The challenge

Over the past 20 years, changes in the global political context have created new challenges to the international human rights movement. The moral currency of the U.S. has declined; among emerging powers, no clear leaders have stepped forward to champion the universality of human rights and the institutions designed to protect them. Many governments, in both the Global North and South, have entrenched their interests in national sovereignty and tightened controls over human rights organizations and defenders. Amid growing inequities spurred by globalization, multinational companies commit human rights abuses across borders, often with impunity.

The international human rights movement has not yet adapted to this growing multipolarity. International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) based in the Global North continue to control agendas and manage access to international human rights spaces, despite the need for engagement by Global South organizations that may be perceived as more legitimate players–particularly in countries and regions that label human rights a Western construct. In addition, the vast majority of funding for human rights advocacy comes from Global North funders and goes to Global North INGOs.

What we did

In 2012, the Ford Foundation launched Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide, a $54 million global initiative with the goal of strengthening and diversifying the global human rights movement to be able to respond to the changing geopolitical order.. Toward this end, the foundation funded seven human rights groups based in the Global South and seven INGOs headquartered in the Global North. Four years later, Ford commissioned a ‘learning review’ to assess:

  • Did the initiative enhance the participation of the human rights groups from the South and shift North-South power relations within the global human rights movement?
  • Did the initiative contribute to shifts in debates, policies or practices at national regional or international human rights forums?
  • What funding approaches best support the efforts of NGOs and networks in the Global South to influence the human rights movement?

What we learned

  1. Unrestricted, multiyear general operating support increases NGOs’ ability to be innovative, responsive, and effective. The groups based in the Global South reported that the initiative’s five-year funding commitment provided them with the stability and autonomy to shape agendas and determine partnerships (including for advocacy at the regional and international levels), and gave them the flexibility to respond to unanticipated opportunities.
  2. The initiative’s support helped Global South members 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 Global South actors.
  3. The initiative encouraged Global North INGOs to work in more equitable and effective partnerships with Global South members and organizations. INGOs built horizontal relationships, based on trust and transparency, to pursue shared goals instead of using Southern voices to achieve their own goals. They leveraged their brands, access to funding, connections to global media, and access to private sector and intergovernmental decision-making spaces to support Global South organizations and movements to organize based on their own agendas.
  4. The five-year funding framework launched significant change in organizations and their relations to each other. While five years was not enough time to achieve the ambitious goals of the initiative and its grantees, it was enough time to bring new issues into new forums, demonstrate the effectiveness of new forms of organizing and activism that complement “naming and shaming” strategies, and build new kinds of partnerships.
  5. Visionary thinking demands a nimble grantmaking plan. Changes in the global political power context, within grantee organizations and within Ford itself created challenges that were difficult for the initiative to adapt to. 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.