Women-focused CSOs to donors: Stop setting the agenda, start funding us

The 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations opened on March 11, 2019. Photo by: Amanda Voisard / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

SEATTLE — Despite an international agreement that promotes increased localization of aid, most humanitarian grant-making infrastructure still fails to support women-focused groups on the ground, several experts said on Wednesday.

Olfat Mahmoud, director and founder of the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organization, urged donors to adapt their practices so that she is able to address the holistic needs of the women she serves in Lebanon.

“It’s time for donors to begin to think creatively about how they can get funds into the hands of the people who can use it most effectively.”

— Marcy Hersh, senior manager for humanitarian advocacy, Women Deliver

A nurse by training and a Palestinian refugee herself, Mahmoud established the grassroots organization to support women and their families, both Palestinian and now Syrian, living in refugee camps in Lebanon. For many years, international donors have expressed the desire to support vocational training and income generation activities, she told Devex in an interview from New York. The calls for proposals continue to be very narrow — and don’t often allow for adaptation to the reality of refugees residing in the country, she said.  

“As Palestinians in Lebanon, we have no right to work in Lebanon. If we want to do vocational training and then we will need to evaluate the project, the evaluation will be ‘how many people found a job?’ But this is against the law, we have no right to work. We find it very difficult sometimes when the agenda is set up and you need to switch your proposal not to the needs of communities, but to what the donors want.”

Mahmoud’s organization is part of Women Deliver’s newly established Humanitarian Advocates Program, which launched on Wednesday in New York, on the sidelines of the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women. The program, which has invited five women-focused civil society organizations in Lebanon into its first cohort, provides in-person and web-based technical assistance around advocacy and communications to CSO staff. More broadly, it seeks to help promote flexible investments for women-focused CSOs in humanitarian settings.

Context, culture, priorities

In 2018, 136 million people needed aid and protection, an estimated 34 million of whom were women of reproductive age. Five million of those women were pregnant.

Global advocacy organization Women Deliver wants to see the engagement of girls and women at every stage of a crisis, from preparedness through recovery efforts, and to address the need for long-term funding for local women’s groups — a gap that frustrates Cecilia Chami, program director for Lebanon Family Planning Association for Development and Family Empowerment.

Chami, a member of the Humanitarian Advocates Program, noted that too much long-term funding still goes to larger international NGOs in the space.

“We know the context. We know the culture. We know the priorities of the woman,” Chami told Devex, explaining why women-focused CSOs are deserving of flexible, long-term funding.

Still, donors are “anxious about the possibility of giving directly to organizations like Olfat’s and Cecilia’s because they worry about corruption,” Marcy Hersh, senior manager for humanitarian advocacy at Women Deliver, told Devex. “They worry about funds disappearing and frankly that’s an old-fashioned way of thinking, it’s an insulting way of thinking from the perspective of organizations doing life-saving work in the field.

It’s time for the international community to provide safe and equitable opportunities for women-focused CSOs to participate in humanitarian decision-making processes, Hersh said, and also “time for donors to begin to think creatively about how they can get funds into the hands of the people who can use it most effectively.”

Hersh pointed to Canada as one donor taking steps to do this by providing small grants to women-focused organizations working in humanitarian spaces. Outside of that initiative, she is “not actually aware of any other donors that are taking leadership in this space.”

Funding women-focused groups is often only possible in contexts with strong, properly resourced women’s organizations already on the ground, said Daniel Seymour, director of humanitarian action and crisis response for UN Women, while speaking at Wednesday’s event. The reality is that these grants require patience as well as lower administrative burdens for the grantee organizations, he said, stressing the need for new mechanisms to successfully fund the work of CSOs like those present on the panel from Lebanon.

Seymour referenced the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund — a global partnership that aims to stimulate funding for women’s participation and leadership in conflict and humanitarian crises — as one vehicle for getting money directly to those organizations. A representative from the Global Fund for Women, meanwhile, spoke up to urge donors to remember that the nonprofit exists as another means of funding women doing life-saving work in crisis settings.

At the heart of the call to action to support women-focused organizations to do their work more successfully is the idea of introducing feminism to humanitarian aid, said Nicole Behnam, senior technical director for the International Rescue Committee Violence, Prevention and Response Unit.

“Feminism calls out the power shift and that power shift is important for all of us to take on  because it's not just about shifting power to women, it's about shifting power from the global north — from many of us, including myself, who have positions of privilege — to people who are on the ground.”

About the author

  • Rogers kelli cropped

    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.