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Philanthropy Needs Rights-Based Strategies and Tactics for Climate Action

Date: September 6, 2023

Carla Fredericks

CEO, The Christensen Fund

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Philanthropy has played a critical role in the struggles of peoples for freedom and justice through the centuries — from abolition, suffrage, and ending apartheid to strengthening democracy, promoting peace, and working on racial and economic equality. So, too, must it take a human rights lens on climate action, a planetary struggle affecting us all.

This will require a constellation of practices across grantmaking and investing that can be even more multifaceted and less obvious than issues funded. And it’s particularly critical, as we race for climate solutions, to involve Indigenous Peoples and their traditional lands: philanthropy has mobilized billions in pledge commitments without sufficient involvement of Indigenous Peoples themselves.

A workable and moral set of solutions for climate change requires grantmaking strategies that adhere to existing human rights instruments, and rights-based philanthropy practices that acknowledge the importance of building Indigenous People’s power in self-determination.  To do this, we must provide Indigenous communities equal knowledge of funding mechanisms for protecting, respecting, and remedying harm to nature.

Two Instruments for Rights-Based Strategies

First, funders need to deeply understand at least two global instruments that delineate standards for all rights-based strategies:

  1. The first is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which affirms not only the inextricable connection between Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods, culture, and land but also our individual and collective rights to decision-making and self-determination. Drafted in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples and ratified by more than 150 countries throughout the world, it is the globally-accepted minimum standard for the survival, dignity, and well-being of Indigenous Peoples.
  2. Second is the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, whose three-part framework addresses protecting rights, respecting rights, and remedying harm. It is germane to all in the business of moving money.

These principles of human rights for Indigenous Peoples unfortunately are not embedded in the core philosophies of philanthropy, nor our history. Indeed, the Vatican repudiated its “Doctrine of Discovery” only this year. The doctrine’s centuries-old legal and religious framework of the Catholic Church asserted it had discovered the Western Hemisphere and thus land could be seized and Indigenous men, women, and children murdered because of colonizers’ racial and spiritual superiority and a lack of consideration of Indigenous Peoples as human beings.

UNDRIP requires that Indigenous People’s collaborations with anyone — including international finance institutions, public-private partnerships, bilaterals, multilaterals, and philanthropy — be undertaken in concert with the rights expressed in that instrument. We should reasonably expect philanthropy, untrammeled by politics and other quotidian concerns, to lead the way or risk inauthenticity.

Three Tenets for Rights-Based Grantmaking

Moving from rights-based giving strategies to rights-based grantmaking practice is step two. And it’s a step too often forgotten in a rush to address the climate crisis. As the prospect of fully abating climate disaster grows dim, the climate finance conversation is shifting from prevention to addressing loss and damage. Across these issues, peoples of Indigenous communities have proprietary knowledge to inform and carry out the work, but a lack of funder communication, relationship building, and transparency about funding mechanisms means Indigenous Peoples mostly have no idea where these donated billions are going, nor how they could be involved in or access remedies. If we truly believe that Indigenous knowledge, ecological stewardship, and solutions will be the key to unlocking a viable future for everyone, our grantmaking practices should empower every person in those communities to show us the way.

Consider this ancient Siletz tribal story of the Three Sisters, who are working to save babies from drowning in a nearby river. The sisters all take different approaches: one picks up as many babies at the mouth of the river as possible, remedying harm; a second tries to teach the babies to paddle out of the current, respecting their survival skills; and a third goes to the headwaters of the river to find out who is throwing babies in the river with intent to prevent them and protect the children. To empower Indigenous People to play roles of protector, respecter, and preventer calls for including them in foundation strategy development and decision-making. Observing three rights-based philanthropic practices can help any funder achieve this:

  1. Co-create tools for transparency: Funders need to be clear that they will provide holistic, flexible, and responsive support to a severely underfunded sector through strategic advice, network building, and money. To do this, they need to work directly with Indigenous communities and leadership to create tools for feedback, transparency, and mutual accountability. The Climate Funders Justice Pledge represents a critical commitment to policies like building transparency into all interactions, structuring stakeholder engagement into every element of the grantmaking process, and embracing accountability through soliciting feedback at each step and shifting practice in response.
  2. Put the “mother right” of self-determination at the center: This means practicing deep listening and trust of Indigenous leaders to be architects of their vision for the future. It will contribute to the goal of improving the leadership and capacity of Indigenous Peoples to realize their rights.  The core of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the right to self-determination. Indigenous Peoples consider it the “mother right,” without which other rights lose their truth and meaning. A ready tool? Philanthropy’s framework of trust-based philanthropy is a well-articulated means by which to respect and support self-determination in its most essential form: recognizing the rights, knowledge, and power of people to themselves transform and lead.
  3. Double-down on solidarity: This entails walking in solidarity with partners living and responding to the needs of Indigenous Peoples and communities and playing a crucial role in creating space for community and connection. And it means valuing and investing in deep understanding, familiarity, and relationships with the Global Indigenous movement. At the Christensen Fund, we undertook a series of partner consultations beginning in 2018. In acceptance of their recommendations, in 2021 we pivoted our strategy from protecting biocultural diversity to an Indigenous rights-based framework, with a mission to simply work “to support Indigenous Peoples in advancing their inherent rights, dignity, and self-determination.” Further, in listening to our partners, we have committed to not conflating Indigenous Peoples and local communities as equal rights holders in the human rights system or elsewhere. Even the term “Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities” or “IPLC ” has caused harm and diluted the promises of the UN declaration. This conflation has especially reared its head as the world races for climate and nature-based solutions involving Indigenous People’s habitats that other local communities share.

We have the opportunity as funders to stand firm in our commitment to protect and respect human rights and remedy violations of them. The way forward for climate action calls for grounding strategy and developing processes in line with rights-based practices. Do this and philanthropy can be the sister who sounds the alarm in our climate crisis and avails its tools and resources to step in and help remedy harm as good partners and allies. We can be the sister who shares the burden and danger of wading into turbulent waters to equip those fighting the currents. And, we can be the sister who runs upstream, working at the highest levels of global governance to support Indigenous Peoples’ own strategies and objectives. With a rights-based approach, we can be and resource sisters on all parts of the river. The high, high stakes of climate change require nothing less.

Carla F. Fredericks is the CEO of The Christensen Fund. She is an enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. Find Carla on LinkedIn and The Christensen Fund on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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