Closing Space for Civil Society / Human Rights Defenders / IHRFG Events

Turning the Human Rights Lens on Ourselves: Rethinking Human Rights Grant-Making with a Grassroots Agenda

IHRFG recently held its semi-annual conference and institute in New York, where participants debated, critiqued, re-framed and re-claimed the rights-based approach and the human rights brand. Following the event, several funders shared their reflections and lessons. Click here to read more.

By Obed Kabanda, One World Children’s Fund Advisory Council member, Founder and Executive Director of ACODEV-Uganda –

e1c10595-0e99-4828-a31a-0df047f92782July 14th and 15th of 2015 marked a new thought process for the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) as funders discussed a new agenda for funding human rights work amidst swift changes in the operational environment for civil society across the world. At its semi-annual meeting hosted at New York University, nearly 200 representatives from human rights funders across the globe gathered to learn from one another and to re-think their grant-making under the theme “The Rights Based Approach: The Right Approach? Turning the Human Rights Lens on ourselves.”

A closed meeting limited to only funders – including donors from the U.S., Europe, Latin America, Asia, and emerging African-based funders like African Women’s Development Fund, Women Fund Tanzania, Urgent Action Fund – Africa and Fond pour Les Femmes Congolese – discussed human rights funding mechanisms and the need to embrace a rights-based approach in the changing and narrowing human rights and civil society operating space. I had an opportunity to attend the meeting on behalf of One World Children’s Fund (One World) as an advisory council member, separate from my prime role as Executive Director of Action for Community Development (ACODEV), one of the strong partners to One World. It was an exciting but also an important opportunity of reflection, to sit around the table, listen and talk with other international human rights funders.

Major highlights of the discussions ranged from the need for “undercover” human rights funding through unconventional channels; refocusing human rights advocacy campaigns and increasing recognition of key human rights defenders; opening up and supporting civil society innovation hubs for joint responses and campaigns among civil society organizations (CSOs) and donors in volatile environments; and working closely with strategic partners in the South by funding them to directly reach grassroots communities in an innovative and secure way.

These strategies are coming up as a result of the continuous debate on proliferation of restrictive laws on civil society and cross-border philanthropy. Civil society in countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Russia, China and Cambodia are already having their operational spaces limited.

The restrictions, if unabated, could lead to the extinction of civil society operations, especially those working to defend human rights. The question I raised – and that I still raise – to fellow international human rights funders is how proactive we are in creating and strengthening spaces for civil society in countries where operational spaces are still open, without waiting to take on reactive mechanisms when spaces are closed. Strategies like funding for strengthened human rights CSO collaborations, timely and strategic CSO engagement with governments on NGO law amendment bills, peer learning and timely support for civil society innovation hubs are key to sustaining CSO operations in shrinking operation spaces.

The funders meeting also marked the launch of the 2012 online human rights funding map and interactive website that show a visualization of global human rights grant-making by region and by funders, including One World.

Analysing the funding map, you observe a serious mismatch in funding to global programs compared to human rights and development challenges facing the global south. It is notable that, in 2012, an equivalent of $237 million went to support human rights programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is out of a total of $1.8 billion given in 19,000 grants by 774 foundations in 44 countries globally.

North America human rights-focused programs alone accounted for $821 million, which is more than three times the total funding that went to support Sub-Saharan human rights programs. So a question any grant-maker should ask with this analysis is: where are the greatest human rights issues that need more focus of resources?

Are we as grant-makers prioritising our resources well to where they should be more focused?

Are the expected human rights changes we aspire for as human rights grant-makers in the global south equivalent to the investment we are making in global human rights, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa?.

Unresolved questions that remained bothering me at the end of our two days were: why don’t we have the frontline human rights grantees at the table to inform the re-thinking process with us as funders? How effective are we being as international human rights funders in ensuring that grant-making is human-rights based, inclusive and interconnected?

With these unresolved questions, however, the principle of One World Children’s Fund’s grant-making remains strong, transparent, and willing to evolve and grow in response to turning the human rights lens on itself. As human rights funders, we must look at empowering communities to voice their desires and development needs and work collaboratively with peer frontline human rights defenders and stakeholders.

Global philanthropists and international human rights funders must increase spaces for grassroots human rights leaders and defenders to define the human rights response agenda by practicing participatory grant-making. We must increase our capacity to listen to local voices by creating a horizontal communication and feedback mechanisms from our grantees that enhance shared power in defining priorities and human rights responses.

The rights-based approach emphasizes the principles of inclusiveness and participation, and as international funders, we must seek to live to these principles by critically exploring the utility and efficacy of funding with a rights lens.

We must be willing to continue to reflect and challenge our own grant-making assumptions and approaches by supporting locally-driven grassroots funding mechanisms that are not only cost-effective but also directly focused on grassroots human rights needs and less questioned amid increasingly repressive environments worldwide.

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