IHRFG conference – Universal Human Rights: What are we sharing across borders?


Natalie Ross


It was clear from the opening plenary of IHRFG’s 2016 conference that those of us working to protect human rights are increasingly feeling the impact of recent world events on our personal lives. It was this weight that motivated speakers to change a planned discussion on sustaining funding for human rights work and instead tell personal stories of how they came to this field, which in turn inspired attendees to share incredibly moving experiences, as well.

Following weeks of tragedies – from Brexit to attacks in Dhaka and Istanbul to shootings in Minnesota, Baton Rouge, and Dallas – it was obvious that although contextualized locally, today’s challenges to human rights are felt universally.

This is a reality conducive to cooperation and comradery. As plenary speakers suggested, experiences with police violence in Brazil might provide insight into how the US can face its own challenges.  And foundations working to support informal social movements globally may have lessons to teach those working today to better support activists in the United States.

The theme of universality was present throughout the conference, including at the pre-conference institute, which focused on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  A small group discussion on universality within the SDGs explored why and how the goals apply equally to global north and south countries, including discussions on the possible unintended impacts of global north countries focusing on the SDGs at home.  Additional conference sessions highlighted shared global challenges impacting human rights organizations in the US and abroad – from strategic communication needs to sustainability challenges to the exploration of new forms of fundraising.

As one opening speaker put it, we need to have a wide-angle lens to see the broader global picture, before zooming into a local environment and determining how best to work with partner communities, organizations, and social movements. But I came away wondering – while we’re using our wide-angle lens, are we sharing what we learn with others?

IHRFG’s recently released Advancing Human Rights: State of Global Foundation Grantmaking report shows that 41 per cent of funding for human rights work in 2013 went to programs in the US, an amount totaling more than $950 million. From the 59 per cent of funding that goes abroad, are programs sharing lessons learned with partners working in the US? Within our own institutions, do staff working on domestic issues share learning with staff focused on global programs?

The SDGs are a framework that challenges all of us, working both in human rights and across sectors, to think differently about how our work in the US and abroad is interlinked. But do we even speak the same language? The closing conference session on buzzwords challenged us to consider if we are communicating in an accessible way that allows others to join the conversation – or are we excluding those not in the know?

There is a lot the human rights community can bring to enhance the cross-border learning and exchange necessary to create a world by 2030 that truly leaves no one behind. While we may all know that human rights are universal (and have always been), the world is looking more and more inward, due in part to a proliferation of populist movements from which not even the US is exempted. In this world, we are left to ask ourselves: How is our human rights community leading the way to share ideas, values, and lessons learned across borders? How can we do better together?

Natalie Ross is director of Global Philanthropy at the Council on Foundations.

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