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The lack of direct and flexible funding for human rights in the Global South and East: reflections on the Brazilian scenario

A escassez de financiamento direto e flexível para direitos humanos no Sul e Leste globais: reflexões sobre o cenário brasileiro

Foto: Gaelle Marcel – Unsplash

Por: Graciela Hopstein and Mônica C. Ribeiro*

One of the major gaps and challenges to the strengthening of civil society organizations engaging in the fields of socio-environmental justice and human rights in Brazil has to do with funding, as there are only a few international and local philanthropic institutions supporting this field with a focus on the institutional development of grassroots organizations, social movements and community leaders. 

According to the study Mapping of independent donor organizations for civil society in the fields of socio-environmental justice and community development in Brazil (developed by the Comuá Network in association with ponteAponte in 2022), most of the resources mobilized by local and independent philanthropic organizations come from international foundations (approximately 70% of the total). However, it can be said that even though international funds are the main source of funding, there are still numerous limitations due to the complexity of the bureaucratic processes, the difficulties in accessing information, and language barriers, among others, which create obstacles to the direct, flexible funding of organizations engaging in the field of socio-environmental justice and human rights in the Global South and East. 

The report The trust gap: The troubling lack of direct, flexible funding for human rights in the Global South and East, developed by Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN), shows that only 12% of the funds earmarked for human rights philanthropy reach the Global South and East.

The material – whose executive summary has been translated into Portuguese by the Comuá Network – notes that determining who will have access to and/or control over the funding – including the flexible support that affords the grantees the right to decide how best to use it – has serious repercussions on human rights movements around the world. This creates significant regional disparities in the funding directed to groups in the global South and East as opposed to those in the Global North.

HRFN and its partners have registered marked differences in terms of the volume, value, and type of donations from foundations to human rights activists and institutions in different regions. Organizations based in the Global North control the vast majority of human rights donations and largely determine the locations, issues, and communities to be prioritized and receive funding for human rights actions worldwide. 

The report shows that only limited resources reach the communities leading change in the Global South and East, despite compelling evidence that shows that actions for social justice led by the affected communities themselves produce longer lasting and deeper changes. 

Foundations in the Global North control 99% of the world’s funding for human rights and pass on 88% of this funding to organizations also based in the Global North. The remaining 12% goes to groups in the Global South and East. Out of the total funding directed to human rights in each region, the ratio of donations that reach the Global North directly is notably higher than in the Global South and East.

The #ShiftThePower movement – which has as one of its primary purposes to influence these agendas – recently launched the #TooSouthernToBeFunded campaign, calling for an end to discriminatory funding rules against civil society in the Global South. The campaign is directed to the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), pointing to the systemic imbalances in the distribution of resources for development-related issues. Despite the narrative of committing to support leadership and civil society in the Global South, a large share of resources remains unofficially tied to CSOs in DAC member countries, thereby disproportionately benefiting the organizations in the Global North. 

So, the current funding practices contribute to the perpetuation of the limited access to resources in the Global South, creating visible negative impacts in terms of the reduction of civic space, the weakening of civil society organizations engaging in the field of access to and recognition of rights – questioning their capacity and trust in relation to CSOs in the Global South – a situation that clearly has political repercussions in terms of the weakening of democracies. 

The sharing and construction of networks and civil society organizations that work with community philanthropy and socio-environmental justice, especially in the Global South, has enabled us to produce data to establish these dynamics and allow us to act in collaboration, influencing the field of mainstream philanthropy through change, which can only happen by shifting power and addressing the lack of trust.

The issue of distrust is a key element that allows us to understand the scarcity of international and local resources available for Brazilian civil society. Even if we can see changes in the dynamics of mainstream local philanthropy (corporate and family) in terms of donations, there is still a tendency towards low investments of resources to support CSOs – and this becomes even more clear for community-based organizations and social movements. The modest and embryonic grantmaking practices by Private Social Investment (ISP) organizations (associated with GIFE – Groups, Institutes, Foundations and Companies, which are the basis for the GIFE Census studies), can be explained both by a lack of trust in civil society organizations and the absence of a regulatory framework that favors donations.

The attacks on civil society, which ultimately gave this segment a negative reputation, have been taking shape since 2006, when the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) – known as the NGO CPI – was installed, and later had a second edition in 2023. The CPIs were surely attempts to sabotage the work of the CSOs, calling their history into question by associating them with incidents of corruption (mainly money laundering).

Both CPIs had very negative repercussions, instilling into Brazilian public opinion (driven by the media) the idea that they were no more than tools used to embezzle financial resources, generating a climate of skepticism in the work carried out by civil society organizations, and permanently damaging both the public’s and the funders’ trust.

Based on this preliminary analysis, it remains clear that the scenario is adverse for Brazilian civil society, considering the lack of funding, the criminalization of social organizations, and the shrinking of civic spaces, a tendency that has been growing in the country, especially in recent years, with the presence and expansion of extreme right-wing groups.

However, the gap in the funding of civil society organizations in the country is not new. As from the 2000s, with the withdrawal of philanthropy and international cooperation from Brazil, the sector began to experience serious challenges with financial sustainability, at a time of significant growth of social organizations within the post-dictatorship context.  

To meet the demands for funding, the independent local funds that emerged at the beginning of the century – many created by activists and militants from various social movements, and which are now part of the Comuá Network – assumed a leading role in the support of Brazilian civil society. Surely, these organizations (grantmakers) have driven a process of transformation, not only of Brazilian philanthropy, but also of civil society, by becoming an effective alternative for the financing and strengthening of small and medium-sized organizations and movements engaging mainly in the field of access to and defense of rights. Their ability to support strategic causes, to understand the scenario, local networks, and priority agendas, to respond quickly, and their capillarity and scope of action, constituted innovative strategies.

The Comuá Network (made up of 18 independent donor organizations, among which are thematic funds, community funds, and community foundations) and its members have shown, through their work, how important it is to donate based on trust, through partnerships with groups, movements and leaders, and to practice qualified listening and direct the resources donated to the causes and initiatives deemed necessary to effectively transform their realities.

At the same time, it is important to note that the Comuá Network and its member organizations, while acting as funders that adopt these practices, are advocating within the philanthropic sector for the forms of donation and agendas to be reviewed, so that more resources are donated to assure human rights for politically-minoritized groups, such as indigenous peoples, quilombolas, women, and LGBTQIA+ communities. At this time, when the politically-minoritized groups are also the ones who most suffer from the extreme effects of climate change, it is crucial that the donations of resources –financial or otherwise – directed to the assurance of rights and the strengthening of institutions, be seen as a political act.

Independent philanthropic organizations play a key role to ensure that the resources land where they are needed and should land. These organizations directly support initiatives developed by local communities and have been successful in this, considering that the donations are more agile and flexible than other forms of financing, allowing for a faster, more effective response to the challenges faced by the organizations and social movements. These funds contribute to the transformation process as partners, by mobilizing and donating resources to allow the civil society groups, leaders, and organizations to implement the solutions they believe are necessary and a priority for their realities.

While there are a number of funders in international philanthropy (some with representations in Brazil) that recognize the importance of independent philanthropy for social justice and, therefore, partner with these funds (independent and community funds), in some cases, we can see certain “complex” work mechanisms. The establishment of community funds created in a top-down manner with the investment of substantial resources in movements and/or groups, many of which have scarce expertise and experience in the field of philanthropy, grantmaking practices and institutional and financial management capacity, is one of the recent trends that we have seen.

Frequently, this form of investment, rather than solving the social problems they propose to tackle, creates new problems of political and economic sustainability for these funds, which also impacts the field of independent and community philanthropy, calling into question their ability to operate and, consequently, creating a sense of distrust. 

Reviewing the existing donation practices, guided by principles aiming to democratize the access to resources, build relationships of trust, and simplify accountability processes, and recognizing that civil society organizations and movements are the protagonists of the transformation processes, are becoming a priority within the field of local and international philanthropy.  

Within this scenario, the decolonization of philanthropy stands out as a priority as it implies a dramatic transformation of the existing visions and practices, based on new alliances between territories, communities, and social actors. The starting point is that this process be seen as a movement of permanent deconstruction and a form of engaging in social reality, without imposing ‘top to bottom’ solutions, but rather strengthening voices and recognizing the power of communities to find their own solutions to their problems.

*Graciela Hopstein and Mônica C. Ribeiro – respectively, executive director and communications coordinator of the Comuá Network.


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