Bilateral and multilateral donors occupy a critical position in the prevailing human rights business model. Their funding is essential for advancing human rights, yet with their current approaches, they may also be inadvertently accelerating the process of closing civic space, argues Maina Kiai (left), the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
Today’s donor models to support human rights causes derive largely from donors’ desire to easily evaluate their contributions and to immediately identify and quantify successes, he writes for Open Democracy:
Social movements are often messy, unpredictable and have long-term visions for social change that are difficult to assess and evaluate. Yet, despite their transformative power, social movements are currently overlooked in donor priorities. …Take, for example, the recent wave of peaceful protests in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Where should local organisers turn to for support, capacity and solidarity? Do the legitimate demands of the people met by state repression and many hundreds of deaths, not deserve more and better support than post-facto funded analyses, reporting, and advocacy? As I reported to the United Nations General Assembly, there is a global trend towards the weakening of workers’ rights that requires human rights organizations—including donors—to urgently include labor rights within a broader human rights agenda.
The current dominant approach by donors reflects the unintended negative effects of donor benevolence, and also a paucity of ambition and an abdication of responsibility, Kiai continues:
- Donors should realign their priorities towards supporting long-term struggles for social justice. Progress in achieving human rights cannot be captured in quarterly reports; sometimes it takes generations. Sincere partnerships involve a multi-annual commitment to the cause and priority should be given to nurturing ideas, promoting joint strategies, and advancing grassroots organizing abilities. This must not only involve a different engagement with existing organisations, but also a proactive approach to identifying and supporting new and emerging social movements, and engaging with actors traditionally side-lined within the human rights field (for example, labor movements).
- Second, donors sincere about supporting civil society should not shy away from frank interactions with national authorities. All too often, narratives claiming that foreign funded human rights work undermines sovereignty or national identity are used by national authorities, even as they beg for this same foreign funding and support. Further, donors seem to retreat more and more to capitals and headquarters, following social change on their screens, when they should be reinvesting in local engagement, accepting that not all investment yields success.
- Third, donors must commit to a results framework whereby seizure of opportunities is favoured over ticking off activities and producing deliverables. This will indeed involve relinquishing a degree of control about the form of the supported human rights work, while insisting on transparency and accountability. Social change, by its very nature, is driven by the people and their associations.