Unpacking donor “humanitarian response”: Funding for social justice in the global south.

May 11, 2020

BY Chantal Umuhoza

As I sit down and write this article as a leader of a non-for-profit feminist organization, I struggle to decide how we continue working on the different social justice projects that we are implementing. How to best effectively deliver and report to donors on the progress of what we had committed to do before the outbreak of COVID-19; issues that still remain critical and unaddressed, but in lockdown, such work isn’t categorized as “essential” and “humanitarian”.

Ever since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the announcement by the World Health Organization that COVID-19 is a pandemic, most of the attention and resources from both donors and governments have been diverted to responding to the pandemic. Existing and new donor organizations are coming up with new funds (or shifting existing funds) to respond to this “humanitarian situation”,  making women’s rights organizations – especially those from the global south – whose work is focused on addressing multiple and intersecting inequalities –  to consider redirecting the limited funds they have  to direct COVID-19 response, and to also apply for new funds with COVID-19 response as the the priority issue. 

COVID-19 is definitely a serious health crisis affecting many, and laying bare the precariousness of those already disadvantaged in different ways including their health and livelihood in general.  The shift in attention and response, has however got me thinking about the nuances of what is “humanitarian” and what is not?

 By definition, humanitarian response is a type of response concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare. Whereas I recognize the importance and urgency of containing the spread of COVID-19 and providing related emergency support to those directly affected by the pandemic, I still question whether the work that we had planned to do in this period cannot be considered humanitarian and meant to ensure human welfare. I am thinking about the ongoing work we do in supporting women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights issues, such as promoting access to information and services to prevent unwanted pregnancies and work towards preventing the health impact of unsafe abortions. 

Human welfare includes various issues and is aligned to human rights, which are interconnected. What is now considered “humanitarian” and “essential” is being reduced to being safe from the virus and in some cases, access to food and basic health care. Various analysts have highlighted how for some people, being able to observe the measures set by different governments to prevent the spread of the virus, is a matter of privilege. The common “stay at home” strategy ignores the already existing inequalities and gender power dynamics.

It is precisely at a time like this that we need to question and challenge the constant shifting dynamic of donor funding priorities to “trendy” issues which assumes that one issue is more important than others or that while one issue is being addressed, the others are at a standstill. During this pandemic, gender based violence is on rise, systemic barriers are affecting access to sexual and reproductive health services which affect women and girls’ bodily autonomy affecting their welfare as a whole.

Increasingly, “Humanitarian” has come to mean meeting the temporary and minimal needs of people affected by conflicts,  natural disasters, health pandemics and the like. A very problematic stance that seeks to superficially “spoon-feed” people in vulnerable situations but does not seek to address social justice inequalities, structural challenges and inequalities that sustain them in a vicious cycle.

The siloed approach to funding when addressing social justice issues continuously ignores looking at human welfare and human rights as a whole. It doesn’t seek to radically address the systems of oppression and inequalities that maintain the status quo. This is a reality that donors who seek to advance women’s rights and social justice need to reevaluate to ensure sustainable human welfare and dignity.

You can find Chantal on Twitter @chante_MKS  @spectra_rw