A Pioneer of Rapid Response Grantmaking
“Emergencies are real emergencies, no? I mean by the time you go through a normal grant application process, you’ll be dead…or the opportunity passes by…so there is something about a rapid response fund that is very important. It is very special to have that kind of fund.”
– Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, commenting on Urgent Action Fund“Urgent Action Fund is known among activists for its actions, not its words.” – a UAF grantee
20 YEARS OF RAPID RESPONSE GRANTMAKING
- 1997 NOVEMBER
UAF’s first grant goes to a crisis intervention team working with Thai and Malaysian women recently identified in Canada during a police raid on a sex trafficking ring.
- 2001 SEPTEMBER
In the wake of the September 11th attacks, one of UAF’s first grants to activists in the United States funds a women-led coalition from South Asian, Arab American, and Muslim communities in the New York City area as they support community members and rally to prevent hate crimes.
- 2003 SEPTEMBER
The first grant to a transgender human rights defender evacuates an activist from Honduras after she receives death threats and witnesses the murder of another transgender activist by police.
- 2007 AUGUST
UAF awards its 500th grant in support of precedent-setting litigation after a young woman is raped in Colombia by a government official.
“The impetus for UAF came first from requests that Ariane and I had received while working as grant makers in the U.S. and Canada. Generally, we reached out to individual donors to try to respond to urgent situations but our success was limited. More important, it became clear during the preparatory conferences and aftermath of the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing that an unprecedented movement was building to assert women’s human rights on every continent. The Beijing Platform for Action provided a framework upon which to build local strategies and action plans to make change happen. In order to translate those plans into reality activists needed financial support to be able to respond quickly when strategic opportunities arose.” – Julie Shaw
In 1996, Julie Shaw, then Senior Program Manager at the Global Fund for Women, and Ariane Brunet, who had recently launched the Coalition for Women’s Rights in Conflict Situations, saw the need for a new way of working.
Women activists were operating in unpredictable, high-risk environments; they needed the ability to respond swiftly to new opportunities to advance human rights. No one was providing this kind of support. As Ariane remembers, “There was a terrible void between the spur of the moment situation for activists in conflict situations and the capacity of donors to respond.” What did women activists think about this gap? They wanted to find out.
With a grant from a group of anonymous women donors and support from members of the Women Donors Network, Julie conducted a feasibility study for a new funding model, interviewing 80 activists and donors globally. The demand was clear: fast, flexible funding, with a minimum of bureaucracy, to respond to urgent needs. As Julie recalls, “That financial support was either tough to access or not available at all. In fact, it became apparent during our assessment that most groups didn’t even consider approaching the philanthropic community with urgent requests. The establishment of a global rapid response fund was needed to fill that gap.”
Urgent Action Fund was launched in October of 1997 with Julie at the helm. It was fueled by contributions from 12 founding mother donors, including founding board member Margaret (Mudge) Schink. Within a week, Urgent Action Fund made its first rapid response grant. In doing so, Julie, Ariane, and Mudge had launched one of the world’s first-ever rapid response funds.
Urgent Action Fund also began with an unusual organizational set-up, with a governing board made up of women activists from a wide range of countries, cultures, and backgrounds. As Julie reflects, “Most of the organizations we knew and worked with had boards made up predominantly of wealthy Americans andEuropeans and had advisory boards of activists. We flipped this paradigm.” In this way, Urgent Action Fund has always been rooted in movements and drawing upon the wisdom, resilience, and creativity of activists.
The Ford Foundation was the first institutional investor in this new model. Former Ford Foundation Deputy Director for Human Rights and International Cooperation Mahnaz Ispahani recalls, “What was so powerful about what Julie and Ariane were saying then, in the 1990s, was they wanted to get resources to women activists quickly. Women doing the work on the ground had so many urgent needs. As a foundation officer, I knew how slowly institutions can move and also the difficult situations women activists were in. This kind of help is vital, but it’s not so easy to convince institutions when you say, ‘We need the money now.’ Julie and Ariane gave me examples: a woman activist in Afghanistan needed a cell phone now for urgent reasons. UAF could get it to her fast.” She recommended that the Ford Foundation award Urgent Action Fund its first institutional grant in 1998.
Urgent Action Fund awarded its first grant to the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women—Canada, responding to police raids attempting to break up an international sex trafficking ring. The funds enabled the organization to provide legal aid to 35 Thai and Malaysian survivors of trafficking who were facing criminal charges and deportation.Other grants made that first year included support to Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe for the first-ever legal defense of a lesbian mother’s child custody rights and to the Sisterhood is Global Institute to conduct research on the lives of women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Today, the basic principles of the rapid response model remain unchanged. The grants continue to enable women and transgender human rights defenders to act quickly—to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, mitigate threats, or to prevent backsliding in their ongoing work to advance the human rights of all people. Individuals and organizations can apply 365 days a year, in any language. Urgent Action Fund will relay a response within 72 hours and send up to $5,000 within a matter of days.
20 YEARS OF RAPID RESPONSE GRANTMAKING CONT…
- 2010 DECEMBER
UAF awards its first grant to women working on climate change and funds a safe house for an environmental group in the Philippines after its leader is forcibly detained upon her return from a Greenpeace conference.
- 2011 DECEMBER
UAF awards its 1000th grant to activists in Pakistan for legislative advocacy after an epidemic of sexual violence against low-caste Hindu minority girls and women.
- 2016 JUNE
UAF awards its 1500th grant to support a major public protest in Zagreb, Croatia to defend reproductive rights.
- 2016 NOVEMBER 9TH
The Resist and Reclaim Fund is launched by UAF to increase support to women and transgender human rights defenders in the United States.
A VITAL LINK IN TRYING TIMES
From the beginning, Urgent Action Fund centered a commitment to activists working in countries and regions wracked by armed conflict, situations where more traditional forms of philanthropy struggled to find a foothold. Starting in its earliest years, Urgent Action Fund reached women responding to the needs of conflict-affected communities and leading efforts for reconciliation, reconstruction, and justice in disparate parts of the world: Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan, Kosovo and the Balkans. Urgent Action Fund saw that, in addition to providing essential relief services, women were leading anti-war protests, reporting on human rights violations, supporting survivors of violence, and claiming a seat at the negotiating table. When the fighting stopped, women were at the forefront, demanding accountability for crimes and pushing for women’s participation in legal and political reforms.
One of Urgent Action Fund’s earliest projects was the Balkan Gender Initiative, an effort developed in consultation with women’s organizations in Kosovo and supported by the Ford Foundation. Launched to support women’s leadership and the creation of gender-sensitive policies throughout the Balkans, it combined rapid response grants for women-led peacebuilding efforts with support to build collaboration among NGOs and develop a regional network of WHRDs. This included connecting Kosovar women’s organizations to those in other parts of the world that had also experienced conflict.
The “Budapest Base” was one of the significant developments to come out of the initiative. It was a rented office in Budapest, funded for its first six months by a rapid response grant from Urgent Action Fund, after which longer-term support was identified. In the instability and chaos of those years, the office served as an organizing base and safe space for activists from throughout the former Yugoslavia. It provided an essential link across borders, a safe space for activists to rest, and a place for exchange and organizing. For two years, it offered practical and emotional support to women, even serving as a shelter during the NATO bombing campaign. As Lepa Mladjenovic, a leading activist for LGBTI equality and peace in the region, wrote: “It was such a safe haven… It would have been totally different if we didn’t have that place.”
In 2000, Urgent Action Fund awarded a rapid opportunity grant to the Rape/Genocide Law Project. This grant enabled twelve women to travel to New York and testify in a civil suit brought against indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic by Bosnian survivors of rape and torture. It was the first time that survivors had the chance to testify before a jury about the human rights violations perpetrated against women during the conflict. And, it was the first recognition of rape as an act of genocide in a US court of law. After hearing their stories, the jury demanded that Karadzic pay $745 million in damages. As a member of the Rape/Genocide Law Project wrote to Urgent Action Fund, “However much money is ultimately obtained from Karadzic, the women who came here felt vindicated by the process and the outcome of the trial itself. During the trial, many said that their purpose in this lawsuit was to bring what happened to them to the attention of the world so that it might never happen again. Many expressed their belief that they had achieved a victory.” Though he was living in hiding at the time and did not pay the damages, Karadzic was ultimately sentenced to prison in a criminal trial in 2016. Evidence gathered for the civil trial was used against him.
Similarly, Urgent Action Fund supported nearly three dozen grassroots women’s human rights and peace-building organizations during the years of armed conflict in Colombia. In 1999, the Women and Armed Conflict Working Group in Colombia used a grant from Urgent Action Fund to help peasant, indigenous, Afro-Colombian and displaced women testify to the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Because of this intervention, the Special Rapporteur reported to the UN: “the use of violence against women in the midst of the conflict in Colombia as an arm of war is generalized and systematic.” Ultimately, this concentration of work in Colombia led to the launch of Urgent Action Fund – Latin America in Bogotá, Colombia in 2009.
Over the years, Urgent Action Fund expanded its work, continuing to reach conflict areas and increasingly supporting activists in a wider range of crises situations. Just as rapid response grants offer a lifeline to WHRDs and THRDs working in areas of conflict, they enable Urgent Action Fund to respond to the needs of activists working in an array of challenging contexts. This century has seen a groundswell of popular movements demanding racial justice, democratic governance, and corporate accountability. Meanwhile, growing authoritarianism, militarization, religious fundamentalism, and shrinking civic space have thrown activists up barriers to human rights organizing and multiplied the risks to activists.
Under the guise of counterterrorism efforts or in response to popular protest, governments are enacting policies or pursuing tactics to constrict freedom of association, assembly, and expression. Many of the activists seeking grants from Urgent Action Fund already struggle to overcome gender norms that deter women’s political participation and leadership; these new restrictions threaten the already limited space in which they operate.
In the Mindanao region of the Philippines, criminalization of environmental and indigenous human rights defenders has reached unprecedented levels. Tactics such as false charges and imprisonment, harassment, and violence are used to deter their work. Such threats occur in the context of an ongoing conflict and are sometimes carried out under the pretext of the government’s campaign against local insurgent groups. Human rights defenders, their families, and their communities face displacement by the conflict and are targets of “fake encounters” (extrajudicial killings staged to appear as though they took place because of the military conflict). Women human rights defenders
are at particular risk of sexual violence; rape is used to attempt to shame them and to discourage their activism. — From In Our Bones: Stories from Women Defending Land, Community, Human Rights & the Environment in Indonesia and the Philippines
Activists already marginalized within organized civil society spaces— like those defending the human rights of sex workers or LGBTI people are often targeted in these circumstances. In many countries, LGBTI defenders find themselves scapegoated in waves of nationalist backlash.
Last year in Indonesia, a backlash against LGBTI rights promulgated by public figures and vigilante groups intensified security threats for activists. An Urgent Action Fund advisor documented the trend in hate speech and its impacts and advised on grants made to relocate an activist and support in-place security measures for others. Since the backlash occurred as grantees were developing a safety and security training module, they invited activists from Myanmar, and the Philippines, who have dealt with similar hate speech and threats, to give input and advice, which they reported was helpful for developing localized responses.
For some activists, these situations are untenable. The only option is to escape with the hope of continuing to work from a safer harbor. For others, the risks they face can be mitigated by access to equipment (a cell phone, an alarm system), security training to assess threats and identify protection strategies, or legal aid to combat persecution. Sometimes what’s needed is respite and care. Rapid response grants provide the means for all of these things, enabling individuals and organizations to be safer and more secure, and to attend to their wellbeing. In this way, and in this challenging global context, Urgent Action Fund is well positioned to sustain activism under threat.
In Armenia, the government has targeted activists to stifle dissent and quash protests. Due to her work fighting corruption and organized crime in Armenia, Marina Poghosyan, director of the civil society organization Veles, faced threats, harassment, and a baseless criminal lawsuit. A grant from Urgent Action Fund in 2016 provided her with legal assistance, safe transportation, and equipment to improve the physical security of Veles’ office. With the aid of two lawyers, the fabricated charges against Ms. Poghosyan were rejected, and a report on the illegal actions of the investigator who brought the charges was filed.
At the same time, Urgent Action Fund uses rapid response grants to act quickly when unexpected openings to advance human rights appear. Through community organizing, street actions, strategic litigation, and lobbying, grantees call attention to critical social justice issues, push for progressive policies and pursue precedent-setting judgments. Sometimes the work is simply to hold the line and preserve important gains; other times, it’s to prevent the passage of bad laws or challenge unfair judgments. Often, it’s to build capacity for further mobilization: training new leaders, bringing groups together to forge alliances and strategize, or collecting evidence for better arguments.
In 2015, Jessie Hernandez, a 17-year-old Latina, was killed by police in Denver. With a grant from Urgent Action Fund, Buried Seedz of Resistance (previously the Colorado Anti-Violence Project) mobilized to bring attention to issues of police violence in Colorado. Within a couple of weeks, they organized a vigil, collected more than 20,000 signatures demanding the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the practices of the Denver Police Department and facilitated community-wide meetings to organize around Jessie’s case and, more broadly, local efforts for racial justice and police accountability. With training in media and film production, youth members of the group started to create a documentary to commemorate Jessie’s life and contribute to organizing efforts.
While Urgent Action Fund always gave a small percentage of its rapid response grants within the United States, we increased this funding significantly to respond to the recent surge in hateful rhetoric and violence. The Resist and Reclaim Fund, launched on November 9th, 2016, is helping activists, especially activists of color, to resist discriminatory policies, access security training, and take steps to protect themselves and their communities when under threat.