Poverty in Activism

Poverty in Activism

Calling out power and inequality in human rights work

By Dumiso Gatsha

There are many assumptions with which community members view many activists; one of them is that they have economic power. Often this is relatively true against the backdrop of a socio-economically complex developing country environment. Particularly where one takes certain measures to ensure that they can be comfortable despite how challenging and traumatic their work may be, both in cause and in the personalities they have to deal with.

However, even where provisions are made, it’s common that human rights work would not normally have the social protections or equitable compensation of other professions or industries. We are the ones who advocate for these protections on behalf of many people when challenging governments or capitalism, but for some reason we cannot defend ourselves for the same, or we are not allowed to have these within our organisations. Even for those organisations that are well resourced, there are limitations regarding to whom benefits are extended and how they can be justified in grant applications. This is the reality of human rights work:  a myriad of unnecessary complexities that bring dignity to many but not ourselves.

One example is how being a ‘sponsored’ or ‘funded’ delegate/participant to an engagement means you have no dignity of circumstance. One would be expected to ‘take it or leave it’ in terms of logistical provisions; having to incur expenses you cannot afford, having to accept prolonged travel routes because your time/commitments aren’t considered important, facing discriminatory immigration officials, shared personal spaces without consideration for reflection/unwinding/work commitments/privacy and, painfully, having to navigate unfamiliar environments where no information is provided. God forbid, if you were to bring up any of these issues it would seem ‘unappreciative’ or you’d be considered an inconvenience. Being a ‘recipient’ is never mentally safe, as facilitators of these opportunities have their ways of prescribing how you show your gratitude.

The same applies at home and in work environments; power plays itself out in nuances and unsolicited commentary. This is the power play at hand, where your invaluable experience and insight can serve as critical intelligence for ensuring that donated programme funds can have a meaningful impact. It’s not seen as intelligence, expertise or valuable data, as lived experiences can often be aligned to pre-determined programme designs. When lived experiences do not match the strategic framework of the donor, funds are channelled elsewhere, essentially invalidating lived experiences. As an advocate who is privy to this power play, would you want to secure funds or work towards the actual concerns of community members? I see this as the challenge of Global North decision making for  resolving Global South challenges.  This remains prevalent despite many INGO head offices moving to the Global South. So long as investors of solutions cannot recognise their power and share it, recipients will not improve the lives of communities in the best way possible.

How does one meaningfully participate if energy and passion have been eaten away by the inconveniences of inflexibility or donor power?

Don’t get me wrong, with some of the uncontrollable dynamics or influences in these situations, there are hoops one has to jump through to secure an opportunity. This can be argued as the cost of participation. The sacrifice of your time and mind in order to secure a per diem that can be useful beyond its intended period. The cost of unhealthy travel conditions in service of a people and, God forbid, the chance to see snow. This is not as a virtue of the giver-receiver relationship, but that of the home environments many activists find themselves. Rampant corruption, gross patriarchy and variant forms of inequality have accumulated into the empty pocket many activists walk around with. Preparing oneself is always best; however, one cannot ignore the power play that manifests itself every time a cost quote/substitution/correspondence is to occur in preparation or during the actual engagement. At times, this can be the only economic lifeline one has, without considering the ‘black tax’ or burden of paying bills. How does one comfortably engage and ensure the interests and insight of causes they represent can be understood, when there are no provisions that ensure mental safety? How does one meaningfully participate if energy and passion have been eaten away by the inconveniences of inflexibility or donor power? The same goes for any grant or funding mechanism.

The interests of the donor will always have an influence on what is truly ‘needed’, despite organisational or personal circumstances. One can find that a select few decided on eligibility and what issues deserved support many years before and far away from when one applied for a grant.

How do recipients challenge these predeterminants of civil society work in the same way as they do their governments? The level of accountability within civic spaces is wanting.

We castigate various forms of capitalism, which itself finds some ways to be accountable to its stakeholders. This can be in the form of Annual General Meetings, year-end reports, corporate social responsibility reporting, professional association codes of conduct, standardisation of product/service offerings, regulatory authorities and/or corporate governance measures in law/best practice depending on jurisdiction.

What do we as civil society have? M&E log frames, annual reports and terms of reference for trustees/boards? These are issues rarely discussed or prioritised. Understandably, the many forces we fight against and advocate for are demanding. A political office bearer can say the same, but the mechanisms of governance are established. Even where democratic institutions have eroded, the schools of thought and principles exist for someone to advocate for improvement. How does civil society keep itself in check?

We regulate creativity and divergent views through due diligence and ‘founder’s syndrome’.

I bring up some of these issues to encourage dialogue; the kind that looks beyond impact and data at practices and behaviour within our spaces. Many don’t view activism as a profession. I challenge this narrative as it can be quite structured and formal. Also knowing that we often exert the same pressure experienced in the form of a shrinking civil society space in our ways of work. We regulate creativity and divergent views through due diligence and ‘founder’s syndrome’. The first is viewed as mitigating risk within the poverty-stricken environments in which we operate. The latter engulfs itself as a victim of its own doing.

Let me explain:

a) On due diligence and whichever forms of regulation we impose on human rights work: if income inequality was recognised and corrected, there would be decent and meaningful compensation for human rights work. Activists would not need to worry about rent, medical bills in an emergency, or which necessity to sacrifice in lieu of another, if they were remunerated in a dignified manner. Dignified in that compensation can be equal regardless of living standard. Living standards are dictated by an economic system that in itself houses poverty and inequality. If someone is properly renumerated there shouldn’t be a need to adjust budgets or inadvertently compromise oneself and work by ‘chipping off’/diverting some funds. I’m not saying this is common but I have simplified a complex and difficult situation as poverty is a reality. This is why passion and dedication are often viewed as the biggest qualifying criteria when young people are engaged within civil society, because no other rational, logical explanation exists that considers the dignity of meaningful compensation.

b) As a result of the above, one of the reasons many people establish their own organisations is because of perceived income, ideological or opportunity disparities. Such disparities exist in developing country contexts, but also occur in the organisations that stand for us or those that work in the sector. It is the same passion and commitment that drive the small organisation to better heights but are not enough for it to qualify for core funding due to its ‘capacity’ or assumed inherent risks. This leaves a founder having to continue the struggle of not only managing new cohorts of activists that want to contribute, but the changing operational dynamics. All of a sudden there is an expectation that the creativity and co-collaboration needed is limited to a specific frame of focus in possible funding. The movement loses out on innovation and talent due to burnout, ‘brain drain’ or shifts in career aspirations.

Have we replicated the capitalist form of accountability where investors scrutinise organisational performance and only point out issues of misconduct when it might not benefit the donor?

Power manifests itself in various ways and, as in the cases above, contributes to how undignified our work can be. We have allowed for intermediary organisations to absorb the bulk of the funding and sub-grant whilst castigating the development sector for doing the same. Although participatory grant making exists, it does not negate the impact of design of these power systems.

Is there an alternative to the ‘giver and receiver’? Is there an equal and accountable form of ensuring equity? Who would we ‘recipients’ be without the ‘givers’, or vice versa? Have we replicated the capitalist form of accountability where investors scrutinise organisational performance and only point out issues of misconduct when it might not benefit the donor? I include this just in case we forget that capitalism funds civil society work. Although it can be blamed for creating the systemic issues of poverty and inequality, we perpetuate these within our spaces of engagement/influence. It is this assumed privilege as decision makers that we need to recognise. How can we be responsible with this power and the confidence of relations with key levers of power (i.e. funders and gate keepers) to improve the conditions for those who come after and still work with us?

I have no solution because I am not in a position of that kind of power but, at least, I hope this blog will remind me of my current thinking if I am to be privileged enough to assume that power and be responsible for it.


Dumi is a human rights defender, feminist and radical researcher. PhD (Law) candidate, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and independent consultant for state shadow reports, participatory human rights research and grassroots civic action. IG: dumi.activist / www.dumisogatsha.com / gatshadumiso@yahoo.com.