Looking Back to Look Forward
A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. It was an emotional experience, to say the least. The community has preserved the space where Floyd was murdered as a memorial dedicated to art, memory, and healing. Among various pieces of art featured in and around the Square, one particularly caught my eye.
It was a piece titled “Sankofa” by Esther Osayande. Sankofa is a metaphorical symbol used by the Akan people of Ghana and expresses the importance of reaching back in order to make progress moving forward. The symbol shows a bird looking back with its head, while its body and feet are positioned in a forward direction. To me, it was an apt metaphor that we have to look back and acknowledge the horrible harm that happened right there in May 2020, while also doing our best to repair, reconcile, and rejuvenate.
The fields that Humanity United works in have also faced innumerable harms over the past few years. In 2023, our partners around the world were experiencing enduring effects of the pandemic, while also being buffeted by the forces of authoritarianism, climate change, and war. In particular, the rise of right-wing governments in Europe, the re-emergence of major conflicts (Ukraine, Israel/Palestine, Sudan), and continued polarization in our domestic politics created challenges for our work.
At the same time, we were able to move forward on a few key fronts:
- After years of work by our partners, a political deal was reached in December 2023 requiring EU companies to assess risks and prevent harm to human rights and the environment in their global supply chains. This is a significant step forward for corporate accountability.
- HU helped guide the Democracy, Rights and Governance Bureau at USAID to develop its $45 Million “Powered by the People” funding stream, advancing the organizations’ shared commitment to foster citizen-responsive democratic governance and inclusive development through relationships with non-traditional and historically excluded communities. Having a major bilateral donor support movement spaces represents a paradigm shift in the development and peacebuilding space.
- HU also supported USAID in its ambitious goals around localization, including how to bring values of inclusion, accompaniment, and locally led decision-making into action in complex conflict environments.
- HU’s Racial Justice and Equity team supported various community events in Southeast Washington, DC including the third annual “Art on the Rise”, a community-led art event featuring several local artists, as well as events focusing on building resilience and other essential needs of the community.
In addition, we continued to make progress on several of our long-term initiatives, such as our work to decrease forced labor in the seafood supply chains in Thailand and the Asia-Pacific region, our work to cultivate a culture of peace in Colombia, and our work to dismantle the exploitative labor system in Qatar.
I personally had a chance to spend a few weeks with the HU team in Thailand in October 2023 and was able to meet with several stakeholders including migrant workers, NGOs, vessel owners, shrimp farmers, industry associations, processors, and retailers. It was remarkable to see the progress that has occurred in the decade since this work started, including significant changes to the legal and regulatory frameworks, a comprehensive monitoring system for vessels, improved transparency, a shift towards ethical recruitment, and stronger coordination and collaborative action by civil society.
At the same time, the limits of a single country approach have become clear. With 70% of the world’s seafood produced in the Asia Pacific, improved conditions and oversight in Thailand mean that human rights abuses have increasingly been displaced to other countries where there is less scrutiny. As a result, our next phase aims to create an encircling effect across the Asia-Pacific region, leveling the playing field and building to a tipping point that culminates in basic minimum standards for the protection of workers.
In line with our commitment to ongoing learning and feedback, we commissioned a Grantee Perception Report for the first time since 2011. We were pleased to see that grantees’ ratings of Humanity United’s intentional interactions and relationships with grantees were in the top 20 percent of the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s comparable dataset. We also learned that we can do better in our grantmaking. The strongest theme in grantees’ written feedback was the request for more unrestricted support and more multi-year grants.
In heeding the feedback and in line with the aspirations outlined in our organizational strategy, we have been working to increase unrestricted support and multi-year grants, as well as funding to proximate actors. In 2023, we awarded 170 grants totaling $23M, with 35% of those being general operating grants (an increase from 11% in 2018). Of the 2023 grants, 19% were made to non-Western organizations (an increase from 13% in 2018). We recognize that while we’ve made some progress, we are still in the early stages of this journey, including how we define and track localization efforts.
As we approach 2024, which by all accounts appears to be another year filled with turbulence, polarization, and volatility, it is helpful to remember that progress is not linear in complex, adaptive systems like the ones we work in. I see a combination of challenges and opportunities along our path. But we remain strongly committed to priorities such as pushing for creation and enforcement of robust human rights due diligence frameworks, investing in critical networks that will amplify the power of proximate peacebuilders, and influencing greater adoption of proximate-led approaches.
Internally, we will continue to make progress in our approach to grantmaking and deepen our diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work, as well our work around trauma and healing. We will also remain committed to being a learning organization – regularly learning not just with each other but also in conjunction with our partners and other key stakeholders in mutually beneficial, non-extractive ways.
Above all, in 2024, we will harken back our value of shared humanity, recognizing the interconnectedness and intrinsic dignity of all human beings. As the inscription around the “Sankofa” piece at George Floyd Square describes:
Sankofa tells us that we as a people can rise above conflicts of ego and treat all beings we meet as brothers and sisters. It is time to start the healing.
On behalf of our entire Humanity United team, I wish you and your loved ones a happy and prosperous new year.
With much appreciation,