Posted 31 August, 2020 by Barbara Paes

On power and inequity: reflections on funding and decision-making for tech and human rights

Earlier this year, together with Open Society Foundations (OSF), we started a research project about equity and resilience in the field of technology and data for human rights. Last month we hosted a session at RightsCon to present some insights from this project. We were joined by Ledys Sanjuan from FRIDA, Elizabeth Eagan from the OSF and a group of practitioners, researchers and funders interested in discussing how systemic imbalances related to funding may perpetuate inequities, and what practices and strategies could mitigate these issues. In this blog post, I share some reflections that emerged from that session–you can expect more in our final research report that we’ll be publishing soon! 

Challenges related to equity are everywhere, but they have specific repercussions for the tech and human rights ecosystem

Our vision of an equitable and sustainable ecosystem is one with a diversity of actors, in which those whose experiences have traditionally been marginalised or ignored are brought to the forefront. The challenges we’ve identified to fostering equity are not exclusive to the tech and human rights ecosystem, but some of the ways these challenges show up in this particular field are unique. 

Since the field of technology and data changes rapidly, evolution comes with a growing number of new—and sometimes less-visible—actors whose work isn’t always recognized. As a result, groups doing crucial work and in need of funding are often overlooked by the donor community, something that came up in both our research and the conversation at RightsCon. For example, organisations engaged in gender-based violence prevention and online survivor support are often overlooked both by traditional women rights’ funders and funders from the tech and human rights space, even though they are doing crucial and relevant work.

Additionally, funding tech and human rights work is new to many funders. A recent guide on how to fund tech by our co-founder Alix Dunn highlights that funders need to think carefully about their approach technology, which isn’t a simple task. There still isn’t as much accumulated knowledge on ‘best funding practices’ in this space, meaning that funders are less likely to know how to fund the development of new tools in an equitable way, and more likely to fund technology that (unintentionally) exacerbates inequitable power dynamics. 

What is considered relevant in this sector? And who gets to decide?

During our session at RightsCon we also reflected on what type of work is seen as relevant for funders—and just as importantly–who gets to decide that? A big part of the inequities in the tech and human rights ecosystem stems from the fact that decision making power about resources (and how to measure impact) is not in the hands of the communities who are directly impacted by social injustices

Participants also mentioned that funders are sometimes inclined to focus on specific themes or campaigns, based on their own strategic priorities, instead of their grantees or the communities they serve. These priorities often perpetuate ideas about how impact is defined and measured in this space. Organisations whose work might not fit into ready-made metrics often get overlooked. This sentiment is echoed in our research findings. Ultimately, to contribute to a more equitable and resilient ecosystem, funding institutions need to reflect on what they are trying to measure, how that affects the kind of work they consider and how these choices may intersect with issues of equity. (More on that in our upcoming research!) 

Attention to infrastructure is needed now more than ever

Attendees also raised the observation that there is a lack of funding for infrastructure and maintenance of existing projects, and we discussed the importance of dedicating more resources towards that type of work. We found that this is especially significant in light of the ongoing pandemic and the political changes many countries are going through, which has strained the resources and time that many organisations have available to maintain existing work.In the coming weeks, we’ll publish a report presenting our main findings from this research, including the challenges organisations face related to funding, and some innovative practices that actors in this space have been using to mitigate them.

We’re planning on hosting an online event where we’ll share the report, and we’d love for others working on similar projects to join us. If you’re interested in participating, please write to and we’ll keep you informed!

Image credit: Kotagauni Srinivas on Unsplash

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