Funding at the intersection? Navigating the complex world of human rights funding


David Mattingly


Last week’s International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) conference in San Francisco    provided a timely opportunity not only to explore current threats and opportunities in the field but also to continue to define the role of private philanthropy in advancing human rights worldwide.

IHRFG’s most recent survey data shows that in 2011 some 745 private foundations in 34 countries made over 17,000 grants totalling $1.7 billion. While this represents an increasingly robust and diverse field of human rights funders, these resources remain exceedingly modest compared with the systemic challenges we face, and they are dwarfed by the funds that governments and corporations can apply to promote their interests and counter human rights activism.

Moreover, each foundation maintains its own unique set of interests and priorities, making it challenging for rights groups to navigate the field of available resources. These factors make it critical that foundations share information and strategies about how we can most effectively support those who are creating change in their countries and communities.

Despite the varied interests of participating foundations, conversations at IHRFG this year underlined the point that human rights abuses are intersectional and therefore our responses must be as well. Rights groups on the front lines often don’t have the luxury of working on only one issue. In fact, there are many exciting funding opportunities if foundations can calibrate our priorities to take advantage of momentum and the strengths of existing rights groups rather than developing strategies and then seeking grantees working on those issues with the approach we have decided to fund. Some of the most urgent and exciting work presented at the meeting was at the intersection of different issues, such as women and climate change, sexual orientation and gender identity and children’s rights, and human rights and the global economy. Funding at these intersections will require foundations both to adapt their priorities to respond to evolving needs and opportunities and to coordinate with other funders that bring different issue focus and expertise.

It is also becoming clear that we face increasing challenges as the philanthropic community that seeks to support and sustain rights-based activism globally. The past several years have seen an alarming increase in governments enacting legal restrictions and regulatory barriers to NGO registration and activities, and to NGOs’ ability to receive funding, particularly across borders (also known as the somewhat derogatory foreign funding). Human rights defenders have seen their activism criminalized; they also face threats to their physical and digital security.

As the private human rights funding community, we must respond to these existential threats to our grantees and to our continued ability to resource the global human rights movement. We must commit to continuing to deliver resources to groups working in repressive contexts. We should support efforts to challenge restrictions on civil society activity directly as well as to address the drivers and root causes of increased crackdowns on human rights activism.

To counter the narrative of some governments that human rights groups that benefit from cross-border philanthropy are pursuing foreign agendas, we should also support organizations to build their constituencies to inoculate themselves against these charges. Our grantees need to be able to demonstrate that their work is aligned with community needs. Finally, we have a responsibility to help protect the physical and information security of our grantees. At the IHRFG meeting, a working group of funders dedicated to protecting the security of human rights defenders organized a day-long institute on enhancing digital security, particularly in communications between activists and funders.

Other emerging threats come from non-state actors. International trade and investment agreements, negotiated in secret and heavily influenced by corporations, threaten to wipe out hard-won protections for labour, health and environmental rights. In this meeting, human rights funders discussed the importance of learning about and engaging with the rules of the global economy, regardless of the issues we fund. While this can be overwhelming for a funder not already engaged in issues related to trade and investment, there are helpful new resources available such as  Advancing Human Rights Accountability for Economic Actors: An introductory field guide for funders by Daria Caliguire of the SAGE Fund.

The challenge for human rights funders is becoming more complex as we are called on not only to develop new approaches to advancing human rights but also to defend the space for activism and support the security of our grantees. For private philanthropy to continue to play a vital role in promoting human rights we must remain relevant to this evolving context. Coming together as a sector at IHRFG is one important way to reflect on current trends and develop an informed response to threats facing human rights defenders.

David Mattingly is vice president for programs at the Fund for Global Human Rights.

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