16. Seven strategies human rights funders and grantees should consider in today’s volatile climate

According to Freedom House, 2017 was the 12th year of overall global decline in global freedom, with a stunning 71 countries suffering net declines in political and civil liberties, and only 35 registering gains. But beyond the statistics, there was a noticeable feeling of uncertainty as the US stepped back from its role as a champion of democracy, and as other democracies that had previously been strong supporters for democratic movements abroad suddenly saw a surge in skepticism in their own domestic institutions. 

This was marked in many countries by the growing prominence of nationalist groups such as the far right National Front in France or the Alternative for Germany in Germany.  Where there had been some sense of reliability with respect to support from these consolidated democracies, some human rights groups abroad no doubt have experienced a growing feeling of uncertainty when it comes to financial, moral or political support from the traditional international human rights funders.

What is a grantee to do in these circumstances?  While there are certainly more, here are seven things both grantees and funders should consider in today’s political, civil, and economic contexts:

  1. Public funders should look at new ways to partner with the private sector and foundations to support human rights organisations.  Potential shifts in policies by public government funders vis-à-vis recipient governments in closed or closing spaces could also impact local organisations’ ability to receive public funds. Those organisations with diverse funding will be better prepared to weather such an experience.  Thinking creatively about potential funders can help empower activists – potential funders could be crowd-sourced or include small or local businesses or associations.
  2. Grantees, should strengthen their engagement with other human rights organisations in their region. One examples is the Prague Civil Society Center, which coincidentally is funded by both private and public-sector partners. They have also looked beyond traditional human rights organisations and work with individual activists, academics, and other professionals.  More and more, individuals are being recognised as an important and catalytic element of any human rights movement and donors and grantee organisations should recognise the unique role these individuals can play.
  3.  Local knowledge is key to understanding and engaging in any context.  For public funders which represent donor governments, those governments should seek local advice when calling out authoritarian governments or others who may have imprisoned journalists, restricted freedom of speech or assembly, or gravely harmed human rights workers. The guidance given to doctors, to “first, do no harm” is, perhaps, appropriate. For example, seeking indigenous counsel can be key with respect to wording and timing of a statement when such incidents have occurred.  Locals will often be best-positioned to know how and when to engage to protect local human rights workers. 
  4. Funders should consider the consequences of branding polices in closed or closing spaces.  Thankfully, many funders now have exceptions to such rules, but staff are not always trained to understand circumstances where waivers to branding requirements should be allowed.
  5. Through my recent research on donor approaches to funding civil society organisations, a number of those I interviewed discussed the process and practice of using intermediaries to fund local human rights organisations.  Those interviewed noted several reasons for doing so, including benefits related to protection of human rights workers, ways in which the practice can eliminate some of the management burden on nascent groups, as well as how it might alleviate the reporting burdens.
  6. Grantees need flexibility with respect to financial reporting and transactions.   For example, for organisations working in high risk zones, some counter-terrorism finance measures have led to challenges related to receiving funds, as banks are reluctant to keep accounts open in these areas. This has sometimes forced NGOs to rely on other means for transferring funds, such as through the informal cash based “hawala” system, which has its own set of transparency and accountability problems, and often creates problems for those transferring donor funds through such mechanisms.
  7. Technology affords international funders, grantees, activists, academics, and other professionals working to improve human rights globally a unique set of tools.  From drones to safe messaging platforms to the use of mobile money platforms, innovations in technology can improve grantees’ ability to securely collect and share information and resources needed for activism in this space.  Technology can also help guard against other threats, such as malign actors’ ability to monitor the websites or emails of human rights organisations.

The bottom line is that the needs in the democracy, rights, and governance space are greater than ever, the resources often scarce, and the trend line is worrisome.  Above all, thinking about funding, program management, and implementation creatively, innovatively, and flexibly on the part of both funders and recipients should contribute to greater success in defending human rights for everyone.

Barbara Smith is principal and owner of Mountain Time Development, and a senior associate with the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

If you would like to repost this article, or contribute an idea of your own to the series, please email  



25  Owl Street, 6th Floor
South Africa,
Tel: +27 (0)11 833 5959
Fax: +27 (0)11 833 7997

CIVICUS, c/o We Work
450 Lexington Ave
New York
NY 10017
United States

11 Avenue de la Paix
Tel: +41.79.910.34.28