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Letter from the Executive Director

Derechos humanos en todo momento

Dear friends,

I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and finding the support and care you need in these uncertain times. 

As we face the current worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded that this moment calls for immediate and relentless local and global solidarity based on human rights, collective care, and the opportunity to invite people to share a common vision of justice. It is a time to take stock of our world – as it is and as we want it to be – and ask how funders can support shifts toward human rights now and in what will emerge.  

I started my role as HRFN’s Executive Director on March 5th. Today, that seems like another era. Over these two months, we have felt our global interconnectedness; this virus reaches our bodies similarly and reverberates through shared fragile public health systems. At the same time, its consequences are being felt with ferocity by those already most discriminated against and facing multiple oppressions, particularly people of color, women, and those living in poverty.

As I write this letter, my home country of Colombia, where I am based, is in quarantine. Though isolation has become a necessary public health measure, I am aware that it is nonetheless a privilege for many. In my own region of Latin America, where approximately 50% of the labor force is made up of informal workers; where people of African descent, Indigenous people, and campesinxs have been excluded and discriminated against for centuries; and where patriarchal violence against women and LGBTQI people and sexual dissidents has permeated society, physical distance –complicated by the inevitable economic crisis– may not be an option for many. While for others, it may mean being in lockdown with their abusers.

Indeed, we cannot ignore the fact that COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and violence across the globe. The effects of an inevitable economic crisis are coming, only revealing what we knew was always a problem. This pattern is not new: dominant development models and global economic systems have long reinforced structural racism, patriarchy, colonialism and fundamentalisms. For far too long, societies worldwide have valued profit, accumulation, and the exploitation of people and resources over the wellbeing of humans and the environment. 

Emilienne de Leon, Executive Director of our peer affinity group Prospera, a network of over 40 women´s human rights foundations around the world, notes that members report skyrocketing rates of gender-based violence, increasing spikes in homophobia and transphobia, and forced isolation among domestic workers. Many human rights groups are having to make the decision between their advocacy and simply providing sustenance for their loved ones. While in the US, victims of an unjust and punitive justice system that disproportionately targets black and brown communities are in crowded prisons where the risk of infection is almost inevitable.

We are watching authoritarian governments prop up large corporations and impose legislation that infringe upon human rights, justice and human dignity. We are witnessing this go hand in hand with increased fundamentalisms penetrating the media, civil society, and other institutions. Security measures, as well as surveillance of citizens, are also on the rise – using citizens’ own fear of the virus against them and creating real threats to freedom of expression and potentially long-lasting barriers to human rights. In many countries, human rights defenders and social leaders continue to be assassinated. The context is dire and obligates us to forge a path to justice with urgency. 


A Philanthropic Call to Action

In the midst of this situation, human rights philanthropy is responding to calls from activists, movements, and communities to ensure momentum isn’t lost during this time of mass uncertainty. Many philanthropic institutions are shifting funding practices. Following an appeal from the Ford Foundation, a member of HRFN, over 600 foundations quickly pledged significant support to organizations and their movements, including emergency and medium-term funding, organizational support, and flexibility in their approach. Many members of HRFN took the pledge. Our members are also among the leading funding organizations driving resources to address the root causes of injustices – ever more important in the current moment. Overall, this vital response has been welcomed by the human rights community. There are calls from movements and from the sector itself for THIS to be the new normal for philanthropy as a whole.

Other members including community foundations, Indigenous-led funds, global social justice funds, women’s funds and local human rights funds in the Global South and East have also mobilized quickly. They are funding organizations and their intersectoral movements and have called on governments to uphold universal human rights. Jessica Horn, from member fund African Women Development Fund, cites previous assertive responses of women’s rights organizations to epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and ebola, anti- war mobilizations, and pre-existing economic hardship in the continent, noting that “the [current] generalized catastrophe may well be the ‘new normal’ for the privileged, but it has been the backdrop of African women’s organising for generations.” 

Philanthropic members, experts in the field of human rights rapid response and emergency grantmaking such as the Urgent Action Funds in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States responded with urgent and rapid support and messages for collective and holistic protective care. Highlighting the situation of rights defenders around the world, they stand available on the ground to manage and mobilize a significant amount of resources quickly. 

Even still, we know there will be hard decisions ahead. Many private foundations are facing losses to their endowments and questioning the best place to allocate their grants. There is active debate right now about whether this moment calls for reducing budgets or rethinking the models and balance of spending to drive even more money toward social change. As we rebuild, these questions will call on our field to reimagine the leading role philanthropy can play to support human rights. Can funders support intersectional programming and movements that influence policy and society in the direction of economies that care, and that intersect all spheres of life, and at the same time, continue a path of resourcing with long-term generosity and trust at maximum scale? Can giving rely more on participatory grantmaking models such as the ones pioneered by Global South human rights and women’s social justice funds born out of social movements on the ground? This IS the time to practice human rights philanthropy inside out, from the Global South to the Global North.


Our Commitment to Caring and Democratizing Ideas

At HRFN, we are taking the pulse of the funding world as the context shifts, connecting with human rights movements across the globe, strengthening our collaboration with our peer affinity funders groups, and working to provide new offerings, new ideas, and new narratives for our constituencies to collaborate, organize, and learn. We have held and will continue to hold a series of online intersectional dialogues with our peers, members, and human rights activists and social leaders. We will work to amplify their voices and wisdom. 

Their messages already resonate with urgency. The prevalent notion of an economic system that values only that which generates wealth is not only short-sighted but destructive, and undermines all living beings and the environment they inhabit. As Tarcila Rivera, Indigenous Quechua leader from Chirapac and IFIP noted in one of our human rights philanthropy principles town hall meetings hosted with Ariadne and Prospera,  “Corporate interests over community interests will destroy our society if we don´t transform the current paradigm.” We need an economy that in essence ¨cares¨ about all living beings and about nature. The care economy, which in Indigenous people´s cosmovisions relates to “buen vivir”, has also been the call from ecofeminists for many years. Establishing sustainable economies of care and solidarity with social protections systems in place that value life and the planet is indeed the path we must take. 

HRFN will also continue to provide a robust “listening to movements” strategy and promote dialogues to strategize on best grantmaking practices, inform philanthropic giving, and democratize ideas. Flory Yax Tiu, Mayan women rights defender once noted when referring to rights defenders who are constantly risking their lives, “To reduce risk, it is crucial to democratize power.¨ Democratizing power means so much of what we need in philanthropy’s values and practice. It also means democratizing ideas, resources, and voice from all regions of the world. Because, as Southern Cone activists remind us, even in times of COVID, #TuVozNoEstaEnCuarentena “your voice is not in quarantine.”

Finally, even though we will not be gathering in person for HRFN’s annual conference this year, we are innovating ways to connect. Keep an eye out as we announce new opportunities to engage.

We will come out of this pandemic stronger and healed – internally, physically, emotionally, and as a society. But remember, our healing will not come from our isolation. Instead, it will emerge from a new understanding of community that includes all living beings, nature and our bodies. A new equilibrium where human rights are the core, with deep changes in the way we organize life, economy, care work and politics on local and global scales. We must learn the lessons of human rights activists and social leaders worldwide and shift not just resources, but power to people and the movements most affected by injustice and inequality. 

We need human rights to be contagious.

Your opinions and contributions are important to us. We invite you to participate in an anonymous survey of only two questions to help us take action against the COVID-19 crisis. The results will be compiled, analyzed and shared with you using data visualization.

Please know that HRFN is committed to standing with you all in solidarity as we focus on protecting human rights through this crisis. I look forward to meeting and engaging with you in the months to come. But until then, my virtual door is always open at aenriquez@hrfn.org, and I’m eager to collaborate with you, all the way to justice. 


En solidaridad,

Ana María Enríquez
Executive Director, HRFN.


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