What is social justice funding? – From noblesse oblige to solidarity

Firoze Manji

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life’, to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so these hands – whether of individuals or entire people – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural, it is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.
Nelson Mandela at a public rally in Trafalgar Square, London, February 2005

A funder said to me recently that ‘the poor are so busy trying to survive that they don’t have the luxury of being concerned with human rights or social justice’. Under any circumstances, I would have been mildly irritated by this remark, but that it was made during a visit to Rwanda – a country that experienced in 1994 a genocide that annihilated nearly a million people in the space of a few months – left me profoundly shocked. What, I wondered, would those who watched their impoverished and undernourished children being butchered with machetes have made of this remark? What about the thousands of women who were sexually violated before being slaughtered? Were they too preoccupied with where the next meal was coming from to care about their rights?

But her remark made me wonder why it is that we are not shocked by the effects of poverty, which take more lives than civil wars or political violence: 11 million children die each year before they reach the age of five because they are not immunized, or because they do not have access to safe drinking water, or as a result of the debt crisis. [1] In many developing countries, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death among women of reproductive age – 585,000 women die every year from such causes, fewer than 1 per cent of them in developed countries, demonstrating that these deaths could be avoided if resources and services were available.[2] Why is it that such atrocities are not considered an injustice?

Poverty as a violation of rights

The difficulty is that poverty tends to be viewed as a problem that is infinite and incurable, and to do with standards of living, and debate then turns around what is a ‘minimal’ or ‘acceptable’ standard – is it $2 a day or more? And who determines that standard? The crassness of the debate can be illustrated if we look at a parallel: how much freedom should men allow women? Should the extent of their liberty be set by men at some ‘minimal’ or ‘acceptable’ level? Why then should the ‘haves’ determine what standard of living should be afforded to the ‘have-nots’?

If poverty were regarded, argues Pierre Sané, ‘as a massive, systematic and continuous violation of human rights, its persistence would no longer be a regrettable feature of the nature of things. It would become a denial of justice. The burden of proof would shift. The poor, once recognised as the injured party, would acquire a right to reparation for which governments, the international community and, ultimately, each citizen would be jointly liable. A strong interest would thus be established in eliminating, as a matter of urgency, the grounds for liability. This might be expected to unleash much stronger forces than mere compassion, charity, or even concern for one’s own security.’[3]

The limits of the rights approach

The so-called ‘human rights approach to development’ has become a catchphrase among both development agencies and funders in recent times. But what exactly does it mean? Is it, as Pierre Sané suggests, a process of declaring poverty to be a gross and repulsive violation of human rights, requiring us to support social movements to claim reparation for injustices suffered by the millions? Or is it a way of dressing up the ‘business as usual’ of development in more radical-sounding vocabulary?

Elsewhere I have argued that development organizations have long played a role in depoliticizing poverty. In the past, this discourse was framed ‘not in the language of rights and justice, but with the vocabulary of charity, technical expertise, neutrality, and a deep paternalism (albeit accompanied by the rhetoric of participatory development) which was its syntax’.[4] While the language may have been modified to incorporate the vocabulary of human rights, there is little evidence of any change in the types of programmes or projects that are funded and implemented. Are human rights about to become depoliticized in the same way as poverty? If that is the case, it’s hardly surprising that many in the South are deeply cynical about the nature of the ‘rights-based approach to development’.

International human rights organizations claim that human rights are universal. But, as Issa Shivji points out, rights tend to be universal in their proclamation but limited in their application.[5] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948 when the vast majority of the world’s population was enchained by colonial rule, and had neither a say in its formulation nor rights conferred by it. And what are regarded as ‘rights’ in a particular society at any given time, and incorporated into legislation as such, may not necessarily equate with social justice. In a society where slavery was tolerated, for example, ensuring that the rights of slaves were properly protected would ignore the larger injustice of the existence of slavery at all.[6]

Today, there are still polarized debates about the precedence and priority of rights: in market-based economies, greater weight is given to civil and political rights, with pride of place going to private property rights. In the third world, much greater emphasis is placed on social and economic rights. Redress for the former can be sought in court by individuals, but no mechanism exists for seeking reparations for infractions of social and economic rights. Also, violations of social and economic rights apply not just to individuals, but to large sections of the population. This is why the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights is an important milestone in the history of human rights instruments because it goes some way towards recognizing the rights of groups, including the family, women and children, and the aged and the disabled, who are given the right to special measures of protection in keeping with their physical and moral needs.[7]


Given the problems associated with the term ‘rights-based approach’, many prefer to speak instead about social justice. Social justice is not just about the promotion and protection of human rights. It also incorporates the idea of the struggle for emancipation from social, political and economic oppression. That is to say, it is premised on the belief that those who suffer injustice must themselves be involved in actions to eradicate it. The change that social justice seeks to achieve is based on the principle of self-determination. It is not men who will liberate women but women who will liberate themselves by actions determined by them. It is not those who benefit from keeping people poor who will alleviate poverty, but the ‘poor’ themselves who must challenge the systems that enchain them. The motive for funding social justice comes, therefore, not from noblesse oblige (or ‘false generosity’, as Paulo Freire puts it) but from solidarity (Freire’s ‘true generosity’).

Philanthropy, the market and social justice

The market and philanthropy have a long association. The first and most celebrated period of ‘free trade’, from the 1840s to the 1930s, was also a high point of charitable activity in the most economically powerful countries. Private philanthropy was the preferred solution to social need and private expenditure far outweighed public provision. It is not surprising then, with the resurgence of free market economics since the 1980s, that we have witnessed the emergence of philanthropy on an unprecedented scale.

In the colonial era, philanthropy in Africa may have been motivated by religious conviction, status, compassion or guilt; it was also motivated by fear. In Britain and the colonies alike, politicians frequently alluded to the threat of revolution and actively encouraged greater interest in works of benevolence as a solution to social unrest. In short, charity was not designed just to help the poor, it also served to protect the rich.[8] And it still does. A critical approach needs to be made of the role of today’s philanthropy in shoring up social systems, in which gross inequalities of wealth are enshrined and perpetuated.

Not all philanthropy or social investment is concerned with social justice. This is not surprising. As Gary Craig points out in his article on p22, social justice is (or should be) about addressing structural issues and social change. It requires, he argues, an analysis of the causes of injustice and a strategy for addressing them. Structural issues matter, he suggests, because it is the rich and powerful who control these structures and processes. But since it is the rich and powerful who have the means to establish philanthropic foundations, we should not be surprised that relatively few have an explicitly social justice agenda.

The reticence of foundations

The Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF) (see interview with Betty Murungi on p18) is a good example of social justice funding. What is unusual about UAF, however, is that they are overt activists and funders of social change and proud to be so. Relatively few foundations are so bold, especially in the current US political climate where support for social change is increasingly viewed with suspicion and, at worst, seen as potentially seditious. Fear, rather than explicit legislation, leads to reluctance to express views that might mark them out for criticism.

The position for many foundations is therefore not easy, despite the wish of some to be true to their beliefs about social justice. The result is that it makes it difficult for applicants to identify foundations that might support their cause, and it wastes the opportunity for funders to proclaim their vision and to encourage other funders to support these causes. Initiatives such as those of the International Human Rights Funders Group, which have sought to encourage foundations to support human rights and social justice, are therefore important in providing a basis for solidarity between like-minded philanthropists.

Funding for social justice requires much greater flexibility than conventional grantmaking. Most grants are focused on supporting projects rather than causes. Projects usually produce some kind of physical or tangible result or product (bridges, hospitals, latrines or wells, etc) within a relatively short period, often within 1-3 years. But the outcomes of social justice initiatives are often much longer-term. That is not to say that their achievements are not measurable, but the changes they achieve are more often qualitative than quantitative. It is in recognition of this that many social justice funders prefer to make grants that are not assigned to specific activities but provide core funding for the grantee. This approach requires courage on the part of the funder and it is one that should be more widely practised.

Speaking the same language

But the problem doesn’t always lie just with the foundations. Foundations have their own agenda for what they wish to achieve and grantees are the means by which they achieve it. Unfortunately, organizations applying for funds often mistakenly believe that foundations are there to help them achieve what they want. Organizations whose work focuses on social justice often fail to do their homework about how to engage funders in a dialogue when their vocabulary may differ. Foundations that don’t see themselves as social justice funders may nevertheless be interested in supporting initiatives that will contribute to social justice ends, but the work has to be presented in a language that resonates with what the funders themselves want to do. That is not to say that organizations need to change their missions and objectives to suit the funder (although many do precisely that), but rather that they need to find the vocabulary to articulate their needs in terms that allow a dialogue. The less explicit foundations are about their own agenda, the more difficult the dialogue between the two sides becomes.

A case of schizophrenia: funders and fundraisers

A particular set of difficulties arises with organizations that sit, as it were, on both sides of the begging bowl – who are both funders and fundraisers. These include international development NGOs such as Oxfam, Save The Children, ActionAid, Christian Aid and Comic Relief. This duality often leads to a form of schizophrenia. As funders of social justice initiatives, they will require their ‘partners’ (their current euphemism for grantees) to involve the poor or the oppressed in the formulation and implementation of the work for which funding is sought, to work in solidarity with the oppressed, to renounce all attempts to present the poor as objects of pity. Yet these same organizations, in their role as fundraisers, will dispense with such requirements: the poor are never involved except as objects of pity. Thus ActionAid, with its radical agenda of social activism, raises funds through child sponsorship; Oxfam reduces its programmes to widget-sized micro-initiatives (£10 will buy X amount of whatever). One of the founders of Comic Relief once complained to me that fundraising for disability was really difficult because the disability lobby simply wouldn’t allow Comic Relief to portray disabled people as objects of pity. Presumably, this organization succeeds in raising millions by portraying pathetic images of Africans, using what Rotimi Sankore has termed ‘development pornography’, because it is too far from Africa to feel the ire of the African lobby![9]

Creating a relationship of equals?

Foundations that fund social justice – that is, support the transformation of power relations in society – need to address the question of the relations of power they have with their grantees. Many donor agencies have grappled with the challenge of involving their ‘partners’ in the decision-making process. Some have devolved grantmaking to local representative organizations. Others, especially those wanting to reduce the cost of processing multiple small grants, have experimented with awarding block grants that a local organization or consortium then administers in smaller grants to grassroots organizations. But this in itself creates a problem: an NGO working in the katchiabadis of Karachi with a range of grassroots organizations in the slums, once explained to me that they refuse to accept such block grants. To do so, they argue, would be to dramatically alter the nature of their relationship with the grassroots organizations. The moment they hand out money, they become donors, and their grassroots partners become recipients. And that, they feel, is a relationship of unequals, a relationship of power over others. They value their relationship with their genuine partners, and are therefore wary that money would change their relationship.

And therein lies the problem for philanthropic institutions that are keen to support social justice initiatives. To be effective, they need to be as close as possible to those whose struggles they support. Ideally, they want their grantees to be involved in the decision-making process. But the moment their grantees become part of the funding process, their own relationship with their constituents is potentially altered.

1 http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Facts.asp

2 UNICEF (1996) The Progress of Nations UNICEF, New York.

3 Pierre Sané, ‘Poverty, the next frontier in the struggle for human rights’, in F Manji and P Burnett (2005) African Voices on Development and Social Justice Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam, pp210-214.

4 F Manji, ‘The depoliticisation of poverty’, in Development and Rights, in D Eade (ed) (1998), Oxfam GB, Oxford, pp12-33.

5 I Shivji (1989), The Concept of Human Rights CODESRIA, Dakar.

6 The Greeks and Romans held slavery to be just, and therefore made laws that protected the rights of slave owners. The same was true centuries later in Europe and the US.

7 K Kibwana, K A Acheampon and M Mwagiru Human Rights and Diplomacy in Africa: a critical perspective, see http://www.kent.ac.uk/politics/research/kentpapers/kibwana.html

8 F Manji and C O’Coill, ‘The missionary position: NGOs and development in Africa’, in International Affairs 78/3 (2002), pp567-83.

9 R Sankore (2005) ‘Behind the image: poverty and “development pornography”’, in Pambazuka News No 203. See http://www.pambazuka.org

Guest editor for the special Alliance feature on ‘Funding social justice’ Firoze Manji is Executive Director of Fahamu, an organization committed to using ICT for social justice (http://www.fahamu.org), and editor of Pambazuka News, the electronic weekly newsletter and forum for social justice in Africa (http://www.pambazuka.org). He can be contacted at firoze@fahamu.org

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King Baudouin Foundation keeping an ear to the ground

Stakeholder engagement is a serious business for the King Baudouin Foundation’s social justice programme. It has established a Listening Network, one of the objectives of which is to bring to light new or forgotten forms of social injustice so that the groundwork for a workable solution may be laid.

Though the Belgian government at various levels is responsible for tackling most of the country’s social problems, a foundation can play a vital role by getting closer to the people to discover forms of social injustice that might otherwise remain hidden. To this end, KBF has identified more than 250 individuals from different backgrounds to provide stories of the social injustices they discover in their working and living environments. The Listening Network has cast its net wide. As well as social and educational workers and representatives from the NGO sector, it has recruited police officers, shop owners, pharmacists, butchers, newsagents and hairdressers. Also involved are journalists, trades union representatives and religious leaders.

For those members of the Network who are uncomfortable with the writing process, journalists conduct an interview and compile a report. In 2004, 240 stories were registered, clustered around 65 themes. These were discussed by a Decoding Committee which then decided which themes would be tackled through KBF’s various programmes and projects.

Though this form of stakeholder involvement is still in its experimental phase, it is showing promise. Fourteen projects have emerged from the work so far, covering a wide range of issues, including young runaways, the plight of foreign domestic workers, the status and treatment of foreigners in Belgian prisons, and the problems of the elderly (in Belgium, the majority of the population over 80 are women and they face problems such as isolation and lack of mobility).

See http://www.kbs-frb.be

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Funders meet with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 17-20 April, a delegation of funders from the US, Europe and Latin America visited the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva. The International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) – an international network of grantmakers committed to human rights – organized the visit to learn about the inner workings of the OHCHR and the Human Rights Commission and how they protect and promote human rights around the world.

The 20-member delegation met with the newly appointed High Commissioner, Louise Arbour, and heard about her plan to move the UN agency more directly and rapidly into implementation of the standards that have been defined and refined over six decades. As funders, delegates recognized the urgent need for the OHCHR to develop private funding sources, particularly as the High Commissioner presses governments more vigorously to uphold universally agreed upon human rights standards. IHRFG can help here by raising the profile of OHCHR in its programmes and on its website, but a number of individual members may possibly fund OHCHR. One member (Ford Foundation) is currently an important funder.

The delegation also met with other UN agencies in Geneva involved in the promotion and protection of human rights, with Geneva-based human rights organizations that facilitate access to the UN system for human rights groups around the world, and with a number of European Foundation Centre members that fund human rights work.

The visit ended with a working meeting with EFC colleagues to explore opportunities for transatlantic cooperation and coordination around shared human rights concerns. A committee of European funders – both those who joined the delegation via the EFC and European funders who are already IHRFG members – was formed to plan specific future steps.

For more information about IHRFG, or to join, please contact coordinator Mona Younis at MYounis@mertzgilmore.org or visit http://www.HRfunders.org

To download Funding Human Rights: An Invitation (a collection of human rights success stories), visit http://www.HRfunders.org or you can order a copy via email at info@frfunders.org

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