Bottom’s Up: Exploring the Resource Mobilization of Local Human Rights Organizations

17 September 2015, 0900 EDT

James Ron, Archana Pandya, and David Crow’s article investigates the resource mobilization of local human rights organizations (LHROs) in India, Mexico, Morocco and Nigeria. Having theorized the transnational networks, strategies, politics and influence of NGOs, Ron, Pandya and Crow now turn the attention of international relations scholars to the local contexts in which NGOs work. Drawing on original data including 263 semi-structured interviews with key informants and LHRO staff in 60 countries as well as public perceptions surveys in each of the four cases (n= 6,180), they find that although there is widespread public support of human rights and trust in LHROs, domestic publics do not donate to LHROs. They call this the “resource-rights” puzzle.

One nagging implicit normative assumption in the article is that somehow the resource-rights puzzle has negative or adverse effects on the work and impacts of LHROs. One obvious reason why LHROs might want to raise funds locally is the sense that Northern donors push Northern agendas and raising funds from local communities would empower LHROs to better represent local interests (Bradshaw 2006). Ron, Pandya and Crow’s public perceptions data however, show that the surveyed publics in the four cases generally support the broader human rights agenda. So while the funding might come from the global North, substantial local support for human rights principles and groups exists.

Like Wendy, I think an interesting avenue for further research is to explore the “market” in which LHROs operate to determine whether and how the resource-rights puzzle has implications for LHROs. In addition to considering the “supply” of donors as Wendy suggests, it would be worth investigating whether certain actors have comparative advantages in the human rights market such that INGOs and Northern donors finance human rights work, while LHROs design, plan and implement HR policies and programs. This type of division of labor aligns with the policy prescriptions of the rights-based approach (RBA) to development and also reflects current trends in INGO practices–that I describe in a previous post–to support capacity development in the global South by transferring skills, knowledge and resources and by gradually withdrawing from service delivery so local actors can take over.

A useful starting point for mapping comparative advantages and capacities is Balboa’s (2014) typology, which classifies capacity into three distinct categories—political, administrative, and technical—and considers how each capacity manifests differently on the global, national, and local levels. As it stands, LHROs have the political capacity to raise funds in the global sphere while in the local sphere they purportedly have the technical capacity to implement human rights programs. On the one hand, this specialization might be a smart way to address philanthropic insufficiency (Salamon 1987) by leveraging scarce NGO resources and maximizing comparative advantages (Brinkerhoff 2002; Brinkerhoff & Brinkerhoff 2011; Lipsky 2011). On the other hand, specialization might lead to perverse outcomes such as worthy issues failing to gain attention (Carpenter 2007; 2011); diverting resources to strategic marketing to gain recognition from more powerful INGOs (Bob 2005); or what Balboa calls the “paradox of global capacity” where INGOs function well at the global level, which grants them resources and access to work at the local level, but then fumble when implementing programs on the ground.

Photo credit: Howard Lake, Flickr

Photo credit: Howard Lake, Flickr

LHROs might be capacity-poor at the local level due to an inability to raise local funds, but Ron et. al show that this is not because local funds are unavailable, indeed local publics do give just not to LHROs. So, perhaps LHROs cannot raise local funds because they lack social resources (i.e. legitimacy). To probe further, we need organizational level data to develop the resource-rights puzzle. One limitation of the data presented in the article–and no article can do everything–is that they measure societal perceptions of broad categories of human rights (“promoting socio-economic justice”) and general perceptions of “trust” in organizations including LHROs. The data does not measure whether publics support or accept how LHROs interpret human rights and the practices and policies they implement to further human rights. In other words,  it is one thing to say “I associate protecting people from torture and murder with the term human rights” and another to say “I support LHRO X’s practice of providing safe homes to persecuted LGBT minorities.” Thus, it is worth probing how LHRO funding impacts the legitimacy, representativeness and practices of LHROs and vice versa. In a new research project, Christopher Pallas and I propose to examine the extent to which material constraints and organizational practices impact local NGO behavior in five cities in Ghana and look forward to building on the research agenda started here.