From Inequality to Creativity: Funding Human Rights Organizations in the Global South

By Jose Rafael Espinosa*


A couple months ago, the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group published a research report on the funding of the global human rights movement. The results were expected and provocative. They were expected because they confirm a long held suspicion: funding in the movement is unequal. Most funds not only come from but also stay in the Global North.  These results were provocative because they force the Global South to ask itself old questions and find new answers looking forward.

First let’s review the diagnosis and then let´s move on to the questions and answers it raises.

Funding mainly comes from the United States and Western Europe (the biggest funders are the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation who in 2010 donated 159.5 and 140 million dollars respectively, followed on the list by Atlantic Philanthropies who donated “only” 48.2 million dollars).

The Global North is not only the biggest funder it is also the region that receives the most funds. In 2010, sixty-nine percent of the funding (about 830 million dollars) was given to organizations in the United States. Of this money, about twenty percent (approximately 166 million dollars) was given to organizations in the United States who distribute the funds to other countries or to global causes. The rest, about 54 percent of the total funding of the movement stayed in the United States. Both in terms of where the funds originate and where they are spent, the current state of affairs favors the Global North.

This inequality would not be so troubling if there wasn’t a shortage of funds. The situation in Latin America is telling. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), about 50 percent of the funding for civil society organizations in Latin America comes from foreign government aid and development agencies. Yet this funding is shrinking fast: between 2005 to 2008 funding rose an average of 37 percent, but from 2008 to 2011 it only rose three percent and inflation in Latin American averaged 6.1 percent. In sum, not only did the funding stop growing, it actually shrunk.

What then, are the challenges for the organizations of the Global South?

To answer this question, one must take a more comprehensive look at the human rights movement, as Dejusticia’s César Rodríguez-Garavito recently argued. This type of examination must be sensitive to the diversity of actors, causes and strategies within the movement. To adequately respond to this unequal funding landscape and the increasing shortage of funds one should seriously consider this diversity. It requires more work in networks, more collaboration, to articulate and exploit this diversity and give the Global South greater representation in the global movement.

Specifically, one must answer three questions or challenges. Here I provide some general thoughts that don’t necessarily fully answer these questions, but they can serve as starting point.

The first question is how to redirect existing funds. How can we get more of the existing funds to the Global South?

It is important for funders to seriously consider the inequality between the North and the South. Funders should make sure to finance a diverse set of organizations in the Global South, and especially, to support South-South and North-South international collaborations. This does not mean that all funding should be directed to the South, it means that, at the very least, the current tendencies should be reversed and that the South, which has greater needs, should receive the largest share of the funds. The recent Ford Foundation initiative to fund seven Global South organizations so they can become global organizations is a good starting point (in full disclosure, Dejusticia receives funds from this initiative).

While it is true that some Global South countries today have stronger economies that in the past, this does not mean that the human rights challenges in these places have diminished. Economic growth is not without its risks (as the example of mining illustrates). Many of these countries still have historic debts to pay and their government institutions are not necessarily democratic or transparent enough to finance and guarantee civil society participation.

The second question is how to generate new sources of funding?

It is important to create and encourage a philanthropic culture in the Global South. Yes, this has its risks. Philanthropists have their own interests and this can affect the independence and efficacy of their grantees. However, we should be creative in searching for alternative sources of funding so it does not affect independence. For example, fundraising efforts amongst various organizations, diversifying and multiplying funders, and strengthening a political base as a shield against financial pressures. This takes me to the next point.

How do we create new types of organizations that make the Global South movement more attractive to donors and also more efficient and independent in their work?

We need to be more creative to stay in the funding market. We need to think of new types of organizations (new work models, new strategies, new causes) that can adapt to the current and future demands for human rights protection. For example, we should create more interdisciplinary organizations, in which lawyers and social scientists converse with engineers, economists and biologists, etc. Unfortunately, the movement has more organizations that money and new ideas. We must innovate, we must incubate and support new ideas, new types of organizations.

Answering these questions is not easy, but these are some ideas to spark a broader discussion. This is an invitation. An invitation to respond to a difficult landscape of inequality and shortage with creativity, with new ideas, not just to get more funding but also to be more efficient and independent.


*Jose Rafael Espinosa is a researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice and Society)