International Donor Funding for Activism: Boon or Burden?

By Davin O’Regan

For activists and advocates in developing countries, funding from international donors is often perceived as a sharp double-edged sword. Financial support from development agencies like USAID, DfID, Sida, or Norad, or private foundations like MacArthur, Ford, or Omidyar can represent a resource windfall for the advocacy initiatives, citizen mobilizations, and policy reforms they labor to advance. Such funding grants are typically larger than anything available from domestic sources.

However, many say that such funds come with strings attached. Foreign funders often impose agenda and requirements on recipients that can constrain their work. These manifest in several forms. In an effort to maintain financial support, activists will submit proposals for projects or activities that are outside their primary area of interest. For instance, in Lebanon, when donor priorities shifted nongovernmental organizations specializing in environmental issues found themselves chasing funding to work on access to information, election monitoring, and youth empowerment. Other times there are bureaucratic reporting requirements that create overhead and opportunity costs for grantees. Activists find themselves stuck in the office pushing paper as opposed to policy reforms and collective action.

Sometimes funding is directed to organizations altogether disinclined to activism, ones that engage in anodyne activities that do little to confront major human rights or corruption challenges. In the Middle East, some analysts have criticized foreign funding that is ostensibly characterized as promoting democracy but instead supports nongovernmental organizations that emphasize economic or cultural issues as opposed to political mobilization and political authority.

Together these dynamics are often described and derided as the “donor driven agenda,” in which local perspectives are eclipsed and activists are required to adopt outsider – and potentially irrelevant – aims and efforts. Ironically, the “donor driven agenda” may undermine one of the very reasons policymakers support and empower activists and nongovernmental organizations in developing countries: these activists represent and advance the genuine priorities of citizens and adopt locally legitimate tactics and methods.

Does it exist? Does donor support to activists lead to the adoption of specific agenda or tactics?

A recent survey of activists across 10 countries can provide some insight into whether donor funding is associated with particular kinds of activism. In 2016, the movement-building organization Rhize engaged 1,107 self-described activists on topics regarding their activities, goals, and experiences with varying kinds of support, including foreign funding. The survey was conducted through a mixture of purposive, snowballing, and convenience sampling and therefore may not necessarily be representative – but generating a random sample of “activists” is inherently problematic given the challenges in identifying and accessing this mobile, varied, and fluid population of actors.

The survey asked respondents what proportion of their annual budget comes from foreign sources. A foreign source could include a broad range of providers, including bilateral development agencies, private foundations, or individuals. Activists were also asked to describe the general focus of their work by choosing from a list of 10 issue areas. Options included government accountability, economic justice, freedom of speech, or corporate accountability, among others. If the “donor-driven agenda” is strong, then presumably those activists who receive larger proportions of their budget from foreign sources may cluster around certain issues areas, while those who do not might seek to advance other aims.

Figure 1 plots the proportion of issue areas selected by respondents separated into three groups: respondents with no foreign funding, those who received 1-50 percent of their annual budget from foreign sources, and those who received 51-100 percent. Just over a third of all respondents reported that they received no budgetary support from foreign sources, while 80 respondents received more than 50 percent of their annual funding from abroad. Those respondents who received some but less than half of their annual budget from foreign sources included 481 of the surveyed activists. A substantial number, 228 respondents, did not answer this question and are excluded from analysis here. Each respondent was able to select more than one issue area, so the proportions in Figure 1 represent the number of times that issue area was selected as a proportion of all selections within the funding group (0, 1-50, or 51-100 percent).

Figure 1. Selected Issue Areas By

Proportion of Annual Budget Funded From Foreign Sources


The first thing that stands out is that there are few obvious differences or distinct clustering. Answers across each issue area look similarly well represented regardless of the degree of reliance on foreign funding.

Among the few minor differences is that activists who rely more on foreign funding are less likely to select “Democracy and Government Accountability” as a priority issue area. That said, it remains the most popular issue area among even the most donor dependent activists, so any reduction in focus on this issue due to foreign funding is not dramatically reshaping activists’ priorities. The proportion of activists who selected “Human Rights” or “Gender and LGBTI” issues was slightly higher among activists with higher proportions of funding from foreign sources. Meanwhile, there appears to be a small negative relationship between “Freedom of Speech and Assembly” issues and reliance on donor funding. These differences are fairly minor, however, and none are statistically significant (p-value > 0.05 using chi-square test). There is minimal evidence of a donor-driven agenda.

While funders may not necessarily influence activists’ overarching aims, they may require that activists employ or avoid certain tactics or activities. Figure 2 plots the relationship between the types of tactics that respondents in the Rhize survey employ and their relative reliance on foreign funding.

Once again, no strong relationship or pattern stands out. Among the few observable trends is a drop in the use of “Nonviolent Direct Action” – such as protests or demonstrations – as reliance on foreign funding increases. Donors may be reluctant to support protests in another country, but surprisingly this tactic is still more common than “Advocacy” or “Research/Investigation” among the most donor-dependent activists.

The implementation of “Training” activities also increases along with foreign funding, as does “Building Coalitions, Networks.” By contrast, holding “Community Meetings” becomes less common as donor funding increases. This may reflect that recipients of foreign donor funding tend to build a network among fellow recipients of assistance while simultaneously becoming more detached from average citizens and communities as they rely less and less on domestic resources. Beyond these and a few other slight differences, however, there does not appear to be a strong correlation between reliance on foreign funds and activities or tactics. Even for seemingly resource intensive and high-skill tactics, such as litigation, no apparent relationship emerges.

Figure 2. Application Use of Tactics/Activities By

Proportion of Annual Budget Funded From Foreign Sources


The lack of an observable relationship in the Rhize data may be due to how the survey is conducted and interpreted by respondents. For instance, the issue areas that respondents can select represent very broad concepts, and it is possible that the influence of donors may emerge as activists work toward more specific short-term objectives. The survey response options may also exclude the issue areas or options that are most closely linked with donor interference. Indeed, there is an “Other” option that respondents can select, and it was the most popular selection. This is not represented in the above plots. However, similar proportions of respondents selected “Other” in each band of foreign budgetary assistance, so the inclination to select “Other” does not appear to be influenced by reliance on foreign funding. Respondents are also allowed to make multiple selections among issue areas and tactics. Were respondents required to select just the single most relevant issue area or recurrent tactic, clearer patterns may emerge.

The lack of a representative sample and reliance on convenience and snowballing could have produced a skewed depiction of activists’ aims, efforts, and reliance on foreign funding. However, it is hard to imagine that such procedures would produce such consistency in both Figures 1 and 2. If the sampling procedure relied more on a purposive element, in which a balance of issue areas within each band of foreign donor financing was a specific recruitment criterion, then the plot in Figure 1 is exactly what one would expect. That does not appear to be part of the instructions for enumerators, however. Moreover, achieving such balance for issue areas would not necessarily produce the same amount of consistency in use of tactics, as is observed in Figure 2.

The analysis here is also somewhat simplistic and ignores several potentially relevant factors. For instance, donors may be more intrusive and try harder to influence activists in certain countries more than others. Likewise, the role of funding on activists’ aims and tactics may be more a function of the actual size of foreign funded grants than what proportion of activists’ annual budget they comprise. The bigger the grants, the greater the leverage of donors. In the Rhize survey, all donors are also lumped together, but bilateral and multilateral development agencies may be more meddling than private donors (or vice versa).

Many activists are adamant that foreign funders often pressure them to work on specific projects in specific ways. According to one of the activists surveyed by Rhize, some of the biggest challenges they face are “donor programmes that are geared towards pacification rather than challenging [the] status quo; programmes that are designed by careerists rather than activists and movement builders.” Others echoed this perspective. “Financing activist[s] is not a priority for many donors. In fact, many think it is illegal because they do not want to get in trouble with sitting dictators governments.” One activist noted that “when I want to organize a community forum, donors shy away from supporting me because I am not from established organizations or do not have a big name.”

These claims also make sense. Though donors often speak of wanting to empower local voices, it is more than plausible that they also expect that their cash be used on their preferred issues and in their preferred ways – and try to ensure that it is.

And yet the responses from the Rhize survey suggests that the influence of donor funding on activists’ objectives and their tactics may be weaker than often thought. This may represent positive news. There may be fewer constraints that accompany foreign financial support than commonly perceived by the activists and advocates who work to advance positive change. Foreign donor funds may therefore represent more a boon than a burden for activism in developing countries.

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