Foundations, Foreign Policy and NGOs

Dec 19, 2008

This issue of International Studies Quarterly contains an interesting article about the effect of donors on both the agenda and strategies of human rights NGOs. Here’s the abstract:

“Focusing on the flow of funding to human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we begin in this article to broach one of the least studied issues pertaining to transnational regimes—namely, their material underpinnings. Through an analysis of the patterns of donor funding to human rights NGOs, we underscore the triangulation between states, donors, and rights NGOs, whereby states have an impact on donor preferences, which, in turn, influences the agenda of human rights NGOs and their modes of operation, and these, in their turn, help shape the kind of NGO criticism voiced against the state. By emphasizing the important and frequently missing link of donors, we thus complicate the discussion concerning the impact human rights networks have on state policies and practices, showing how rights NGOs simultaneously weaken and strengthen the state. Accordingly, our examination of the political economy of human rights adds a new dimension to the literature analyzing how the state both reconfigures and is reconfigured by transnational regimes.

Reading the article made me happy because I now have a good, current overview to assign to my students next time I teach the “Global Agenda-Setting” class. This semester we focused on NGOs, the UN, the media, celebrities and network politics, but we ran out of time to dig more deeply into other impacts on the agenda-setting process, such as epistemic communities and private donors. Then, when my students briefed an NGO in Washington this past weekend on what they had learned and how it could help the practiotioners’ work, it became clear to me that I had not prepared them to answer a question that was of utmost concern to this organization: how to pitch its issue in such a way as to attract funding (rather than to attract members of a coalition).

So as I read, I was wondering what insights my students might have incorporated into their strategy document had we studied the political economy of NGO fundng more closely this semester. At least one insight stands out: even private donors seem constrained by the socio-political climate within their particular country. If a campaign is aligned with US foreign policy discourse, it will be more successful at securing funding from American foundations (as well as from US government donor agencies) than if it is pursuing goals at odds with US foreign policy. It might therefore logically follow that if a campaign is focused on changing or challenging US practice, it’s a good idea to seek funding from entities outside the US.

Since the authors’ analysis focuses just on funding to Israeli human rights organizations, though, it leaves this question open in my mind. They support this general claim both with their own data (US donors tend to support organizations that protect Israeli citizens, while European donors support NGOs who protected Palestinians) and by citing literature showing that both the US government and private US donors like Ford Foundation privilege civil and political rights over social and economic rights. But does this mean that US-based donors never support campaigns that challenge the US more directly? I don’t actually know what the answer is, but I would want to see a wider range of evidence across many thematic cases. I think that evidence to disconfirm this notion would be US-based private donor funding for campaigns that the US opposed, like for the International Criminal Court or the cluster munitions treaty. I wonder if readers of this blog are familiar with the political economy of these campaigns and have answers, or other thoughts about how to study this question more closely.


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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.