Southern philanthropy, social justice and human rights

Fabiana Leibl and Ine Van Severen


This discussion paper addresses the question of how philanthropists in the global south could better support the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs) to promote human rights and social justice, including actions that focus on advocacy, accountability and mobilisation. The paper is informed by interviews conducted with 12 representatives of philanthropic foundations and institutions, based in and operating in the global south. The geographic coverage of these foundations includes Brazil, India and South Africa, and countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The aim of the paper is to encourage a model of ‘transformational philanthropy’ that uses a rights based approach rather than ‘charitable philanthropy,’ which addresses important gaps in society but does not seek or induce systemic change.

The debate about how philanthropy can support change-seeking civil society activity has become a more urgent one for CSOs in recent years as traditional CSO funding sources have come under renewed challenges, sparking a search for alternatives. There are two trends in particular that are relevant here: firstly, funding from traditional donors, particularly from the donor agencies of global north governments, is becoming more volatile and unpredictable, and secondly, the restrictions that states place on the ability of CSOs to receive funds from international sources are increasing. Given this context, this paper outlines philanthropic trends in emerging economies, specifically highlighting the work of some foundations at the forefront of supporting the human rights and social justice work of CSOs.

The paper finds that there is a nascent local culture of institutionalised philanthropy for human rights and social justice causes in the global south, but so far it is not sufficiently developed to bridge the gap left by reducing support from foreign donor agencies and increased government restrictions on the receipt of funding. Global south foundations still need to be challenged further on the extent to which they are willing to take risks, recognise the longer-term limitations of the direct, service-delivery interventions they tend to support, and open up their decision-making structures to civil society participation.


Leibl, F., & Van Severen, I. (2016). Southern philanthropy, social justice and human rights (Civicus discussion paper). Johannesburg: Civicus.