At the Women Deliver conference in early June, the Canadian government announced that it was pledging $300 million to the Equality Fund to advance women's rights worldwide. The announcement was especially exciting because the fund is committed to supporting feminist movements and their advocacy work — an unusual focus for an international development initiative.
Over the last two decades, U.S. foundations and the international development community have dramatically increased funding for women and girls in the Global South. Yet despite these outlays — avowedly dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls — evidence has shown that most funding going to women's empowerment is not only ineffective but actually harmful.
The typical thinking goes something like this: Empower a woman in the Global South with the means to generate her own income and prevent unwanted pregnancy, and she will invest in the health and education of her children and family, ending the vicious cycle of poverty and generating an outsized return on investment. This approach focuses on the individual woman or girl. Very little, if any, support goes to feminist organizations and movements. The missing link is the advocacy efforts of feminist groups, which are dedicated to changing the very structures that perpetuate inequality and oppression.
A 2012 study by Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon based on 1975-2005 data from seventy countries found that the critical factor in domestic policy change focused on addressing violence against women was not the activities of left-wing parties or national wealth but rather the mobilization of feminists. And a 2018 study by Alice J. Kang and Aili Mari Tripp based on data from fifty African countries similarly found that without action by domestic women's coalitions, legislative reform on women's rights was significantly less likely to occur. Feminist movements drive lasting change. Indeed, they are usually the only factor that does.
So what kind of funding should donors provide to feminist movements and organizations? Social change takes time. To be effective, activists must be nimble and able to respond strategically to changing conditions. As such, they require flexible, long-term funding that allows them to control the direction of their work. Yet over the past decade, the share of general operating support for gender equality from U.S. foundations has dropped from 30 percent to 15 percent. This trend reflects the philanthropic community's increasing preoccupation with the need to demonstrate its own impact — which translates into funding for specific, time-bound projects with "measurable outcomes" that often have little to do with effective change. Currently, less than 5 percent of empowerment funding from U.S. foundations goes to grassroots organizing, and only 0.1 percent supports convenings — spaces where women can collaborate, strategize, and build solidarity across diverse movements.
Numerous studies have shown that this pattern of funding cripples vibrant social movements. In 2009, Dean Chahim and Aseem Prakash found that the shift toward project support and stringent reporting requirements fractured, depoliticized, and, ultimately, de-legitimized Nicaraguan women's organizations. Organizations were forced to compete with one another for funding, which in turn disincentivized collective action and disrupted productive partnerships. Donor-funded projects also took time away from activism, ultimately directing organizations toward social service provision rather than transformative change. What's more, the weakening of women's organizations by donor funding has been documented in Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ghana, Palestine, and Egypt from the late 1990s to the present.
How do we reverse this trend? For thirty-five years, the International Women's Health Coalition has supported and partnered with women's organizations worldwide. We know that women are a unique force for equality and social liberation. It is why we employ a strategy based on the Whitman Institute's trust-based philanthropy model. And it is why we provide general operating support to local women's organizations and fund grassroots women's movements.
We have funded specific women's organizations and movements for more than two decades, standing by their side through the ups and downs of social change. In Uruguay, for example, we celebrated when the country liberalized its abortion law after more than fifteen years of feminist organizing. In Poland, we have rallied in support of our grantee partner, the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, as it resisted repeated attacks on women's reproductive autonomy and rights. And in Pakistan, we increased financial support for our partner Aahung after the government decided to implement the organization's sexuality education curriculum in public schools.
Philanthropy must function in service of the communities it seeks to empower, rather than as an exercise in self-congratulatory metrics. It is time for funders to reexamine their models and seriously consider how they can move beyond the traditional frameworks of charity or development to truly empower women and feminist movements to drive change.
We invite other funders to join us and provide women-led organizations with long-term, unrestricted, general operating support. Donors should celebrate the coalitions built by women and encourage cooperation, not competition, among feminist groups. Most importantly, funders should support women's leadership and agency and commit to women's own priorities. If even a fraction of U.S. foundations revised their strategies to recognize the need for consciousness raising and political action, they would be helping to catalyze sustainable social change in countries and regions where it is desperately needed.
In the current global political climate, feminist movements have emerged as frontline defenders against the rising tide of authoritarianism, hatred, and xenophobia. We must support these efforts, rather than cripple them. Canada's investment shows how we might begin to turn the tide.
Françoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, is a lawyer by training and an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and women's rights. She has played a key role in advocating at many UN conferences, from ICPD+5 to the process to negotiate the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.