Shifting power and funding for resilience: thoughts on how we can achieve a more equitable tech and human rights ecosystem

Barbara Paes

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Earlier this year, we launched a new research project that explores ways to build a more equitable technology and data for human rights ecosystem – especially in terms of funding. As the Covid-19 pandemic triggers global socio-economic instability, civil society organisations depend on built-in resilience and accumulated resources to remain sustainable, making this research feel all the more critical. We’ll publish a report detailing our findings in the coming months, but in the meantime, we wanted to share some emerging insights. The learnings below have come from an initial round of conversations with folks working across a diverse set of civil society organisations working around tech and human rights. We thank them for their time and look forward to sharing more about them and what we have discovered soon! 

Power imbalance is inherent to funder-grantee relationships–and it’s hurting local organisations badly

The relationship between funding institutions and social change actors reflects an unequal distribution of power, where activists and civil society organisations typically rely on resources from funders to carry out their work. The asymmetries between funders and organisations receiving funds–and between organisations competing for limited funding opportunities–often dictate how resources are distributed across the sector. Many of us working within the tech and data for human rights space have grappled with questions like: why are certain actors able to secure funding when others are not? How do donors set their priorities, and how do these affect the work organisations are able to do? What does sustainability look like in a sector where trends and hype around emerging technology often play an outsized role? While these discussions around equity in this space aren’t new, they remain unresolved and urgent. 

Familiar challenges came up again and again in our conversations with actors working in tech and human rights. We heard about time-consuming and redundant application processes; the importance of professional and personal networks in accessing spaces and funding; and how some organisations are constrained by a lack of ‘landscape knowledge’. Building those knowledge networks necessarily requires access and admittance to spaces, which is realised through privileges–like the privilege to travel without strict visa requirements, or the privilege to attain the credentials required to enter certain venues. There are a great deal of privileges that are granted or denied purely by our place of birth or the way we look, due to the supra-structures of injustice and discrimination that we’re situated in. 

In addition to these challenges, many of the people we interviewed talked about the role that intermediary organisations play in the space, both in terms of supporting actors and organisations who aren’t known to funders, but also potentially acting as gatekeepers to funding.

INGOs can play an important role in building a better ecosystem

Power imbalances exist between grant-makers and grantees but also among civil society organisations themselves. There are often tensions in how organisations with different sizes, scopes and locations relate to one another. A common narrative that emerged during our conversations goes as follows: international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) are given funding and resources to then partner up with ‘local’ organisations who receive a smaller portion of that funding to carry out their activities. These types of arrangements remind us that while INGOs may be useful facilitators, they also occupy a privileged position in the tech and human rights space. 

As intermediaries between funding institutions and actors with less access to funding, it is important that INGOs acknowledge their position within these power dynamics. As power brokers, INGOs must ensure that they strengthen the work of local and community-based organisations rather than take away the resources and visibility these organizations deserve. 

There are many ways to encourage this dynamic, and, while many are context-specific, we’ve seen some solutions that are replicable across settings.  For example, knowledge about how to secure funding (and what to do once you have it!) is very specific and often inaccessible to less-connected organisations. Funders, donors and civil society organisations could improve the funding landscape by simplifying these processes. They could add clarity to the application process by thoroughly explaining their expectations for applicants (both the ‘informal’ parts of relationship building, and the more formal parts too). They could work to establish clear communication channels and create opportunities to ask questions and get more information.

When partnering with actors who are less known or who have limited access to funding, INGOs must also think about how they can contribute to a more equitable ecosystem. This could include: shining a light on the work organisations do in non-extractive ways; proactively supporting relationship building between local organisations and funders/donors; taking a ‘back seat’ in projects so that others can shine; and motivating funders/donors to work directly with local organisations.

Ultimately though, INGOs need to acknowledge that an important part of their role must be handing over power to less powerful actors–that is, if they are committed to an overarching goal of social justice. It means being open to recognising that others are better placed to do certain work, and making the necessary accommodations to put that into practice. For INGOs, this might mean losing some funding sources, handing off project opportunities, or, ultimately, downsizing once better-placed organisations are able to directly access funding.

Equitable funding in the context of crisis

All these efforts should have a common goal of ensuring that actors who haven’t had access to funding mechanisms are able to secure the resources they need. The initial phase of this research has been a reminder that much of the groundbreaking work in the tech and human rights sector is done by informal organisations, collectives, activists and groups who do not necessarily belong to formal structures. Funders need to be prepared to welcome these actors and work around potential obstacles to equitable grantmaking. 

In the current context of an ongoing pandemic and of political turmoil, receiving funding can be even more confusing than usual. Funders are (rightly) directing more funds towards Covid-19-related issues, but the issues that were there before remain or are exacerbated by the current crisis. Now is a time for increased transparency and accountability, for flexibility and recognition of different approaches and experiences. While some funders are increasingly aware of these issues, there is still room to further support newer or less-experienced actors in navigating these processes. 

Many of the issues mentioned here reflect a wider debate about how funding is structured—from funder priorities, to possible biases in what type of work is seen as ‘trendy’, to the conventional positions different actors and organizations have occupied. This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by one or two donors alone. The path towards a more sustainable, resilient and equitable tech and human rights space is one that funders and organisations must walk collectively.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash