August 02, 2016
Over the last decade or so, human rights organizations, democracy activists, journalists, and civil society groups around the world have faced increasing constraints on their work. Legal and administrative barriers imposed by governments have made it more difficult to operate in civic space. Activists have been subjected to intimidation when they gather in public, voice their views, or set up new organizations. In some countries, foreign and local funding for NGOs has been scrutinized, restricted, and even banned. These factors have combined to negatively affect the human rights agenda and have resulted in a phenomenon known as "shrinking civic space" around the globe.
Against that backdrop, human rights funders are doing their best to keep open and, where possible, expand civic space. The International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) and Foundation Center's new report Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking showcases that work in numbers: In 2013, 803 funders worldwide allocated $2.3 billion in support of human rights. The report identifies these funders, the regions and the issues they support, and the populations they target. This year's research also examines the strategies supported by human rights funding. Ranging from policy advocacy to grassroots organizing, the report defines eleven approaches and finds that:
- Activities related to advocacy — to ensure that states and non-state actors recognize, conform to, and implement international human rights standards — receive the largest share of funding dollars (27 percent).
- Capacity-building and technical assistance for civil society organizations receives the second largest share of human rights funding (15 percent).
- Research and documentation — to expose human rights violations and their perpetrators — is the third largest category of funding (13 percent).
What I find most interesting in this research is the amount of funding allocated to grassroots organizing — a mere 2 percent. This statistic aligns with the findings of the Civicus study The State of Civil Society, 2015, which notes that NGOs receive only 1 percent of official development assistance. For local civil society organizations, the picture is even bleaker: their share is just 0.2 percent. So the funding, if available, primarily supports large, high-profile NGOs, whereas those organizing at the community level do not have nearly enough access to resources. In other words, we are not close to "funding the frontline."
Why are funders failing at the local level? Do they assume that if the big groups are supported, change will eventually trickle down to those most in need? One possibility is that human rights funders may not fully appreciate the potential of funding grassroots organizing.
Before I get to that, let's make sure we're on the same page when we talk about the "grassroots." Grassroots organizations consist of rights-holders — people who are directly affected by a problem or whose rights have been infringed or violated. These groups use collective action to address obstacles to the full realization of their constituents' rights, not only locally but also at the national and international levels. They are associated with bottom-up decision making and are seen as being more spontaneous than groups plugged into more traditional power structures. They seek to challenge and change the status quo.