Over the last decade or so, human rights organizations, democracy activists, journalists, and civil society groups around the world have faced increasing constraints on their work. Legal and administrative barriers imposed by governments have made it more difficult to operate in civic space. Activists have been subjected to intimidation when they gather in public, voice their views, or set up new organizations. In some countries, foreign and local funding for NGOs has been scrutinized, restricted, and even banned. These factors have combined to negatively affect the human rights agenda and have resulted in a phenomenon known as "shrinking civic space" around the globe.

Against that backdrop, human rights funders are doing their best to keep open and, where possible, expand civic space. The International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) and Foundation Center's new report Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking showcases that work in numbers: In 2013, 803 funders worldwide allocated $2.3 billion in support of human rights. The report identifies these funders, the regions and the issues they support, and the populations they target. This year's research also examines the strategies supported by human rights funding. Ranging from policy advocacy to grassroots organizing, the report defines eleven approaches and finds that:

  • Activities related to advocacy — to ensure that states and non-state actors recognize, conform to, and implement international human rights standards — receive the largest share of funding dollars (27 percent).
  • Capacity-building and technical assistance for civil society organizations receives the second largest share of human rights funding (15 percent).
  • Research and documentation — to expose human rights violations and their perpetrators — is the third largest category of funding (13 percent).

What I find most interesting in this research is the amount of funding allocated to grassroots organizing — a mere 2 percent. This statistic aligns with the findings of the Civicus study The State of Civil Society, 2015, which notes that NGOs receive only 1 percent of official development assistance. For local civil society organizations, the picture is even bleaker: their share is just 0.2 percent. So the funding, if available, primarily supports large, high-profile NGOs, whereas those organizing at the community level do not have nearly enough access to resources. In other words, we are not close to "funding the frontline."

In most cases, the methods and worldview of grassroots groups align perfectly with the goals of human rights funding. Promoting discourse, giving voice to the people, advocating for more equitable sharing of power, enabling equal participation and fighting inequality — aren't these the reasons we fund human rights? And if civic space is shrinking, shouldn't we be more mindful about opening up space for those who need it?

If these questions alone don't inspire you, consider the impact of funding at the grassroots level:

  • Better outcomes: Grassroots organizations often are in the best position to understand and address the underlying and systemic forces at the root of the problem. And they work to create solutions that reflect their vision for a better, more just world. Although they may fail to achieve their objectives at first, they try and try again, and keep trying until they succeed.
  • Sustainable solutions: Grassroots organizers engage deeply with the communities they represent. They know the social fabric of those communities well and are committed (in a way that larger organizations may not be) to developing sustainable solutions that work for their constituents.
  • Lower costs: Compared to big NGOs that regularly incur the costs of travel, accommodations, temporary consultants, and related expenses, grassroots organizations have lower operating costs because they are embedded in their communities.
  • Self-sufficient communities: Grassroots organizing is the process of supporting communities to change their futures for the better.

Read the full article about grassroots organizing by Hilal Baykara at Philanthropy News Digest.