Funding frustrations and the “saviour complex”

I’ve been reflecting recently on the trend of funding in the NGO world. Part of the reason is probably because I’m busy writing funding proposals for the NGO I work for; part of the reason is this article regarding the Human Rights Campaign‘s plans to work internationally on LGBT rights.

I’ve been doing fundraising for a long time, specifically I mean writing grant proposals; in the South African NGO sector it seems to be the only form of fundraising that is practiced widely. I sometimes wonder why this is, there are rarely any other strategies out there than jumping from grant application to grant application in order to sustain the organisation. It has been pointed out often that this has a negative impact, for several reasons; it can create a survivalist attitude, where seeking funding diverts the organisation from its original goals; it can create infighting within movement around resources; it can influence the work NGOs do to fit the agenda of funders, rather than the needs of the communities they were set up to serve.

As someone who is in charge of grant proposals, and is – I’m sorry if this sounds arrogant – quite good at it, I know very well how projects get adjusted in order to fit the mold set by a funder, rather than to address the needs of the community we are set up to serve. And such funding comes with all sorts of strings attached; a simple example is getting to pay the staff that needs to implement projects, the amount of money made available in grants by funders is often limited.

The dynamic is somewhat problematic – okay, maybe drop the word “somewhat”, it plainly is – with the majority of funding in general coming from the “West”, many of which are former colonial powers (or current exhibit neo-colonialist tendencies.) In effect, local NGOs, if they want to access funds, are forced to adopt or conform to whatever language, terminology, ideology is being set forward by European, North American, and Australian government and intermediaries. The anti-prostitution pledge is one of the examples where this is extremely obvious, where USAID has sought to directly to direct NGOs in a specific anti-sex work direction; the recent ruling by the supreme court that struck this down only applies to US-based organisation, not benefiting the movement mostly affected by this policy.

I know that I’m generalising here, but it is a frustration that is hard to address. Essentially, there are patterns that are so established that they are hard to break, and the reliance of NGOs on funding from abroad, especially in terms of “LGBTI” issues and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, is creating a power dynamic where it is hard to critically look at the hand that feeds you, so to speak. Either development agencies are funding large NGOs in their own countries to do work in the “global south” for which they then subgrant to local NGOs to do the work for them (i.e. act as intermediaries), allocating some sort of percentage of the total grant they receive to the local organisations (none of the agencies that I’ve dealt with were ever truly up front on how much of their funding actually is funelled to even pay the people on the ground to do the actual work) or they do the work directly themselves, often circumventing local organisation completely or simply “partnering with them” (which is quite vague.)

Overall, I’ve seen funders being criticised for failing to allocate core funding and salaries to local NGOs, for bureacracy, for failing to understand the issues on the ground. However, the instances where funding from abroad is looked at from a post-colonial lens is still lacking very much. Often I feel that the entire funding dynamic smells too much of the white saviour-slash-messiah complex, sometimes less obvious and sometimes Right. In.Your.Face. Especially the plans by the HRC – arguably my least favourite LGBTI organisation anywhere – are quite in your face, as in “lets save the poor queers that don’t enjoy American freedom”; in the HRC’s case with funding that comes from vulture funds, which is… “fucked up beyond recognition” would be the best phrase to describe this.


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