Funding Social Change or: How to most successfully derail a social movement?

by Julia Schöneberg

Development has failed. Given the many shortcomings and failures we witness after decades of development intervention and myriads of development projects this claim seems to hold true. Development projects are prone to pitfalls of paternalism and cooptation, perpetuating dependency and are often ill-fitted to local needs and imaginaries. On the other hand, Escobar (1995) argues that social movement actors have the greatest potential to shape development alternatives in response these failings.

The aid system is in place – it would be naïve to demand its immediate abolition. Yet, can we think of concrete steps that enable a shift from the funding of development projects to the funding of social change and the support of social justice? What are steps to transform relationships from one-way giving-receiving to mutual dialogue and support, from charity to solidarity?

Talking of “the social movement” is inherently flawed. We can think of labour, student, women or neighborhood organizations as well as unions and peasant associations. Social movement groups rarely perceive themselves as homogenous movement and as united with a shared agenda. There are diverse types of resistance to countless issues and interests are strongly identity-based. This means that external support depends on in-depth knowledge and understanding of actors, political contexts and societal structures.

External support can become the factor that destroys movements and activist groups. In fact, any fund, no matter how small, has the potential to fundamentally derail a movement. On the other hand, social movement groups often struggle to survive without support.

What most successfully derails a social movement? (non comprehensive list)

  • Imposing the structure and logic of NGOs on movements
  • Offering short-term funding, but expecting long-term change and even worse, imposing easy to measure indicators
  • Creating hierarchical reward and accountability structures
  • Offering salaries

I will illustrate this with a case from Haiti.

The Kolektif Jistis Min (KJM – Justice in Mining Collective) is a coalition of several Haitian civil society organizations, which has formed in response to rapid developments in the mining sector. Two United States NGOs, the Christian Development Committee (CDC) and the American Organization for Ending Poverty (AOEP)[1] have supported the activities of KJM in its beginnings. In particular CDC provided a large sum. What happened next?

The collective was obliged to write a detailed proposal specifying timeframes, outputs, outcomes and indicators. This clashed. Robenson, member of KJM, said about CDC: “They just repeat what is written in the logframe, but that is not always possible. It is the nature of INGOs, they [are] […] bureaucratic to be eligible for obtaining funding.”

KJM also encountered difficulties within. As soon as there were funds available disagreements about time requirements for participation and compensation arose, especially because the members are not homogenous. In order to balance this, an external coordinator was hired, who would the only one to be salaried. Nevertheless, some groups started to prioritize the success of their organization, i.e. the acquisition of ongoing external funding, over achieving broader social movement goals.

The question arises: Are there “safe zones” for funders? Are there types of funding that carry less risk of causing negative effect than others?

In this regard a model of triple alliance building seems feasible. KJM’s cooperation with the Global Justice Clinic at the University of New York (NYU) can be considered as such. NYU supports the Kolektif in collecting information and provides legal training and representation. An important feature of the NYU-KJM collaboration is that it does not comprise a funding relationship. The relation is based on solidarity and the exchange of knowledge. KJM still receives limited operational support (office, coordinator) from AOEP without further condition or agenda setting. This enables KJM to remain autonomous, to partner on equal level with NYU and to react to government actions.

What appears to be the most important consideration is the level to which the capacities of the social movement overall and the individual organizations are developed. These capacities include the ability for base building, formulating and following a shared agenda and the capacity to build alliances.

In terms of funding we need to differentiate between operational funding and the funding of particular activities and accompaniment. The latter seem to carry the least risk and can encompass legal representation, media and outreach support, lobbying and advocacy or translation of important documents, but also networking and exchanges. Gifts-in-kind such as office equipment can enable social movement groups to become and remain operational. Another important aspect is the support of local research agendas that can provide vital background knowledge to movements’ causes.

There is no easy and not one way of funding social change; yet this does not mean it is not possible and worthwhile. INGOs must explore paths that undermine the logic of the aid system and reform their internal (bureaucratic and technocratic) logic.

[1] I have changed names to protect my respondents.

Julia Schöneberg is Research Fellow at the University of Kassel and the International Center for Development and Decent Work (ICDD). She currently works on a research project joining resistance and social movement theory with postdevelopment and postcolonial approaches. 

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