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Why Ukraine (and other crises) urgently need more human rights funding

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This story was originally published by The New Humanitarian on 22 May 2023.

We are dismayed by the miniscule amount of funding that has been allocated for human rights-based projects in philanthropy’s response to the humanitarian crisis stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Philanthropic funding for human rights-based interventions is essential when it comes to addressing the humanitarian crises caused by war. It helps ensure equitable access to much-needed assistance while also addressing the short- and longer-term impacts of conflict on people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

Overall funding for Ukraine has broken records for both global philanthropic giving from foundations and other donors, and humanitarian assistance from governments and aid agencies. A little over a year since the Russian invasion began, approximately $14 billion has been pledged in bilateral humanitarian aid by governments.

Another $1.6 billion has been donated by philanthropic foundations and private individuals, according to a database compiled by Candid, a nonprofit that provides data on philanthropic giving. These donations have the potential to play the incredibly important role of reaching organisations and communities missed by mainstream aid. But just 1% of this funding focuses on human rights.

What is human rights funding?

Human rights grants are distinct from grants without a human rights lens in what they support. At their best, they centre equity and consider power, they protect the rights for those most affected by injustice, and they secure remedies for violations as core – not cursory – activities in humanitarian responses.

Applying a human rights lens in philanthropy means:

  • Funding emergency relocation of those fleeing war while also considering the impact of forced displacement on people’s health, dignity, and the full range of economic and social rights.
  • Supporting women’s rights groups that are providing emergency shelter to women and children while also relying on well-developed feminist networks to provide critical health services, help survivors of sexual assault – too often used as a tactic of war – and document war crimes for future accountability.
  • Considering how racism has reared its ugly head in the treatment of Black people living in Ukraine and of Ukrainian refugees compared to refugees from other parts of the world.
  • Asking how historically marginalised communities – such as LGBTQI+ individuals – are being impacted now, and will continue to be impacted in the future, by the violence, economic instability, and forced migration caused by the war.

While humanitarian aid provides lifesaving services in emergencies, longer-term support in complex crises often fails to reach people most in need of resources. Human rights funding can help in this regard as well.

Research suggests that less than 2% of humanitarian funding goes directly to locally based NGOs, despite their deep ties to communities and the essential role they play in delivering faster, less costly, more culturally grounded interventions. The crisis in Ukraine is no exception. Just 11% of the funding from foundations and private individuals has been granted to recipients based in Ukraine, and we suspect the proportion of funding that goes directly to local groups from governments and aid agencies is even lower.

Our annual research – conducted in partnership with CandidAriadne, and Prospera – consistently finds that foundations that make human rights grants provide more core, flexible funding when compared with the total pool of grant-making foundations.

Flexible funding is especially vital in crisis settings where organisations and individuals need agility to safely and strategically respond to changing circumstances. Importantly, more flexibility means human rights grants can be a critical vehicle for delivering direct funding to civil society actors on the front lines of response and recovery. And human rights-focused funding often continues long after the emergency phase of a crisis has finished.

A generous interpretation

Candid’s dataset contains more than 1,600 already given grants totalling close to $1.6 billion, plus an additional $1.2 billion in yet-to-be dispersed pledges. Of the grants, only 25 – totalling $14 million – have a stated focus on human rights, democracy, or anti-discrimination, representing 2% of all grants and 1% of grant dollars. And just one of the pledges – of $25 million, or 2% of pledge dollars – focuses on human rights.

The low levels of human rights grant dollars in Ukraine may partly reflect new and corporate funding expanding the funding pool. More than half of the funding from foundations and other donors granted in response to the crisis has come from corporate foundations or corporate giving programmes (58%), followed by 31% from other foundations or charities, 12% from individuals, and less than 1% from other sources.

We expect that the outpouring of corporate grants may be less likely to be grounded in a human rights framework than grants from those who have been working in the fields of philanthropy or crisis response for longer. We also recognise (and hope) that the real-time data might not yet fully capture the range of support. We are likely undercounting human rights grants because we are relying on funders to report their grantmaking and provide clear explanations of what they are funding. Many of the grant descriptions say little more than “humanitarian aid”, “humanitarian relief”, or “humanitarian response”.

Nonetheless, even with these allowances, we believe the data show egregiously few grants that have incorporated a human rights lens – a critical step in any crisis response for enabling long-term, durable solutions that leave no one behind. That this funding is falling short of its potential marks a problem for the field of philanthropy and, more importantly, for civil society in Ukraine.

Room for hope?

While these findings are bleak, we see room for hope.

By embracing a human rights approach in Ukraine – and in humanitarian crises around the world – philanthropy can serve as a strategic intervention that complements current funding flows, promotes access to aid that is free from discrimination and considers holistic, longer-term needs, and gets flexible funding into the hands of those who need it most.

The $14 million in human rights grants awarded to date charts a path forward. New funders are joining the field. Significant pledges remain to be allocated. And human rights funders are modelling the kinds of grants that could shape the larger philanthropic response. But we need more.

Frontline defenders deserve it. Social movements demand it. Long-term recovery depends on it.

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit news agency focusing on humanitarian stories in regions that are often forgotten, under-reported, misunderstood or ignored. The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world.

Featured image courtesy of The New Humanitarian.

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