Southern philanthropy to the rescue?


Ine Van Severen and Mandeep Tiwana


In a time of receding foreign aid and restrictions on international funding, civil society organisations working on social justice and human rights are facing challenging times. Could the growth of philanthropy in the global south provide a partial answer?

Human rights and social justice focused organisations in the global south are facing double trouble. On the one hand, traditional sources of funding for their work from western democracies are becoming scarce. On the other hand, governments in the global south are increasingly using divisive rhetoric against civil society organisations (CSOs) uncovering corruption and serious rights violations by accusing them of being driven by foreign agendas. As regulations to limit international funding for civil society proliferate, there’s an urgent need for southern philanthropic institutions to step up to the plate to support the human rights and social justice agenda of civil societies at home.

The current refugee crisis has seen a number of European governments which traditionally support human rights defenders diverting their aid budgets to meet domestic challenges of refugee reception and rehabilitation. Other governments such as those of Australia which provide support to advocacy CSOs have also drastically reduced their funding. CIVICUS’ analysis of official development assistance (ODA) by global north countries for civil society organisations in the global south reveals a situation that has best plateaued.

At the same time, several governments in the global south continue to raise the bogey of the ‘foreign hand’ when challenged by organisations that rely on international sources of funding for their work. South Africa’s Security Minister told Parliament in April this year that some NGOs were working to destabilise the country and had received international funding to do so. There are also moves afoot in the country to introduce a new non-profit organisations law which many believe could affect the ability of outspoken organisations’ to receive much needed international funding. India’s notorious foreign contributions law already subjects CSOs to a web of discretionary bureaucratic red tape in order to receive international funds. Victimisation of Greenpeace India under this law for challenging the government on its economic development and environmental policies has been well documented.

In other countries such as Mexico stringent anti-money laundering regulations hamper CSOs’ ability to access funding from international sources as foreign donations are regarded as “vulnerable activity”. Additionally, several traditional donors are shifting their priorities away from supporting civil society in the so-called emerging middle income economies of the global south. It’s been reported in Brazil that after the global financial crisis and the country’s elevation to middle income status, at least ten international agencies withdrew their funding.

In light of above developments, there is pressing need to ensure that CSOs in the global south working on sensitive human rights and social justice issues have access to vital resources to operate. Without prejudice to the right of civil society under international law to seek and secure resources at home and abroad, the growing number of philanthropic initiatives in the so called emerging markets of the global south have a responsibility to step in and fill the gap as they too have a stake in creating accountable, inclusive and democratic societies. Arguably, in the current context, where local funding has become imperative rather than an option for advocacy CSOs to prevent backsliding on hard fought human rights standards.

But this will require a mind-set change for many southern philanthropists. Even as philanthropy is expanding rapidly in the global south spurred by a growing middle class and increasing numbers of so-called high-net-worth individuals, philanthropic initiatives – whether of the corporate or familial type – are still centred around notions of charity which don’t resonate with the needs of human rights advocacy oriented CSOs. This partly relates to a strong preference on tangible/ physically visible results and a desire for immediate return on investment. But despite these challenges, there is an important role for human rights oriented CSOs to play in improving the quality of education, health, nutrition and poverty alleviation programmes that most southern foundations are adept at funding.

Moreover, there is added value in collaboration between global south foundations and social change seeking CSOs, partly due to their location in the same societies whose problems they aim to address. Because they are locally rooted, southern philanthropic institutions have the potential to truly understand the local context and support work on addressing the inherent causes of rights violations. In addition to funding, southern foundations can use their influence to create opportunities for meaningful dialogue between government and civil society and catalyse networking, learning and skills building opportunities.

Some southern foundations are working on innovative approaches to empower social justice advocates. The Azeem Premji Foundation, Raith Foundation, Arab Human Rights Fund and several others have understood the value of active citizenship and democracy support programmes as a means to transform societies. Conversely, in a time of increasing restrictions, CSOs in the global south will also need to focus on cultivating better relationships with domestic philanthropists and help them understand how their work on social justice and human rights contributes to building fairer and more peaceful societies. All this will require serious cultural shifts in current ways of working.

Mandeep Tiwana is head of policy and research at CIVICUS.
Ine Van Severen is a policy and research analyst at CIVICUS.

For more information see Southern philanthropy, social justice and human rights CIVICUS discussion paper.

Comments (2)


This is a lot of great information! This was a great article This is extremely helpful! I’m on the foundation side of things and this sparked many ideas that we can use in our communication work. Thank you!


Interesting article ,a collective effort is urgently needed to put pressure on particular governments like mine(Uganda) which is trying to silence CSOs because of its bad record on human rights abuses.. My advise to the West, is to come up with a mechanism through which local organisation keep receive support .

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