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Adaptability and Learning Are Core to Enhancing Human Rights Outcomes

For more than 15 years, I have worked as a lawyer and advocate for human rights in Uganda. As the executive director of an organisation that mostly relies on grant funding, I was thrilled to learn that grantmakers in the field of human rights had embarked on an introspective process to align their grantmaking practices with human rights values. While many funders already practice human rights values, this exercise and the resulting Human Rights Grantmaking Principles are a reaffirmation of the commitment that these networks have towards human rights and will go a long way in reassuring grantees of true partnership with the funders.
 

As grantees, human rights advocates often find or perceive themselves to be in a weaker position compared to their advocacy targets – the people they seek to influence for social change – and the funders they partner with to achieve that change. With the latter, money creates an undeniable power imbalance in which donors’ perspectives and processes determine which work will be funded now and into the future. Though many foundations try to mitigate this, truly aligned grantmaking must make room for new approaches, invite agility and risk, and welcome the context-based knowledge that advocates bring to the table.
 

The principle of adaptability and learning in funding is critical to furthering human rights advocacy and improving social change outcomes. First of all, adaptability and learning recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in human rights work, and that each intervention must consider the context. Furthermore, it creates the space for advocates to gain further insight into their advocacy targets and design targeted interventions – without fear that funding will be immediately cut if a project or approach does not achieve its intended outcome.
 

The concept of learning also recognizes that human rights groups can make mistakes and learn from them, or learn from others and adapt accordingly. The commitment in the human rights grantmaking principles to “… foster a culture of learning and speak honestly about failures, unexpected outcomes, and mistakes” is particularly welcome. Indeed, it is a necessary building block to true partnership whereby grantees are not afraid of talking about what has not worked well for fear of discontinued funding.
 

As the executive director of an organisation that promotes human rights, I have seen some human rights funders develop promising systems to promote learning and adaptability within their institutions. To gather feedback from grantees on their own operations and contributions, some funders conduct anonymous surveys or commission independent evaluations. Many funders also have check-ins and attend grantee activities to appraise themselves of the context within which they provide funding.
 

I have also seen funders promote learning within and among grantee organisations. My own work has been strengthened through funder-facilitated knowledge exchange platforms where grantee groups learn from one another and expand their ideas about advocacy. I have also witnessed the positive impact of effective communication projects, supported and/or led by funders, that enhance advocates’ knowledge of their audiences and provide training to effectively influence them through audience mapping, message development, and testing and identification of appropriate communication mechanisms.
 

In addition to inviting feedback, connecting grantees, and facilitating knowledge exchanges, this principle also means reassessing – and adapting – our understanding of risk. While it may be seen as safer for funders to partner with established organisations with a track record, it sometimes pays for funders to take a risk with emerging groups and evolving strategies. Some funders have taken the leap of faith and funded ideas or experiments resulting in success stories of building strong human rights groups that significantly contribute to social change. My organisation, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), was a beneficiary of seed funding from human rights funders in 2012 based on a concept note, and we have since built a reputable organisation that has transformed social and economic rights advocacy in Uganda and the African region.
 

Finally, living up to the principle of adaptability and learning requires funders to provide longer-term and flexible funding. Providing institutional support creates mutual trust that allows grantees to innovate and experiment with approaches – often with surprisingly positive results in human rights advocacy work. Institutional and multi-year funding allows for long-term thinking, recruitment and retention of skilled individuals, strategy setting, and learning that ultimately results in improved outcomes. Longer-term funding for ISER, for example, has enabled us to significantly contribute to the recognition and enforcement of economic and social rights through the courts of law. This was achieved through continuous capacity building of judicial officers and engagement in protracted litigation processes that some funders avoid due to the uncertainty regarding the timelines for realising outcomes. Meanwhile, flexible funding allowed us to adjust our programming during the COVID-19 pandemic and continue operations even when the country was under total lock down. Following the restriction on movement and physical meetings, we quickly shifted to using the internet, television, and radio to reach our audiences, reallocating resources to improve the connectivity of our staff and community advocates from their homes. The information collected by the community advocates exposed the impact of the pandemic response on vulnerable and marginalized communities and shaped our advocacy around maintaining human dignity during the pandemic.
 

Given the considerable human rights needs and uncertainties before us, I hope more funders will embrace the principle of adaptability and learning as they support human rights advocates and organisations around the world.

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Salima Namusobya is the Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) and an expert member of the Working Group on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. She is a lawyer and human rights advocate who has specialized in international human rights law and forced migration.

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