Why local funding is good but not enough


Barbara Klugman


One of the primary rationales for local groups to generate their own funding is to ensure their ability to shape their own agendas and strategies without interference.

To its advocates, the need for local funding has become all the more pressing in the context of closing of spaces for civil society, in Jenny Hodgson’s words, using ‘the onslaught as an opportunity’.

However, is local funding always the best solution? Writing in 2016 Open Global Rights about why local funding is not always the answer, Hussein Baoumi pointed out situations in which the political context puts significant restrictions on the possibility of local groups generating their own resources.

A recent review of a Ford Foundation $54 million initiative to strengthen the influence of human rights groups in the Global South suggests additional situations in which foreign funding may be essential for impact.

In addition to the size of budgets available, the Ford initiative recognised that expertise and experience from groups in multiple countries may be needed to influence multi-national forums and transnational corporations whose policies and behaviour affect people on the ground across the world.

It also found that human rights groups need to target whatever part of the ‘system’— policies, practices or perspectives of governments, whether local or national, and regional or international intergovernmental bodies—is responsible for the problem they are addressing. This suggests that to shift an agenda involving global players, strategies must flow back and forth between the local, national, regional and global levels. Yet data from the Foundation Center and Human Rights Funders Network found that philanthropy continues to favour funding of international NGOs (INGOs) thereby anointing them the rightful arbiters of what issues to address, how to frame them and what strategies to use to influence global institutions. This limits the ability of local groups to put new issues on the global agenda, shaped in ways that more closely resonate locally.

There were significant achievements when national groups in the Ford Foundation initiative were given funds specifically for international advocacy. Examples include the way that CELS in Argentina mobilised global civil society around the negative consequences of the ‘war on drugs’ in relation to human rights abuses. This work ultimately influenced the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold a hearing in March 2014, a Human Rights Council first resolution on drug policy in 2015, and the UN General Assembly to hold a Special Session on the world drug problem in 2016.

Another example was the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa sharing of expertise on how to use strategic litigation to hold national governments accountable for education, strategies which groups as far as Kenya and Hungary then took up. This ability to frame issues and share lessons is usually far beyond the capacities of local community resource mobilisation, yet it is essential for building a global community addressing global challenges.

With Ford resources, Conectas has been able to host its International Human Rights Colloquium to enable learning and strategizing which in turn supports knowledge dissemination by authors from the Global South through its international human rights journal, SUR, whereas mainstream purportedly ‘international’ human rights journals disproportionately carry northern authors.Forum-Asia has been able to establish a Global Advocacy Learning Program on Human Rights and Development across the region.

For this kind of global learning and addressing global forces, resources from larger philanthropies become essential, and outside of the US and Europe, these tend not to be domestic.

The fact that with the end of the Ford initiative groups have had to curtail advocacy strategies which were beginning to gain traction speaks volumes about how international funding is at times essential for enabling local voice.

Barbara Klugman is a strategy and evaluation practitioner based in South Africa

The author wishes to thank the review team, Denise Dora, Ravindran Daniel, Maimouna Jallow and Marcelo Azambuja, for their contribution to this article.

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