Donors are not investing in a resilient civil society in Latin America, but philanthropy bodies stand out


Clara Bosco


These last years have marked the tipping point of a growing disconnect between citizens and public institutions in Latin America. There is a wide array of reasons for this: almost 65% of Latin Americans live in poverty or vulnerability with inequality rising in the region. In the meantime, education, health care and justice institutions, to mention a few, are weakening, deteriorating basic social services; corruption remains a big challenge and extremist and anti-rights movements are gaining power.

Popular discontent has manifested in massive social mobilizations and unrest, with citizens, activists and civil society organizations (CSOs) leading the charge to challenge unequal and repressive public policy, hold governments accountable and bring about real, positive social change. Many of these groups are now the target of repressive governments and non-state actors who oppose their goals.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor platform, half of the region’s population lives in countries where civic freedoms are severely restricted. Latin America is also one of the deadliest regions in the world for human rights defenders. And, in many countries, CSOs face unjust restrictions imposed by states on their ability to obtain financial, material and human resources, adding up to the financial challenges caused by the withdrawal of international donors from Latin America.

This is the moment when CSOs in Latin America need more than ever a stronger citizen and cross-sectoral support, including visionary and courageous funders that can commit to the long-term and offer resources that enable CSOs to deliver local and innovative solutions without having to conform to government or donor agendas. However, a new study published by the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, and the Colombian social impact startup, Innpactia, shows that donors are not prioritizing support for CSOs’ resilience and sustainability.

The study, “Access to Resources for Civil Society Organizations in Latin America: Facts and Challenges,” analyzed over 6,500 calls for proposals providing resources for development in Latin America, for a total of almost US$5.9 billion, published between 2014 and 2017 by 2,000 donors. Its findings also highlight that donor investment in civil society’s critical and unique roles, like monitoring human rights violations, building coalitions and advocating to challenge the status quo, is very low:

  • There is a limited offer of exclusive resources to the sector and high competition under disadvantageous conditions. Latin American CSOs had exclusive access to just 3% of the sample’s total funds, while 34% of the funds were offered exclusively to private sector actors. Most of the resources accessible to CSOs were offered to multiple actors that, in many cases, are bigger and have more capacity to compete. In the sample analyzed, Latin American CSOs had to compete with international CSOs in 74% of calls for proposals, with private sector actors in 71% of cases, with national state entities in 45.5% of cases, and with international and intergovernmental bodies, such as United Nations agencies, in 36% of cases.
  • Almost no core, flexible support is provided. Less than 1.5% of the resources tracked offered flexible funding for operating and internal strengthening costs. The lack of such resources restricts the ability of CSOs to consolidate, grow, and become more sustainable, as well as to innovate and work with autonomy, self-determination and flexibility.
  • Scarce funding is available for political and social influencing, human rights and democracy protection. Less than 6% of the tracked funds accessible to international and Latin American CSOs supported these activities that are vital to promote a fair society, particularly in the context of increasing restrictions on the civic space in Latin American and attacks against vulnerable populations, like indigenous peoples and migrants.

What is institutional philanthropy doing different and better to support CSOs?
The study also analyzed where the funds came from. Not surprisingly, state cooperation, including bilateral aid, was the main source of the resources, providing over 50% of funds accessible to CSOs. Non-corporate philanthropic foundations emerged as the second source of funding in the sample, offering 17% of the funds (surpassing multilateral aid) and the largest number of calls for proposals accessible to CSOs. The sample tracked 821 funding proposals from state cooperation and 1,178 from non-corporate philanthropic foundations.

This indicates that, on average, institutional philanthropy offers resources in a less concentrated way, which could be a step towards ensuring that—through smaller grants—smaller groups can access these opportunities.

The contribution of corporate philanthropic foundations should not go unnoticed, as they provided 6.9% of the funds accessible to CSOs analyzed in this report.

We also checked which donors are providing more support to critical pockets of civil society. Some progressive philanthropic bodies, such as Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, Astraea Foundation, and the Global Fund for Women, are amongst the main and few donors tracked offering core, flexible funding and resources to civil society. They are also in the top 10 of donors supporting CSOs work with vulnerable groups, like human right defenders, indigenous peoples, women, and migrants.

These numbers and behaviors show that institutional philanthropy can and is playing a key role in supporting civil society in Latin America. We hope that more philanthropic bodies, especially domestically, follow these examples, providing more resources for CSOs’ sustainability and institutional strengthening, for frontline groups and change-seeking strategies. This will enable civil society to lead a strategic battle against forces that perpetuate inequality and repress civic space, which often hold great capital and power.

Clara Bosco, CIVICUS civil society resourcing advisor

This article  was originally published in Philanthropy in Focus on 31 October 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

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