IHRFG: Choosing when to take a rights-based approach


John Harvey


‘The Rights-based Approach: The Right Approach?’ was the theme of the International Human Rights Funders Group’s most recent gathering, 14-15 July 2015 in New York City. Having attended IHRFG gatherings for nearly 15 years, I was somewhat surprised by this title – pleasantly so, I would add. I can recall a time when IHRFG’s leadership appeared quite convinced that human rights-oriented funders pursued a superior philanthropic strategy than did other funders. Not so anymore: today’s IHRFG members seem to view human rights-oriented funding as just one of many important tools in their philanthropic toolbox.

Now, what exactly is meant by a ‘rights-based approach’? This too would seem to have evolved within the IHRFG community, becoming more expansive – and, it would seem, increasingly synonymous with what is generally termed ‘social justice philanthropy’. For IHRFG today, a rights-based approach means the following:

Human rights grantmaking empowers individuals, communities and institutions to promote the protection and enjoyment of the rights enumerated … in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and … ideas expressed in more recent international covenants and conventions. [While] these rights apply across all identities … Human rights grantmaking has a special focus on, or duty to, support the efforts of disadvantaged or marginalized populations [and] it seeks systemic change …

The opening session of the conference explored the pros and cons of this rights-based approach: when is a rights-based approach a strong one, and when is it not likely the most strategic intervention for bringing about change? The recent marriage equality victory in the US, a battle fought largely in courtrooms to grant the right to marriage for gay and lesbian couples, surfaced as a great example of how a rights-based approach can succeed. The ratification of the Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was also cited as a powerful tool for advancing the well-being of people with disabilities, at least in some locations: even in Russia, where leaders are frequently quite hostile to human rights activism, Human Rights Watch has had considerable success in advancing disability rights. The government has gone so far as to make a Human Rights Watch report on people with disabilities required reading for government officials. What did the trick? The intersection of shared goals and interests.

When is a rights-based approach not the right approach? Situations of armed conflict may be one. Ariadne Papagapitos of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund noted several reasons why her programme doesn’t use a human rights approach: human rights violations are symptoms rather than causes of armed conflict and a more holistic approach is needed, and policymakers concerned with ending armed conflict are seldom driven by human rights issues. Political and other factors are far more important to them, so the human rights framework falls on deaf ears. Conor Seyle, deputy director at the One Earth Foundation, was also sceptical about the rights-based strategy. His foundation pursues so-called ‘evidence-based approaches’ that at times might conflict with human rights norms. For example, working to bring lasting peace to Afghanistan may entail engaging the Taliban in a way that turns a blind eye to their disregard for human rights. According to Conor, ‘Stopping the bleeding often means taking an approach that is not credible from a rights-based approach.’

As the descriptions of just these two sessions makes clear, this was an exceptionally content-rich conference, par for the course for IHRFG. Breakout sessions explored a range of issues, including women and the war on drugs, promoting racial justice, and the intersection of faith and human rights.

Also quite strong was the networking at the conference, which at IHRFG orients towards an action agenda. IHRFG convenes several working groups, including on human rights defenders; human rights and HIV; conflict and atrocity prevention; and learning, monitoring and evaluation. Most important, in my view, is a relatively new effort, in partnership with the European Foundation Centre and Ariadne, to address the closing space for civil society globally. A report-back on a recent meeting in Berlin to discuss this issue and strategize on how to respond convinced me that this is the most critical issue facing global philanthropy and civil society today and that our sector has the resources to respond.

Some 225 participants from over 20 countries participated in the gathering. I recall my first IHRFG conference in the early 2000s. Back then, all the participants – an entirely US-based cohort made up largely of the big names in human rights funding – could fit around a conference table at the Rockefeller Foundation. Some 15 years later, IHRFG has grown larger and more international than ever, in my view a quite welcome evolution in global philanthropy.

John Harvey is an independent global philanthropy professional

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