Ten years after 9/11, it was clear that global order was undergoing a dramatic shift: The US was being challenged as the dominant world power for the first time in decades and, at the same time, pulling back from its historic commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights. Meanwhile, among the emerging powers in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, there was no new clear alternative champion.
So, we asked ourselves a question: What can we do to contribute to building a 21st-century human rights system that would adapt to an era with many different world powers and without a willing and legitimate human rights champion among the nations?
What we did
In 2012, the Ford Foundation began a $54 million global initiative called Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide (SHRW). The goal was to strengthen and diversify the human rights organizations to create a more equitable, effective community. Toward this end, the foundation funded seven human rights groups from the Global South and seven international NGOs headquartered in the Global North. Four years later, it commissioned a ‘‘Learning Review’’ to assess these issues:
- Did the initiative enhance the participation of the human rights groups from the South and shift the dynamic so that groups from the North are empowering, rather than dominating, groups from the South?
- Did organizations take advantage of long-term financial support to set their own innovative agenda for functioning at regional, national, and international levels?
- What funding approaches best support the efforts of NGOs and networks in the Global South to influence the human rights movement?
- What kind of funding best incentivizes the international NGOs to add value to national groups without removing their ability to shape their own agendas and strategies
What we learned
- Unrestricted, multiyear general operating support over a relatively long period increases NGOs’ ability to be innovative, responsive, and effective. The groups based in the Global South reported that the stability, autonomy, and flexibility associated with the initiative’s five-year funding timeline enabled them to develop longer-term and more global agendas while continuing to respond to crises.
- When supported, Global South members were able to advance new, key human rights issues on both the global and regional stage. Thanks to their work, new debates were taken up in a range of global and regional human rights forums, and they were framed in the context of the expertise and experience of these Southern actors. We see this as an encouraging sign of a shift of power back toward the South.
- With encouragement, International NGOs fostered a cooperative and effective way of working with local NGOS.
- A five-year funding framework is adequate to launch significant change in organizations and their relations to each other.
- Visionary thinking demands a nimble grant-making plan. As the needs of grantee organizations changed, the initiative was not nimble enough to adapt. The foundation failed to include supports that might have mitigated the impact of contingencies as they occurred. The ambition of the initiative demanded a program team that had a great deal of flexibility and latitude to fine-tune capacity building, rethink convenings, refine outcomes iteratively, and cultivate learning along the way.