Voices of the River

Way Forward

This is a guest post by Ambika Satkunanathan, a human rights lawyer and activist from Sri Lanka, and founding Board member of UAF A&P. She is also the former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and served as the legal Consultant to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka. This blog is based on her speech at UAF A&P’s ‘Voices of the River’ convening in Colombo in September 2023.

Illustration by Hafsa Ashfaque and Kruttika Susarla

Asia, mirroring global trends, is grappling with the challenge of sustaining an environment that enables the achievement of social justice, protection of human rights, and diverse and plural societies within a context of growing authoritarianism. Populist leaders are stoking deeply embedded prejudices, resulting in many countries being plagued by identity politics. Increased militarization, the growth of intolerance, and increased discrimination and marginalization of minorities, which in turn fuels the radicalization of youth, in particular, youth in marginalized communities. The state weaponizes the law to deal with these populations, supposedly to keep society safe.

We are witnessing disregard for the rule of law, shrinking civic space, and the emergence of strong anti-rights movements. The global attack on human rights protection, including the UN system, is very real and our region is a prime example.

This is why a regional fund that is independent and not held hostage by geopolitics is needed. Hence, a regional fund that is attuned to the rapidly evolving situation in the region was long overdue by the time Urgent Action Fund, Asia and Pacific was founded.

The indivisibility of civil, political, and socio-economic rights, and the inter-connectedness of protecting liberty and addressing inequality, has never been more evident, as illustrated by the situation in Sri Lanka. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka points to the failure of neoliberal policies that entrenched structural inequalities, and deepened existing socio-economic inequalities, such as gender, caste, and class. Formal equality, though protected in the Constitution and given prominence in the mission statements of NGOs, has not translated into substantive equality in Sri Lanka. This is not unique to Sri Lanka but is true of the region. This failure is not the state’s alone, and civil society and activists too must take responsibility for not adopting an intersectional approach that enables the socio-cultural inequalities that are experienced by those who suffer multiple layers of discrimination to be identified and addressed.

Our collective failures highlight that social justice initiatives and the rights discourse need to pay due attention to community rights, such as rights of indigenous communities to forest rights, which impacts their livelihood, and land and housing rights of communities, such as Tamils and the Up Country Tamils in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, we must take care to ensure that the recognition of community rights does not result in an erosion of the rights of marginalized individuals within these communities, such as women.

While social entrepreneurship has been touted as the next big solution in the non-profit, development sector, particularly by many large donors, and even the UN, increasing inequality illustrates that wealth creation in a dysfunctional system without a value base that is founded on equality, equity, and non-discrimination is not a panacea to the social problems of our time. In a society that functions on patronage, has feudal tendencies and entrenched hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, religion or caste, as many of our societies do, wealth creation will only lead to unequal outcomes instead of dismantling structures of inequality. High growth rates don’t necessarily lead to the end of inequality or crony capitalism, patronage, or corruption, as Sri Lanka has shown. And the growth of the private sector in a society that thrives on patronage does not necessarily empower the economically marginalised, or help dismantle historical systems of discrimination and oppression.

This is the time to re-assess social justice interventions, such as legal reform initiatives, since litigation and legal reform, commonly used to seek redress for historical and structural injustices, have yielded mixed results. We must also revisit and re-frame issues and strategies.

For instance, when we speak of socio-economic rights, we cannot ignore the structural inequalities prevalent in the global economic and financial systems which adversely affect the most marginalized groups in the most disadvantaged societies. When there is no substantive reform to address the disparity of power, development as envisaged by those in power serves to only widen existing inequalities.

Governments in the region, ably aided by multilateral institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, for instance, have long asserted that development and economic prosperity will lead to increased peace, security, and justice. This is a strategy used to avoid providing remedies that deal with structural and historical injustices. This discourse de-politicizes and de-historicizes discrimination and injustice. By re-capturing this discourse, civil society can ensure greater focus on economic justice as the hitherto ignored link to ensuring the enjoyment of civil and political rights and maintaining civic space.

We need to adopt an inter-sectional approach

We see in Sri Lanka, the adverse impact of the failure to adopt an intersectional approach. For instance, ignoring or asserting that class matters more than ethnicity ignores the deeply embedded social prejudices driven by identity politics, such as Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, that fuel everyday marginalization and micro-aggressions. The thirty-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and more recently, the impact of the Easter Sunday attacks, showed us that class and privilege may not protect you from ethnicity driven discrimination or violence.

For women in particular who experience multiple layers of discrimination, intersectionality matters.

There are also many difficult conversations to be had amongst feminists about our collective values and how we perform and live them. For instance, a conversation about the carceral approach that many women’s organisations and activists adopt to address violence, is long overdue, as is how we perceive and perform power, i.e. how civil society organisations, even feminist ones, often reproduce patriarchal practices, particularly when exercising power.

This brings me to movements versus civil society versus NGOs. In Sri Lanka, the closest we have had to a movement in recent times is the aragalaya in 2022, which was driven by the circumstances of the moment, instead of values or ideology, and hence had its own shortcomings.

Regional experiences have shown that when building movements, we must make conscious efforts not to reproduce patriarchal power relations akin to those of the oppressors.

For instance, elite capture of spaces that challenge the state is not uncommon in our region, where the elite and privileged “save’ the workers, or the marginalized or the oppressed by occupying/appropriating power and centering themselves, instead of enabling, assisting these communities, and ceding their power to dismantle top-down, exploitative, abusive use of power.

UAF A&P: An accomplishment and a work in progress

I was a part of UAF A&P as a founding board member, and I am still part of it as a member of the larger UAF community. My wish for UAF A&P is based on my learnings from my time with them, as well as the Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, a Sri Lankan grantmaking organization that supports work on social justice.

What I wish for UAF A&P for the next five years is linked to an initiative the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust is co-convening with UAF A&P amongst others. One of the other co-convenors is the Shift the Power movement, which seeks to acknowledge, challenge and address the power inequities in the philanthropy sector. This movement is relevant to those of us in South Asia, whose societies and states are still driven by feudal values and patronage. Where democracy is merely casting your vote and not holding your political representatives accountable. Where accountability is about holding only those you don’t like or whose values don’t align with yours accountable.

All these elements are important to civil society too. While civil society in our region is under severe attack from authoritarian, pseudo-democratic governments, we cannot deny that they themselves are reproducing in varied and micro ways aspects on which we critique and challenge the state. So much so that I would argue that holding yourself and those close to you accountable is the most difficult and quite radical act in the current context.

A factor that drives the convening, of which I spoke earlier, is the belief that the responsibility of adhering to good governance practices should not be borne by the grantee-partners alone but should be shared by both donors and grantee partners alike. The reason being that there are elements of the systems and processes used by grant makers and to which partners are required to adhere, that create space for and/or enable bad governance and financial practices. This is due to the said systems and processes lacking context specificity and failing to consider local challenges that are not visible, such as informal processes and systems, which allow donor processes and systems to be subverted in the service of negative outcomes, such as corruption and mismanagement.

Last year, in an interview with Deepthy Menon, UAF A&P’s Strategy and Narratives Facilitator, I described UAF A&P as both an accomplishment and a work in progress.

The achievement for funds such as UAF A&P is not Mackenzie Scott making a donation, but the small, unheard of groups in remote regions of Asia and Pacific reaching out to them.

That is something the Fund should be proud of because it shows the Fund understands that relationships and building trust lie at the heart of being effective. Building relationships and trust brings us once again to power- of constantly being aware of the power and privilege the Fund holds, of being careful not to allow that power to skewer relationships, of not abusing that power, and yielding that power to create an equitable environment and equal relationship.

Deepthy inquired why I called it a “work in progress” and I said it is because there are several experiments that continue as there are several instances when we have struggled, and acknowledging that is important. For example, the birthing process involved in ensuring the co-lead structure works well. Despite the struggles, or perhaps because of it, the co-lead structure is an experiment worth replicating. At the very moment we at the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust are in the process of instituting the co-lead structure, and it is all due to what I learnt at UAF A&P. The other learning is to choose board members wisely — to understand the varied skills that are required to oversee the management of an institution, that they should not all be activists but it is imperative they share our values, because the skills needed to conceptualise the fund, are different from skills needed to run it. Hence, we need to have a good mix of capable administrators as well as activists that understand the ground realities. That is an important lesson I learnt.

If we become an activist Board in a grant-making fund, then there is bound to be confusion and even conflict. It is a tightrope to walk, but it is important to make the distinction to maintain the unique identity as a regional feminist fund that supports human rights activists and defenders without turning into an activist organisation. The Fund needs to be an enabler of those who are engaged in struggles to further those values within the communities. So, in a sense, it should be about them and not about you/us. I am glad to note that the new Board members at UAF A&P who are from different spaces but who share our values have brought new energy and skills to the Fund.

Finally, my wish for the Fund is for it to grow. Growth to me is the increasing number of relationships of equity and trust with activists and organisations from marginalized communities, growth is deepening the trust that those whom you serve and partner with have in you, growth is documenting and sharing your learnings widely so others can replicate them, growth is always listening to those with less power than you, checking your own privilege and ceding power when and where it matters.

Read UAF A&P’s new five year Strategic Plan 2024–29.



Urgent Action Fund, Asia & Pacific

We support and accompany women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders and activists taking bold risks in Asia and the Pacific.