African rapid response grantmaker and convener with deep roots in West Africa. UAF-Africa has been deploying a bold strategy to strengthen the resilience of activists, human rights defenders and their movements through transnational and cross-movement building. Through the provision of financial resources (including rapid response, protection, advocacy and alliance-building grants) as well as direct accompaniment support, UAF Africa is working to advance the rights of marginalized womn* and defenders in various forms. UAF-Africa also supports feminist groups to research and document their own perspectives and political analyses so as to increase indigenous knowledge production and sharing of different narratives on issues affecting the work and well-being of activists across the continent and in the Sahel region.

Many human rights philanthropies may not yet have incorporated a systemic and intersectional analysis into their grantmaking strategies, but activists and organisers working on these issues in the Sahel and West Africa more broadly, most certainly have.

Organisations across thematic issue areas are also engaging in the debate on climate justice and Just Transition. The framework of a Just Transition provides a vision for a global economy that allows for the transition away from extractive industries and labour exploitation, to a regenerative economy that centres the health and wellbeing of all people, communities, and the planet. Although this framework was first formed by labour unions and environmental justice groups, it aligns closely with the vision for a feminist economy that many organisations across issue areas, espouse.

Across West Africa, WoMin African Alliance is working with organisations to support local organising and resistance against extractive industries, such as rubber and palm oil plantations and mineral extraction. Through its Right to Say NO campaign in West Africa, WoMin works with local communities affected by the Orezone Gold Bomboré mining project in Burkina Faso and with fisherwomen affected by a coal-fired power plant and a steel plant in Bargny, Senegal, to support women’s efforts to organise and demand their rights to Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

The framework of a Just Transition applies to WoMin’s work, and also guides the work of Nous Sommes la Solution, a rural West African women’s movement for food sovereignty that works across several countries in the region. Nous Sommes la Solution envisions a world where rural African women are at the centre of agricultural policy and decision-making at all levels, and where food sovereignty, agroecology, and indigenous agricultural practices are celebrated and embraced as transformational forms of resilience against the global climate crisis. This work is especially pertinent, given the food security crisis mentioned previously. In the eleven years since the network was first launched, NSS has grown into a veritable feminist movement with a membership of over 175,000 individuals and 500 rural women’s associations across West Africa.

LGBTQI rights organisations such as Initiative Sankofa de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ISDAO) and Queer African Youth Network (QAYN) are also incorporating intersectional systemic analyses into their work to support LGBTQI people and organising in West Africa in the context of a rise in hate crimes against them. Through ISDAO’s activist-led participatory grantmaking body, resources are flowing to grassroots LGBTQI groups across the region that are working on a variety of projects to influence public discourse, conduct advocacy, and provide resources for collective care to LGBTQI movements. In Burkina Faso, QAYN is training and engaging with the next generation of activists in the LGBTQI movement through the Tassi Hanbè Interdisciplinary University workshop, most recently held in July 2022. This space brought together LGBTQI activists, feminist leaders and academics from different sectors for training and skill-building activities in various areas including project management, personal and organisational leadership development, advocacy, fundraising, and strategic communications.

Initiative Panenetugri pour le Bien-Etre de la Femme (IPBF), a feminist organisation and a young women-led participatory grantmaking fund, is finding new and inventive ways to get resources to girls and young feminists in nine countries of West Africa more broadly who are working on issues relevant to their communities. IPBF is also creating new convening spaces through its Feminist Institute which is bringing together an intergenerational slate of feminist activists working on a wide variety of issues, to build political unity and solidarity amongst different factions of the feminist movement. With a particular emphasis on building youth leadership, IPBF is building platforms and spaces where young feminists are gaining the tools, organising knowledge, and networks that they need to be active players in public discourse and civil society in this critical moment.

Together, all of these activists, organisations, and movements are working through their entry points on the same sphere of interwoven and interconnected struggles. And in fact, for any of these struggles to truly succeed, all of them need to succeed. Funders need to be engaging with this mentality as well.

The funding system needed to meet this moment in the Sahel Region

Instead of a funding system that exists according to thematic and regional silos, funders need to be thinking about their work with this metaphorical sphere in mind. Each activist, organisation and movement mentioned above is working towards the same interconnected mission from their respective entry point on that sphere while keeping an eye open to seeing and collaborating with the work that others are also doing. Funders need to be thinking along these same lines.

Thankfully the sector has made some progress in recent years towards funding multi-year grants, increasing flexibility in reporting requirements (or abolishing them altogether), and increasing coordination amongst funders, all of which are important and much-needed improvements. But it’s also important to zoom out further and think holistically about what a long-term, intersectional, and feminist funding ecosystem needs to look like in order to support the organising work being done by activists in the Sahel region.

FJS’s work experience in the region leads us to give a loud shout-out to what activist funders and practitioners such as Thousand Currents and many sage voices in philanthropy have been saying all along: We all have to do better by effectively decolonizing our funding practices and ceding decision-making power and resources for communities to, ‘not potentially recreate harmful practices in their home countries,’ but to create the environment they need to thrive in and that we would all eventually want for ourselves.

As professionals in the philanthropic sector, if we remember that our accountability is ultimately to the movements and activists we serve, ‘taking risks’ – funding in creative, abundant, and expansive new ways – becomes the most obvious choice in the world.

In addition, we think it is vital to fund locally-owned funding mechanisms such as community, women’s, activist-led funds such as ISDAO and IPBF, who through participatory and activist-led models, are putting decision-making power and resource ownership back with communities themselves. Funders like FJS, who have the grantmaking regulatory limitations of a private foundation, and are based in the Global North, will never be able to reach communities that are left behind (i.e. LGBTQI, indigenous, trans* and young people for example) in the way that women’s, community and activist-led funds are able to. The growth of the strength and reach of these local funding mechanisms is critical for the well-being of all of civil society, especially for the most marginalized populations.

For funders based in the Global North, developing a local and regionally-based network of allies and resource persons is also a vital complementary feature for any grantmaking work. Donors may be well-intentioned in wanting to support the needs of their grantee partners through connections with consultants and other resource persons. However, this support too often comes in the form of elevating perspectives and expertise from the Global North, instead of lifting up the knowledge of local resource persons- who undoubtedly understand the context and working environment for civil society organising with a much greater degree of nuance than anyone coming in from the outside. Trusting local expertise and knowledge is essential for its own sake, and is a must in order for donors outside the region to embrace the principles of do no harm.

West Africa social justice movements and civil society organisations are funded by so many different types of donors from around the world, including public and private foundations, community foundations, regional women’s funds, bilaterals, international NGOs, and even high-net-worth individuals, to name a few. At FJS we are inspired daily to rethink our own funding practices to be more feminist and flexible, by watching and engaging with how other donors are working. In a feminist funding ecosystem, each type of funder has a role to play in collectively supporting the intersectional work being done in the Sahel. The more that donors can remove their blinders and learn from one another, and then coordinate and pool our resources together to make them more accessible to activists affected by multiple oppressions and issues in the region, the better.

We want to close with an invitation to re-examine the concepts of risk-taking and accountability. Within funder spaces, the idea of what it means to ‘take a risk’ in funding a new group or movement is often code for hesitations around how funds will be managed, or how decisions about the project will be made. It comes from a place of donor control. But let’s practice for a second flipping this paradigm – what happens when we think of ‘risk’ instead as what would happen to feminist and LGBTQI movements in the Sahel if funding levels continue to not meet this moment? What will happen if groups and movements could not continue their work to create and imagine a different future?

That is a reality that we do not want to imagine. The risk of doing nothing or little, whether it’s in the Sahel, or any region – is much, much greater, than the risk of funding. As professionals in the philanthropic sector, if we remember that our accountability is ultimately to the movements and activists we serve, ‘taking risks’ – funding in creative, abundant, and expansive new ways – becomes the most obvious choice in the world.

Rosalie Nezien is the Program Officer for Francophone West Africa at Foundation for a Just Society. Rebecca Reeve is the Program Associate for Francophone West Africa at Foundation for a Just Society.

Comments (2)


Great article & thanks to both Rosalie and Rebecca ! I hope it would inspire donors who supports Feminist organization in West Africa. Hugs


Dear Rosalie and Rebecca, My name is Achomba H Achomba and i am writing to you from Cameroon. I am the founder and executive director of The Initiative for Embracing Humanity in Africa (IEHA), a rights defense organization focusing on equality and discrimination against the LGBTIQ community here. Our organization is operating in the epicenter of a conflict zone and the people we are defending and actually taking care of are effected more than the rest of the population. Our strategy is simply to protect and rebuild lives and we have managed to do this by operating two safe homes/ shelters for lesbians & gays and intersex people who happen to be victims of torture. Cameroon has truly cruel laws against LGBTQ people and the society at large is typically even more hostile. As an organization we are facing all sorts of threats, regular attacks and the conflict zone situations continuously make matters even worse. I am excited to know that you have a Francophone West Africa program. This email is thus to check how your grant making cycles function and how we can apply. We currently have a frightening emergency situation in our hands and we would thus love to apply for a grant that will relieve us of some of trouble we have had to endure since November. Thank you very much for making time to read this email i we look forward to hear from you. Kind regards Achomba

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

The Pakistan floods: Now is the time to act

Daniel Rostrup