In 2002, a small group of dedicated activists and funders set out to do something different in human rights philanthropy. Dismayed by the dominant top-down approach to social justice, we launched the Fund for Global Human Rights to shift power and resources into local hands. Since then, we’ve distributed more than $100 million in grants to local human rights activists around the world – and seen how, with the right resources, they can not only challenge inequality but build something better in its place.
Although we were not the first to begin directing resources past international charities and into the hands of local groups, we stepped into a yawning gap where few organisations in countries outside of North America and Europe had access to the capital they needed. Until then, the human rights agenda had been effectively shaped by a handful of large, international organisations based almost exclusively in the global North. These organisations publicly pressured abusive governments to right past wrongs and improve their human rights records – a strategy that came to be known as ‘naming and shaming’.
As significant as their achievements were, their framework also reflected certain biases – privileging political and civil rights above economic and social rights, emphasising elite advocacy over constituency mobilisation, and relying heavily on legal tools and lawyers to advance their agendas. Our aim was to deliver money to under-resourced activists working in underserved communities, and to support locally developed solutions that went beyond naming and shaming.
Eighteen years and more than $100 million later, we’ve learned some key lessons about what kind of support builds more effective local human rights movements—and how to make donors’ dollars count.
First, let the activists set their agenda. From 10,000 miles away, it isn’t easy to fully comprehend context or pinpoint what local organisations need to catalyse change. That’s why we’ve turned the power of the purse over to them. When activists from Uganda’s Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) wanted to build a comprehensive model for preventing violence against women, they used grant monies for everything from radio programs to nurturing nascent activists. Their model showed a 50 per cent reduction in domestic violence in the communities they serve and is now influencing the work of activists in other countries, who are benefitting from CEDOVIP’s innovative approach and success.
Second, take risks. Donors are often reluctant to support emerging voices in challenging conditions but, in our line of work, the return on a risky investment can change lives. We supported a handful of independent human rights organisations in authoritarian Tunisia for years, when others told us that promoting human rights in a police state was a fruitless endeavour. After mass protests overthrew the country’s longtime strongman president, members of those established groups were ready to act. They played a critical role in Tunisia’s post-revolution transition to democracy, drafting a new constitution that protects women’s rights, expelling police officers with histories of torture, and installing legal protections for freedom of the press.
Third, build long-term relationships. One-off grants or initiatives aren’t enough – deeply rooted systemic issues take time to address. In 2004, I met with a new women’s rights organisation called el Amane in Marrakech, Morocco, that had an ambitious vision for promoting the rights of poor women but was viewed with hostility by local authorities and couldn’t rent office space. The Fund became an early supporter and, sixteen years later, el Amane serves hundreds of women and families every year from expansive offices underwritten by the local government, representing victims of violence, helping women secure their rights under a reformed family law, and building popular support for their cause by training journalists on covering human rights.
Fourth, focus on collaboration and building constituencies. Funders must go beyond simply providing financial support – mobilising movements depends on fostering collaboration rather than funding a single group. Groups from eight Latin American countries asked for funding for a regional effort to force abusive mining companies to end their operations. Together, they were able to build a collaborative campaign and stage public events that have raised public awareness around the effects of mining on indigenous communities.
Over the last eighteen years, these strategies have enabled us to mobilise grassroots social justice and human rights movements that are increasingly robust, politically powerful, and broader. The success of civil society, however, has inspired anti-democratic forces to push back. From the United States and Hungary to Brazil and India, we’ve seen violent crackdowns on civic space. International organisations are being squeezed out by hostile governments. And as authoritarian regimes fail to meet the demands of 2020, they have intensified efforts to silence critics.
In contrast to this sorry record, local human rights movements have proven anew their value in navigating the upheavals of 2020 – from providing healthcare and food to communities hit hardest by COVID-19 to rallying millions around the call to end systemic racism.
The world desperately needs these vibrant, creative civil societies. Our next $100 million – and the $100 million after that – will continue to shift the power into their hands, enabling local leaders to stand up to the mounting challenges they face. If local movements can thrive even in highly repressive environments – which they do – and if they can expand their constituencies by showing the value of their work – which they have – investing in their visions is our best hope in these uncertain times.
Regan Ralph is the president and CEO of the Fund for Global Human Rights.