Funding for women’s rights groups in poor countries falls by more than half

As the Association for Women’s Rights in Development forum convenes in Brazil, unpublished research shows declining support for women’s groups since 2011.

Funding to women’s rights organisations has fallen by more than half over the past five years, despite recent studies that suggest the work of such groups brings the greatest long-term improvement to women’s lives.

A review of financial support given by major donor countries, conducted by Gendernet, a subsidiary body of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) development assistance committee, found that just 0.5% – $192m (£144m) – of the billions of dollars allocated to promote gender equality in poorer countries in 2014 was reported as going to women’s rights organisations. The figure was down from 1.2% in 2011.

In 2014, $35.5bn of bilateral aid was devoted to gender equality programmes and related efforts, said the study. While roughly $9.8bn went to civil society groups, the majority of the money ended up with NGOs in donor countries. Only 8% of the funds earmarked for civil society went directly to groups in developing countries, and only a fraction of this amount went to local women’s groups, according to the review, due to be published later this year.

Campaigners are calling on donors to increase their share of funding to small, local groups, either directly or through women’s funds specifically set up to channel money to grassroots organisations.

“There’s often an assumption that civil society funding is going to automatically reach women’s organisations. We need to challenge that. All evidence shows reaching women’s organisations requires deliberate effort,” said Emily Esplen, who leads on gender equality and women’s rights at the OECD’s development cooperation directorate and carried out the funding review.

“A lot of donors say, ‘We have civil society funding – we’re sure that reaches women’s organisations,’ but they don’t track or incentivise it. They don’t know what is going to women’s organisations.”

A 2012 study that examined 40 years of data on violence against women in 70 countries found that the mobilisation of strong, autonomous feminist groups was the key factor in driving policy change, eclipsing other considerations such as the number of women in parliament, national economic conditions or the political leanings of the government.

Similarly, a paper published in 2014 by the World Institute for Development Economics Research concluded that donor-driven projects, policies and programmes were “not the basis for meaningful, sustainable change”.

On Thursday, more than 1,800 women’s rights activists from about 140 countries will converge on Bahia in north-east Brazil for the Association for Women’s Rights in Development’s (Awid) forum. The four-day forum, held every three to four years, is widely seen as an opportunity to put funding for women’s rights organisations at the top of the agenda.

“There have not been any major changes on gender equality and women’s rights historically that didn’t have organised women’s groups pushing for them,” said Lydia Alpízar Durán, Awid’s executive director.

“[There is] very clear evidence that having organised women with a progressive agenda on the ground pushing for this and doing very important work at community level is crucial for the transformation that we need,” she added.

“There is no real commitment to gender equality and women’s rights work if we don’t start by recognising the central role of women’s rights groups and feminist groups and supporting them.”

A 2013 Awid report found that the average income of 740 women’s organisations surveyed was $20,000 a year. Groups in sub-Saharan Africa received an average of just over $12,000 a year.

Small organisations often miss out on funding from big donors because they do not have the staff or language skills to access application forms that are frequently complex and bureaucratic. Donors also tend to offer short-term grants tied to specific projects, rather than funds that can be spent on core costs, like rent and building upkeep.

Meanwhile, donors view smaller groups in the global south as a greater risk than larger organisations.

Activists want donors to consider channelling more money through women’s funds, such as the Global Fund for Women or Mama Cash.

Esplen said channeling money through women’s funds was a “win-win” for donors and grassroots organisations, simplifying the application process for organisations while ensuring “donors can get money to the grassroots and sub-contract the administrative workload”.

The experiences of two local organisations in Sierra Leone are typical of those feeling the sting of short bursts of funding.

AdvocAid, which provides advice and services for women and girls caught up in the legal system, and the Rainbo Initiative, which runs referral centres for women who have been sexually assaulted, face closure this year because short-term grants have ended and there has been no confirmation of further funding.

AdvocAid received a two-year EU grant and two one-year grants from the UK, both of which ended last year and were targeted at specific programmes. The EU money was rolled out in tranches, which often resulted in delays.

“With tied grants it is impossible for a small organisation to be self-sustaining when it lacks the ability to fundraise due to insufficient support and donors not wanting to pay for core costs or administrative staff necessary to carry out the fundraising,” said Simitie Lavaly, AdvocAid’s executive director. The organisation needs $40,000 to reach the end of the year, by which time Lavaly hopes to have secured institutional funding.

Similarly, the Rainbo centres are now relying on money from a sponsored bike ride to see if they can stay open long enough to secure extra funds.

“We understand that each organisation has procedures and has to go through a review process, which is fine, it’s their money,” said Tania Sheriff, executive director of the Rainbo Initiative. “But at the same time, what do we do in between? We’re coping with a tremendous increase in the number of women and girls coming to our three centres.”

Sheriff said short-term grants mean that, instead of focusing on the work at hand, you are “forever thinking about funding”.


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