Interview – Betty Murungi

Urgent Action Fund-Africa was established in Kenya in August 2001. The basic aim: to support the work of women in Africa through rapid response grantmaking and unique initiatives that support women’s leadership in peace-building and justice processes. UAF-Africa thus aims to provide women with the resources required to respond effectively in conflict situations.

Will it be possible to build a philanthropic base in Africa to support these activities, Caroline Hartnell asked Betty Murungi, Director of Urgent Action Fund-Africa. And where is support most likely to come from?

Why was the decision made to set up Urgent Action Fund-Africa? And what does it hope to achieve?

Urgent Action Fund (UAF) was established in 1997 by three women’s rights activists who were strongly committed to the idea of making small grants to enable women activists to respond effectively in unanticipated situations. UAF priorities include conflict areas and situations of escalating violence. With many armed conflicts currently raging in Africa, UAF-Africa was established in 2001 to enable UAF to respond better to the needs of African women in conflict situations. UAF is an activists’ fund run by an activists’ board, some of whom live in conflict countries.

The basic aim of UAF-Africa is to promote the human rights of women and girls by making grants to activists. Our three thematic areas are peace-building and transitional justice; promoting understanding of regional instruments for the advancement of women’s rights; and rapid response grantmaking. But UAF’s core programme globally is rapid response grantmaking. Here the three categories of grant are situations of armed conflict; precedent-setting legislative or legal action, and protection of women human rights defenders.

These rapid response grants – what are they and what are they for?

Rapid response grants are basically grants that don’t take nine months to make. When the women who founded UAF sat around a table in early 1997, they realized that the biggest gap in funding for women human rights activists related to the lack of readily available small grants to enable them to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that may advance the rights of women or respond to unanticipated situations that threaten to undermine such rights. The actions that UAF rapid response grants support are often very strategic in their effect and reach.

This lack of funding is certainly a problem for activists in Africa. You make an application for a grant and it’s reviewed by a board which reviews applications perhaps twice a year. But in situations of conflict, you cannot wait for the twice-yearly review board to meet. So the UAF board came up with the idea of the rapid response grant, which would enable them to make money available very quickly, within a week in fact. And we are very proud to be able to say that we respond to requests within 72 hours. The board works very quickly, consulting each other by email and phone. A decision is communicated to the group or activist within a week.

Consider our protection grants for women human rights defenders. If somebody’s life is in danger, waiting six months is obviously not going to be any good. The same is true of our precedent-setting legal action grants. If you’re going to file a legal action, you’re taking advantage of an unanticipated opportunity that has presented itself. You need a decision quickly otherwise the opportunity passes.

That is what rapid response grantmaking is all about. Our grants are quite high risk but we are aware that you have to take risks in this kind of grantmaking.

Does this level of urgency apply to all your grantmaking?

No. At UAF-Africa we have other programmes where the grantmaking supports more the ‘strategic’ intervention where the time urgency is not necessarily so great.

Take our peace-building and transitional justice programme – an area that is unique to UAF-Africa. This is based on our strong belief that women should be able to participate freely in all aspects of conflict transformation and post-conflict reconstruction. You hear a lot about the need for women to be in parliament, but women also need to be in the places where peace is being negotiated – which are often also where the political arrangements are negotiated that determine how women are going to be placed in emerging societies. We feel it’s really important for women activists to be able to be present at these events. But a grant in this area won’t necessarily have to be made in a matter of a week.

Going back to the issue of risk, what do you mean when you say your grantmaking is quite high risk? Are you referring to the risk that the grant will be misused, or that it won’t do any good in the end?

The high risk is directly related to the rapidity with which grants are made. We do due diligence like every other grantmaker, but we don’t have six months to examine every detail of a proposal.

We also consider the grants to be high risk because they are sometimes made to unknown entities – UAF doesn’t often fund large, well-established, well-known groups that have sizeable international funding already. The good things that happen in our communities often happen because women who are not known are doing the work. When you’re making grants to unknown entities, you obviously run the risk that your grant is not going to do what was set out in the grant proposal.

However, even with some of the more known groups that we make grants to, we normally like to have two endorsements. We rely heavily on our network of advisers all over the world for these endorsements. We also try to go on outreach missions ourselves as much as possible, to enable us to meet the people who are working on the ground. But of course you can never get to all of them, so to a certain extent you do run a risk.

Do you make grants to individuals, or is it always to a group, however unknown?

Yes, we do make grants to individuals. These are usually protection grants to women human rights defenders, and these grants are always confidential. If you are making a protection grant to an individual, you don’t want to broadcast it to the whole world and so put the life of the activist in danger. But this applies only to the protection grants to individuals.

In practice, have you had many bad experiences or does this high risk grantmaking on the whole work?

In seven years of making grants – and this is globally because UAF-Africa started making grants only in May last year – I think we have had one, at most two, experiences where evaluation has shown that perhaps the money has not been applied for the reasons for which it was requested. What we have done to try to deal with these situations is to come up with a really good evaluation system. From our grantee reports, it is clear that the money so far has gone to really deserving cases and causes.

Can I move on to the funding and where it’s going to come from? I assume at the moment it’s going to be coming from UAF in the US, but are you also starting to fundraise in Africa?

We started fundraising in Africa even before the independent office was established in 2001. UAF and UAF-Africa are one organization with one board of directors, so this has been joint fundraising. But because UAF-Africa has additional programmes, we have been fundraising from here in Kenya too.

So, for example, we have received a lot of support from the Ford Foundation’s East Africa Office since 2000, and since 2003 we have received support from the Ford Foundation’s Special Initiative for Africa, now Trust Africa, which has supported our work around transitional justice and regional instruments for advancing women’s rights. We have also received support from, among others, HIVOS, OSI and Cordaid; from the UK Department for International Development, and from the Dutch Government, which is very interested in peace-keeping in the Great Lakes Region.

But we haven’t received any money from African governments yet. Perhaps we should approach some of them, perhaps the South African government or the Nigerian government. These are rich African governments that should support our work.

What about individual donors? And what about individuals in Africa?

Yes, we do receive funds from individuals, mainly in the US, some of whom support the work of UAF-Africa. Individuals were very instrumental in supporting the work of UAF at the beginning. We receive support from some smaller family foundations as well as faith-based funders.

We have established a fundraising programme here in Kenya. Right now, we’re interested in funding work to address issues of conflict, and I’ve decided that we must target individuals. And not just individuals – we’re also interested in getting support from corporations working in the region.

One of our fundraising strategies has been to set up donor circles. Our first donor circle is meeting to discuss ways of supporting programmes in Kenya that reduce violence against girls – members want to make sure that the funds they donate to UAF-Africa are used within East Africa.

What about raising money from corporations?

Raising money from multinational corporations working here and from African-owned businesses is work in progress at the moment. We are concerned not to raise funds from businesses that themselves abuse the rights of women and girls in their employment practices or otherwise, so this is something that will need a little more thought.

In the long run, do you feel there are sufficient resources in Africa to support the kind of grantmaking you want to do?

I am completely confident that there are enough resources here. We just have to do a bit more work to set out what we’re doing and why it is so important. I think people on this side of the world have seen the kind of damage that conflicts do to communities, so yes, I think this is going to be successful. We have received small amounts of money and volunteer time from some individuals in Kenya as well as from the donor circle.

Going back to the donor circle, does it on the whole consist of very wealthy people? And are they women only or women and men?

Well, our first donor circle is actually made up entirely of men! Women have been giving of their time and money without being in a donor circle – we have a lot of women volunteers – and a lot of the in-kind donations that we receive are from women, but this first donor circle consists of men. They are not extremely wealthy; they’re just well-off, middle-class men, mainly professional people, and they’ve decided to conduct the meetings and run the group themselves.

Eventually we hope to create other donor circles, perhaps with young feminists as well. UAF has been receiving support for a couple of years from a group of high-school girls, which is really inspiring. These are the kinds of things that we want to build on and encourage in this country and see where it goes.

What do you see as the main barriers to raising funds in Africa?

One thing you must understand is that Africans have a very philanthropic nature. We in this country have always given money to educate children, finance weddings, pay hospital and funeral bills, build schools and hospitals. It has been very informal but it’s not something that is new or alien. In Kenya, this philanthropy was abused by state interference and corruption. So even in philanthropy we must uphold democratic practice and free will.

But are there barriers to raising money for the particular work that you’re doing?

Yes, one barrier is that even as we discuss philanthropy we have to take into account the economic injustices that exist in Africa. Social justice philanthropy addresses injustice and the causes of injustice – UAF specifically tries to address the injustices that women continue to suffer. If you want to raise funds to deal with that kind of issue, you have to increase the understanding of the society in which you want to raise the funds. We have to raise issues of cultural extremism, fundamentalism and patriarchy, and we have to be really sensitive in the way we deal with them. Some of these issues have now become global: the whole question around fundamentalism is not an African issue, it’s a global one. Cultural extremism is a global concern. Discrimination against women exists everywhere and there is sometimes a sense of fatigue when one raises these issues.

So there’s all this resistance. ‘OK, you want to raise money so you can give it away to advance the rights of women and girls. How come? Why now?’ So we have to do a lot of sharing of knowledge and working to create a sense of how important the work is. And that sharing of knowledge of course adds to whatever financial capital this philanthropy brings in because it is not just about the money, it’s about raising the understanding of the community in which you are working and breaking down barriers. This will eventually make it easier for us to activate the philanthropic nature of our community members.

The need to raise funds to reduce or prevent conflict is very easily understood by communities in which conflict has occurred, so fundraising for this is the really easy bit. But in countries where there hasn’t been open all-out war, there is a sense in which people want to bury their heads in the sand and not get into conflict prevention discussions. But they identify with general women rights protection.

Sometimes you hear of organizations doing social justice grantmaking that try to play down what they’re doing when they’re fundraising so that it doesn’t sound too threatening to people. But that doesn’t sound like something you’d do?

Oh no, we don’t do that at all. All our materials and brochures come out with examples of the most cutting edge grantmaking we’re doing. We’re not making any apologies for being activists ourselves, nor for being feminists, and we’re not shying away from the fact that we make grants to groups that are engaged in sexual rights work. For example, we recently made a grant to a group of commercial sex workers in Uganda for their advocacy for better treatment by the law. And it’s all out there in our materials. So we’re really up front about the work we’re doing. Women’s rights advocacy is often threatening, but so is the reality of dealing with legal discrimination, sexual violence during conflict, effects of patriarchy, bad governance and lack of democracy, which are what make the advocacy necessary in the first place.

If you looked say five years ahead, where do you see your best prospect in Africa for fundraising? Companies? Individuals?

I think that our best prospect is individuals. They are more likely to get sold on programmes for change because they have more to lose if things break down. We’re talking about corruption, war and destruction, poverty. We’re doing work around women. You speak to men about their daughters and all of a sudden they sit up and listen very carefully. So I think we have a great opportunity to raise funds from individual men. Of course I realize that we cannot at this time do without foundation funding and bilateral donors, but we must try and wean ourselves from this, diversify our funding base to include the local community.

As far as women are concerned, they have everything to gain by ensuring that laws and constitutions that do not discriminate against them are adopted in their various countries, and making sure the world roots out the kind of violence we have seen and continue to see every day. Just yesterday (16 March) 38 people were murdered, most of them young children and women, murdered as they slept in their homes in northern Kenya because of a boundary dispute. This is how conflict begins in this part of the world – battles over natural resources egged on by political interests. After the murders yesterday, some of our volunteers called me in the office and said, ‘What can we do? Can we go over there in teams and speak with the elders and community leaders?’ That’s the kind of interest they have in peace-building.

For me in five years I’m looking at a situation where Urgent Action Fund-Africa is being sustained by African individuals and African corporations who have realized it is about their own life, about their own continent, about every conflict in Africa.

And do you see this support coming equally from men and women?

Yes, I do. I have a feeling that women will do a lot more of the work, but they will also be able to mobilize resources. Men need to get a lot more information but there are very many concerned men here in Africa. Obviously they control more of the resources, so we are targeting them to make sure they give to these things that affect their daughters, wives and mothers.

Betty Kaari Murungi is a feminist lawyer with expertise in international human rights law. Since 1998, she has been a consultant and legal adviser to the women’s rights programme at Rights and Democracy on gender-related crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She currently serves as Director of Urgent Action Fund-Africa.

Betty Murungi serves on the Board of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice – formerly the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice – for the International Criminal Court. She is a member of the Kenya Bar and received the national honour of the Moran of the Order of the Burning Spear (MBS) in December 2003 for her work in human rights. She can be contacted at


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