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COVID-19’s impact on human rights

Ana María Enríquez and Julie Broome

Recently, Candid’s Inga Ingulfsen and Suzanne Coffman spoke with Julie Broome, director of the European human rights network Ariadne, and Ana María Enríquez, executive director of the global Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN), about the effect the coronavirus pandemic is having on human rights organizations and the people they serve. Candid is proud to partner with HRFN and Ariadne on our Advancing Human Rights landscape. Following are highlights of our conversation.

Impact of the pandemic on human rights globally

We asked, “How does COVID-19 affect human rights globally, and what are your primary concerns?”

  • Long-term threat to civil liberties

    Julie: The impact that the responses to COVID-19 are having on the space for civil society and the opportunities for democracy and human rights liberties is concerning. Hungary is a particularly extreme example, where the government has really taken advantage of this opportunity to impose really restrictive laws that they wanted to impose anyway. But even across our democracies, we’ve all sort of very willingly and understandably said, “Yes, impose restrictions on us, because this is an issue of public health.”

    But I think the concern is what happens over the longer term. What kind of frameworks do you put in place, and is it going to be difficult to roll some of that back? Similarly, with some of the digital tools that are in place, we’ve really very quickly welcomed a bit of a surveillance state into our lives. How do we move back out of that in the longer term?

    Many, many of these restrictions are very understandable, but what are going to be the longer-term implications?

  • Inequality and increased vulnerability of specific populations

    Julie: As with so many things, there are particular communities that are affected more than others. How, in particular, is [the pandemic] affecting refugees and asylum seekers, homeless people, poor communities? Here in the U.K.—and I don’t know how this data compares with what’s happening in other countries—minority ethnic people are being hit and are dying at a much higher rate than others, which raises all kinds of questions, like what are the underlying reasons for that? Are they purely biological, or are they sociological and [related to] the way that people are being discriminated against already?

    Ana María: I would add that from a perspective of an organization that has staff and presence both in the Global North in the U.S. and in the Global South now in Colombia, … as we think about this isolation, it has become necessary to understand that it’s not just a public health measure. The pandemic has demasked the inequalities and violence that have persisted for years. For example, here in my continent, Latin America, 50 percent of the labor force is made up of informal workers. Isolation for them is obviously complicated by the economic crisis, and thus for many of them not an option.

    But even if you can isolate and say there were some appropriate measures from governments to make sure that the health concerns are taken care of, for many, this may mean [being] locked up with their abusers. Emilienne de Leon from Prospera is reporting that the levels of domestic violence, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia are skyrocketing. This inequality has been endemic, and it’s only been demasked by COVID. …

    COVID has no discrimination in its attack, but [what it] demasks is the inequality and violence [that have been] persistent for years.

  • Responding to the crisis appropriately

    Ana María: I have noticed that the responses from public human rights and women’s funds in Latin America and in other regions like Africa, [where] public sector [systems are] super fragile, have been on target. Let’s not forget Ebola or HIV, all the emergencies that these regions have gone through. And so, for example, many public foundations in the Global South do have the experience and the expertise in this type of rapid response grantmaking and emergency relief. It would be a mistake to give emergency grants to whoever. We need to look at who are the experts in terms of philanthropy who have been doing this for a while … and [support] them at maximum levels, while also provide extra core support during these times and on a long-term basis to groups that don’t specialize in this type of grantmaking but that play a big role in the protection and advancement of human rights.

    I mean this is just like a brush stroke of what’s happening, mostly in the Global South. But if you take this lens, it is exactly what’s happening with populations and movements that have been oppressed for many centuries anywhere in the world. Indigenous people, for example, all over in North America, South America, Central America as well as Black communities, and their movements everywhere have developed strategies to resist, transform, and build communities and solidarity during challenging times. [Human rights philanthropy] needs to look at them more closely; they can provide answers and clues we can learn from, especially in the North.

How human rights funders are responding

We asked, “What are you seeing from your members and others in terms of how human rights funders, in particular, are responding?”

  • Greater flexibility with grantees

    Ana María: The Ford Foundation call and the pledge [for grantmakers to offer flexible funding to grantees in the wake of COVID-19] was incredible. … and this has been welcomed by the sector and by the human rights community, and moving forward, I would say I think we need to see even more out of the box ways to support human rights communities during these times.

    Julie: We have seen a lot of funders moving very quickly to do things that they probably should have been doing anyway … a much bigger focus on core support, flexible support, lifting those restrictions. I also have seen quite a lot of collaboration come out of this. I think there’s a real desire for solidarity right now, even among the funder networks. We’ve been coming together much more regularly in a much more systematic way, since [the pandemic] happened, on a global level, thematic level, and regional levels, and that’s been really nice to see. …

    And similarly, that kind of collaboration is happening amongst the funders themselves, mostly around specific issue areas. Migration funders coming together to really understand what are the needs of the migration sector, particularly the refugee and asylum community right now. How can funders really help those organizations respond to the demand? As Ana María said, the increase in domestic violence is really straining the capacities of some of the women’s associations and support groups that are out there. So funders are coming together to think about how they can capacitate some of those organizations to provide response.

  • Looking at the future of human rights philanthropy

    Julie: My sense is that the first couple of weeks were really very much about … reactionary rapid response kind of grantmaking. And now, I think people are starting to look at the longer term and think about what are the transformational moments here? Where are the opportunities to really think about what is the society that we want to see, what is the world that we want to have coming out of this, given that pretty much everything has been thrown up in the air right now?

    Ana María: From a Global South perspective, what local public foundations on the ground did in their own way, it’s … the equivalent of a pledge. Not as outspoken, but … they are locally based, so they are responding appropriately. I find it very interesting that when there is such closeness of these local foundations with the movements, of course there’s a lot of attunement/resonance. For example, responding to what human rights defenders need, knowing that they are going to be even more at risk. … local foundations such as women’s funds are already providing flexible support, as well as incorporating self-care and collective care. … This is important now.

    And at the same time, because [these funders] have that background, it feels like they can absorb more philanthropic support. It feels like this is the time where we need to be courageous and encourage foundations to tap onto their endowments and even provide endowment funding for organizations (to ensure long-term sustainability). We need higher rates of giving. I will place a lot of caution [on] the inequality of giving in the Global North versus the Global South. This is the moment to show internationalism and solidarity. So we could be creative. …

    For example, during the crisis, we started a network of progressive networks composed of affinity funders groups of international scope. We are around 15 of peer networks who got together organically, we’ve been having monthly calls, and new ideas are popping up. It’s obvious that the moment is ripe.

    One such idea has to do with the need to hold intersectional and cross-sectoral conversations. At HRFN we are actively pursuing that, and we are excited to do so with our peer networks. We have to stop the overemphasis of philanthropy to continue thinking and funding solely issue by issue. This type of funding isolates and separates movements and strategies that are organically and intrinsically interconnected. How can we support intersectional and cross-sectoral dialogues? And I think our networks are doing that, and we’ll definitely be doing more, virtually and non-virtually in creative ways. Dialogues will include interconnected sectors with and without philanthropies, among movements, and between movements and philanthropists in order to propel a massive wave of human rights philanthropy, in the Global North and in the Global South. And for that you need our philanthropic networks to be vibrant.

What other types of funders can do

We asked, “What can other funders that are not necessarily primarily working in the human rights space do to be sensitive to the human rights implications of COVID-19?”

  • Universality of human rights

    Ana María: I think COVID has demasked inequality and violence, but it also has hopefully demasked the obvious fact that every human being has human rights and those rights need to be protected and secured. Human rights are sometimes perceived as abstract. And yet they should be guaranteed for all, and philanthropy should be funding organized civil society and their human rights and social justice organizations and movements to have what they need to make sure the rights of all are guaranteed.

    In a utopian world, everybody should be doing human rights philanthropy, right? Every philanthropy should be human rights philanthropy by virtue of its meaning, love for others, and because it aims to promote the common good.

    But I think this is an opportunity because we’ve been forced to think carefully in isolation, as human beings, on the role we play in society. You know, starting from the roles at home, everything is hopefully disturbed. Hopefully the roles of men and women are changing for good. Hopefully when you get out of [the crisis], there will be more of equality at home, too. Hopefully in terms of the economy, we can think in terms of the economies of care and solidarity, not in terms of an economy that is only valued because of the profit it makes without thinking on its impact on people and on nature and without accounting for social protections as part of its model. Hopefully the care workers, service providers, the nurses, teachers, etc. and all the people in the front lines, will be more valued and protected. They are the real leaders right now.

    So, I think the message from the individual to the collective realm in terms of philanthropy is “to grab yourself from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [and treaties] and make it happen in whatever way you can.” Don’t come out of this and just fund charity. No. Do human rights philanthropy!

    We invite philanthropies to join our various philanthropy networks. There’s so many of them that deal with a variety of issues from local to global issues. And I think it’s powerful, you know. And we will continue to do what we need to do to bring more people to the equation, not just the ones that agree with us, but hopefully through conversations, we can unleash a wave of more human rights philanthropists.

    Julie: I would completely agree with that. I think this situation has laid bare so many inequalities in our society. And I think it’s an opportunity, and I hope we can help build that narrative that shows that it’s really undermining some of the assumptions that people have about human rights and about who needs human rights. There’s this … kind of narrative out there that [human rights are] for other people. It’s for vulnerable people. It’s for terrorists.

    It’s for all of us. And I think when we all find ourselves in more or less the same situation, and so many people are losing their jobs, they’re losing their livelihoods, not through any fault of their own, but through something that they could not control, then that really helps drive home the message that we all require support at some time. We all require these rights to help us fulfill our potential and live our lives. … you can’t be fully protected from everything.

    So I really hope that it helps demonstrate to people why human rights and why the kind of social security net is there, why we need these forms of protection for everyone.


We asked, “What resources are Ariadne, HRFN offering in response to the crisis? Is there anything you want to lift up specifically from within your network or even from other places?”

  • Julie: There’s so many resources that have come out, especially in the first few weeks of the crisis, statements and analyses. We’ve been collating all of that and making them available to our members and to any other foundations that are interested.

    We’ve also been offering regular webinars for our members, partly just to help them stay engaged and entertained while they’re on lockdown, but also as an opportunity to start to think through … the implications of COVID on so many of the different specific issues that people are working on and starting to provide a space to think about what does that philanthropic response look like in the long term, how can foundations start to tackle some of this? And we’re also, similarly, doing a series of blogs that will be coming out over the next couple of months, looking at some of these questions.

    Ariadne published its 2020 forecast at the very beginning of March, which is always our look at what does the coming year hold for European philanthropy. Basically, as soon as it came out, it was already outdated, [as] the events that no one had predicted overtook all of the predictions that we had made. So we’re trying to mitigate that a little bit by taking this opportunity to look with members [at] some of those issues … they had already predicted, and then seeing how that has now changed in the current context.

    And in many ways, I think that the current crisis has actually accelerated a lot of forces that we already saw were happening. So many things that were going to become necessary to look at because of the climate crisis have just been brought forward. We really need to examine some of the social and economic systems that have been driving us towards the brink of a climate crisis. They’re also really those very same forces of inequality that we’ve been talking about, having been exposed through COVID. And similarly, the acceleration of going digital; it’s just happened much more quickly. And so now we have to deal with some of the fallout from that as well.

    Ana María: I started [at the HRFN] March 5, and that sounds like another era. So, from day one, at HRFN, we started a process of redefining, more than readapting ourselves to what is to come. During the crisis we have held a series of meetings and town halls, including one in collaboration with Ariadne and PAWHR Philanthropy Advancing Human Rights on the Principles Project, which are a set of human rights principles intended to help funders align their grantmaking practices with human rights values. We have also held a series of webinars on human rights issues from the Amazon to India.We also continue to advance our research in collaboration with Candid and Ariadne. From my point of view, knowing about human rights trends and data prior to COVID and comparing it with future data is a research opportunity that should not be lost. So right now, we are thinking of ways that the information we already have could be maybe more available to more people, including activists and social leaders.

    HRFN started a collaboration to launch our new brand and a series of engagements with, a communications think tank in Colombia that designs and leads high-impact innovative projects and processes through design thinking and empathy methodologies (i.e., with feeling, or sentimiento in Spanish). We want to unleash new narratives that reflect intersectional thinking and dialogues and that center work and solutions on a human rights and social justice framework. I think it’s good to be meeting and talking and debating among ourselves, but we’re missing a great opportunity of listening and learning from social justice movements in a respectful manner. If we ask for ideas to inform strategies, we also need to think about how do we give back. For example, if our research knowledge comes from grantees and activists, we need to think about how do we give back this knowledge to them and to inform the larger public? This is part of what we mean by having principles that guide our work, what are the values that cut across our network, how do we give back (not just take)?

    I think there needs to be new knowledge generation, a revolution of ideas from the South to the North that can propel back to philanthropy so that human rights can be the norm. Maybe this is utopian, yes. But that’s what we want to do. … I think the democratization of ideas is something that we can contribute to as a network, but also I want to make sure that those ideas don’t stay up here, that they are widely disseminated. That’s a difficult balance, but I think we’re committed to it. And one way to do this is is through cross-cutting and [adding] intersectionality perspectives to the dialogues.

About the participants in this conversation

  • Julie Broome has been director of Ariadne since 2016. Ariadne is a European peer-to-peer network of more than 600 funders and philanthropists who support social change and human rights. Ariadne helps members achieve more together than they can alone by linking them to other funders and providing practical tools of support.Julie brings more than 20 years’ experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, with a particular focus on human rights and transitional justice, to the conversation. She spoke to us from London in the UK.
  • Ana María Enríquez started as executive director of the Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN) March 5, 2020. HRFN is a global network of almost 450 institutions across 70 countries committed to advancing human rights through effective philanthropy. Its membership includes more than 1,800 staff, consultants, and trustees of private, corporate, and public foundations, community giving programs, women’s funds, and philanthropic advocacy and support organizations. Before joining HRFN, Ana María worked with global private foundations, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and public charities supporting grassroots human rights efforts. Ana María has held positions with several HRFN members, including Global Fund for Women, the Ford Foundation, and the Urgent Action Fund for Latin America and the Caribbean. She spoke to us from Medellín, Colombia.
  • Inga Ingulfsen is a global partnerships research manager at Candid. She is deeply involved in Candid’s Advancing Human Rights landscape and our partnerships with Ariadne and HRFN. You can learn more about Inga in her author’s bio below.
  • Suzanne is an editorial director at Candid. You can learn more about Suzanne in her author’s bio below.

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