Philanthropic funding to promote human rights globally reached a record $3.7 billion in 2018, according to a report released Wednesday. However, nearly half the donations came from 12 foundations, showing funding dependent on only a handful of donors, including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Ford Foundation.
The joint report from the philanthropy research organization Candid and Human Rights Funders Network, a collection of global human rights donors, also found a low amount of direct donations to charities in developing regions.
The report analyzed contributions from more than 800 funders that sought to advance rights enshrined in human rights treaties, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations agreement that lays out broadly accepted civil and political rights, as well as social rights for education, health and other things.
Most of the contributions were earmarked for programs in North America, though, Rachel Thomas, the director of research initiatives at Human Rights Funders Network, says the lack of robust charitable data from outside the U.S. might have contributed to those results.
General global programs were the second largest recipient, followed by initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa - which received $291 million in contributions. Only $18 million was donated to support work in the Caribbean, a region currently experiencing dueling crises in Haiti and Cuba following the assassination of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, and antigovernment demonstrations in Cuba.
Most human rights funding earmarked for programs in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean was not given to organizations based in those regions, the report found. Experts with the Council on Foundations, an association of grantmakers, say administrative hurdles — and restrictive foreign funding laws in some countries — make it difficult for U.S. foundations to directly donate to charities in other countries. But critics suggest the small amount of direct funding also points to a “trust gap” between donors and organizations in developing regions.
It’s unclear how much money went to organizations that re-granted the contributions to local charities, or Western nonprofits that run their own programs in these regions. Many have long criticized donations to the latter, and called for more localized aid.
“Trust remains an issue,” said Degan Ali, the executive director of the Kenyan-based humanitarian and development organization Adeso, and a critic of foreign aid that prioritizes Western nonprofits.
“How would Americans feel if a bunch of Ghanian NGOs came to California responding to the wildfires, and they ignored the American Red Cross.. ignored all the organizations domestically in California?” said Ali. “They would feel angry. And, they will not accept it. That’s exactly what happens to us every single day.”
Flexible funding - gifts that organizations can use on whatever they want - is low across the board. The report found it represents 29% of human rights-related funding in North America and even less in other regions. Only 2% of gifts earmarked for the Caribbean, for example, was given as flexible support.
Proponents note this type of funding makes an organization’s infrastructure more durable by supporting overhead costs, and also corrects donor blindspots. Researchers said in the report that the findings point to “a need for honest reflection on when, how, and where trust informs funding for long-term" social change.
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