Against a backdrop of growing global threats to women’s rights, we are also witnessing a profound moment for progress. Women and girls are rising up, leading movements, and creating transformational change in their communities and around the world.
This resurgence in women’s rights activism has been global in nature, and recent years have seen a huge increase in the attention given to women’s human rights and gender equality by international donors and INGOs.
This is all to be welcomed but, as our research on solidarity in the international women’s rights movement illustrates, there is a critical debate to be had about how the system for funding women’s rights programmes is replicating structural inequalities and prejudices that exist around Southern and women-led organisations.
Despite evidence that national and local women’s rights organisations and movements have the most decisive impact on securing improvements in policies and legislation that protect women’s rights – the trend has been away from funding such groups, with the bulk of the funding for civil society organisations being directed through INGOs, mostly based in the North.
A 2016 study by the OECD Development Assistance Committee found that, of the $35.5 billion that donors gave to support gender equality in 2014, around $10 billion went to civil society organisations (CSOs) but only eight per cent of that went directly to CSOs in developing countries – leaving 92 per cent for INGOs. This inequality has only grown in recent years, with the amount of support going to organisations in the developing world declining since 2012, while funding to INGOs has increased.
When funding is not provided through civil society organisations, it is often channelled through large private sector consultancies and embassies. These organisations are firmly part of the establishment; and are not necessarily known for being inclusive of either women or minorities, particularly at senior levels.
Those we spoke to felt that underpinning this inequality in access to resources, as well as visibility and attention, are long held prejudices around women in the South and in developing contexts. They are too often portrayed as universally uneducated and impoverished, lacking awareness of their rights and any agency to change their lives – requiring Northern organisations to guide and advise them. This is far from true but it is, unfortunately, continuously reinforced in the communications of many international organisations which emphasise their role and expertise at the expense of acknowledging the role and work of local activists or a more nuanced portrayal of the women they seek to ‘empower’. There are even examples of INGOs co-opting stories from the work of local women’s rights organisations for fundraising without acknowledging their role or giving them the money raised. This is a vicious circle: a lack of visibility for activists in the South, their work and successes hampers their own
efforts to raise funds.
There are also complaints from women’s rights organisations in Africa and elsewhere that, despite their warm words about the importance of local organisations, INGOs tend to develop separate parallel programmes without taking advantage of or building on the knowledge and existing work of local and national organisations.
There is, however, a growing debate in the development and philanthropic community about shifting power and decolonising development and funding relationships. It is hard to see how funding for human and women’s rights can hope to achieve its objectives if it continues to replicate rather than challenge existing power structures and relationships. There is a huge missed opportunity in recognising that those who are embedded in the communities they serve and represent are best placed to address discrimination, inequality and marginalisation and that they are not just the most legitimate force for change, but the most effective.
The development community is not unaware of the case for change – see, for example recent discussions at a major conference of the UK’s development NGOs, and the thoughts of Oxfam GB’s outgoing chief executive on power and partnerships. But as the localisation debate in the humanitarian sector illustrates, there is a huge, and increasingly embarrassing, gap between rhetoric and action. Aid scepticism, the multiple challenges faced by INGOs and populism in the North all act against taking the right steps. Ultimately, however, as with any shift in power, much of the reason that change is slow to happen is that some have to lose power for others to gain.
Rebecca Hanshaw is UK Director at Global Fund for Women UK
Claire Hickson is Managing Director at Trio Policy Ltd