Opinionista Fadzai Muparutsa 27 May 2020

The doors to a feminist future must remain open

The ability of feminist funders to continue doing transformative, innovative and subversive work is likely to be severely hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation calls us to question our not having sustainability mechanisms that look beyond donor funding.

In April, President Donald Trump announced that the US would halt funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) pending an investigation into the UN agency’s handling of Covid-19. Many came out in criticism of Trump’s decision and considered the repercussions of the decision on the ability of the WHO to do its job in the face of the pandemic.

Trump’s announcement reflects an emerging pattern of unilateral decision-making and interference by states and global institutions that have had, and continue to have significant far-reaching and negative impacts on public health, women’s rights and sexuality rights across the Global South and the world over. The Covid-19 pandemic brings to the fore the necessity for civil society organisations to question their reliance on international, foundation and state funding for their survival.

Following Trump’s election in 2016, the US has withdrawn from human rights structures such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Paris Accord. Critically, the US government has defunded crucial global health programmes through the reintroduction of the Global Gag Rule (GGR) which significantly limits the work that organisations working specifically on sexual and reproductive health have been able to effectively engage. Through the reintroduction of the GGR, funding has been denied and/or withdrawn to programmes addressing HIV-AIDS and malaria prevention and treatment, nutrition, maternal health and family planning.   

Although the actions of the US have been damaging, the negative effects of sovereign states attacking decisions on human rights are not limited to the actions of Trump and the US. African states deploy a similar tactic when confronted with their inability or unwillingness to address human rights violations, using a combination of defunding critical programming and enacting laws to limit the participation of civil society organisations.

African regional human rights institutions and mechanisms are inherently fragile, as they rely on the funding and support of member states, many of which operate in ways directly opposed to the humanitarian responsibilities regional mechanisms are designed to protect. At a regional level, the question of the independence of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) is a prime example of this vulnerability.

Directives from the Executive Council of the African Union, such as the withdrawal of the observer status of the Coalition of African Lesbians, and the request to the ACHPR to delete from its Activity Report passages concerning two decisions against Rwanda have rightly made civil society wary of engaging with the ACHPR, and have prompted many to question the independence of the ACHPR from African states. The inappropriate interventions of states and state coalitions such as the African Union significantly diminish the ability of the ACHPR to hold such states accountable. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the ACHPR receives a large portion of its funding from the African Union.  

Increasing unilateralism and strategic coalition-building between AU member states with similar interests in curtailing the powers of regional institutions are threats that we should take seriously. States with a political interest in being perceived to be human-rights affirming claim to advance democratic principles while pursuing neo-liberal and imperialist agendas such as the US wars that have destabilised the Middle East under the premise of “bringing democracy” while “acquiring” oil.  

Defunding humanitarian and social welfare programming is not dissimilar to sanctions, aid conditionality, unilateral coercion or redirection of funding that result in private and public debt.

The ability of feminist funders to continue doing transformative, innovative and subversive work is likely to be severely hampered by the pandemic. The situation we are in calls us to question our (over) reliance on international and foundation funding and the risks we run from not having sustainability mechanisms that look beyond donor funding.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these longstanding weaknesses in African regional human rights frameworks, as well as exposing underfunded state health systems and autocratic and unaccountable governance structures. These challenges are rooted in the exploitation of African peoples through the colonial projects of western Europe. 

The victories of independence were tainted by states on the African continent that inherited pre-independence debt, forcing new nations to resort to borrowing money from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. The effects of this required the implementation of structural adjustment programmes and austerity measures to service these crippling loans, which included the privatisation of state-owned enterprises such as agriculture, health and education which have had and continue to have devastating impacts on the general populace. Women in particular have been affected because of the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism that results in the increase of underpaid and/or unpaid labour of women, making it harder for women to access increasingly expensive health services.

In addition to the international shifts toward unilateralism, attacks on humanitarian and social welfare funding and the undermining of African regional human rights mechanisms, as evidenced above, the global funding landscape is shifting as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Civil society organising is not going to be immune to these cumulative effects.

In fact, organisations are already aware of the possibility of funding being withdrawn as donors redirect funds to Covid-19 responses. State funds are also being redirected, with bailouts for state-owned enterprises, companies and banks designed to cushion the economy (by further borrowing from regional and international financial institutions) while very little funding is being earmarked for the sociopolitical effects of the pandemic on marginalised communities. Crucially, we need to safeguard the survival of civil society organisations and women’s rights organisations, most of whom have been doing the work of the state in providing social services to marginalised groups.

The ability of feminist funders to continue doing transformative, innovative and subversive work is likely to be severely hampered by the pandemic. The situation we are in calls us to question our (over) reliance on international and foundation funding and the risks we run from not having sustainability mechanisms that look beyond donor funding.

Currently, the livelihoods and survival of CSOs and their employees is reliant on an environment where some funders and philanthropists (including governments) make money from hoarding wealth through exploitative and neo-colonial operations that include benefiting from interest gains from financial markets and tax rebates – any disruption in this system, one small glitch in this chain, and we are in peril. It seems our survival is tied to the survival of capitalism. What have we learnt from anarchist, socialist and communist movements to build on for our sustainability? How do we generate funds that sustain ourselves and the organisations we work with?

Aid conditionality, sanctions and coercion are tactics used by states to defund and restrict social, political and economic participation of people and organisations who seek to provide services while holding states accountable for human rights violations, or dereliction of duty. The work done by feminists, human rights defenders and pan-Africanists continues to highlight the intersections of oppressions that are often present in the form of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism. It falls on us to take bold action in how we challenge authoritarianism, systems and structures of hegemonic power that have rendered human rights points of negotiation for leverage and profit at the cost of human life.

This is a rallying call for all of us to join forces, to seek each other across our movements and actions to build a new normal. Where there are opportunities for us to get involved in direct action, make our voices heard and protest, we should seek out these spaces and engage in them. We should not cede our rights and power, we must protest in whatever ways we can. Where there are spaces for us to further develop ideas, thoughts, learn and broaden our political analysis, find them. Knowledge is a powerful tool to shape and create possibilities.

Importantly, whenever we can, we should hold and care for each other, through healing and spiritual spaces to sustain us now and as we evolve out of the pandemic. A feminist future awaits us, it is possible. DM

Gallery

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