By Nani Jansen Reventlow, Systemic Justice, 16th December 2022
To truly address the impact of the climate crisis, funding must be anti-racist and address social injustice
The sense of possibility that 2020 brought for racial, social, and economic justice is almost hard to imagine now, only two years later. Worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns brought social inequalities sharply into focus; Black Lives Matter protests shone a spotlight on systemic racial injustice. Foundations were quick to respond: project grants were converted into core support, multiple initiatives were announced to support racial justice and movement work, and programme officers embarked on racial and social justice learning journeys.
While the latter has continued and the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” sector seems to be more booming than ever, other initiatives were quickly –– and often silently –– rolled back. A number of big foundations in Europe have abandoned or syphoned off their anti-racist work, while some have left the region altogether, considering it no longer a priority for their philanthropic work.
Anti-racist and social justice work has not lost its significance, however; on the contrary, its link with climate (in)justice is becoming more visible by the day. The periods of extreme heat experienced across Europe this year showed that people of colour are more likely to live in high-risk areas for these dangerous temperatures; research is showing that air pollution disproportionately affects urban areas and has a disparate impact on racialised communities; and the cost of living crisis has put the issue of “insulation poverty” squarely on the political map. And yet, the current climate movement in Europe is not centring any of the immediate and direct harms marginalised communities are suffering from the climate crisis here and now.
When we started our roundtable conversations at Systemic Justice in May 2022, part of our Europe-wide community consultation on racial, social, and economic justice, the first topic was climate justice. The community activists and advocates gathered in this conversation made something clear that was confirmed in all roundtables in the series: the current funding landscape does not serve communities.
A central problem that was flagged repeatedly was the lack of holistic analysis by funders, and their failure to acknowledge the intersection between multiple systems of oppression and their historical rooting. One participant said: “When you look at the climate crisis you have majority white countries who have emitted the most and majority black countries are affected the most. Yet the racialised debate is often left out. Most of the money still goes to majority white organisations. There is not enough climate finance and it is not going to racialised people.”
There was also a shared feeling that funders were facilitating the exploitation of movements and communities by big, institutional NGOs. “Bigger NGOs drown out the voices of smaller grassroot movements who actually have an impact”, one roundtable participant said, after which she pointed out that these same NGOs were being funded for running campaigns that did not serve communities’ needs, but in which those same communities were being used as “campaign props” to lend them credibility.
How can funders serve communities, and especially those fighting for climate justice, which – unlike traditional climate work – acknowledges that the impacts of the climate crisis are not one-dimensional, and are causing compounded harm for those already bearing the brunt of the systemic injustices in our society?
Here are five suggestions to do better.
- Let go of siloed thinking : Yes, it is crucial to have focus in the work we do, for all of us, but we must never lose sight of the bigger picture and consider the issues we focus on in a more holistic way. How much sense does it make to only address toxic gas emissions in cities, if we do not also address the inhuman, dangerous, and shameful living conditions that many marginalised communities in those same cities face?
- Think in terms of ecosystems: Look at the different pieces of the puzzle needed to bring about change. Who else needs to succeed in order for the work you’re focusing on to succeed? While supporting those others who might fall outside of your funding remit, you may be able to engage other funders to resource this complementary work. Systemic change requires a tapestry of activism and types of interventions – funders should be equally creative in supporting multifaceted approaches: there is not only one way to bring about change.
- Provide core funding that is truly trust-based: In a world where things change more quickly than some foundations run their funding cycles, you should not be tying the hands of people at the frontlines with admin-heavy, piecemeal project grants. Realise that, in the end, they are the experts, not you. Trust your grantees to make the right call in adapting to changed circumstances; it will only allow them (and you) to be more effective.
- Support communities, not institutions: They are at the forefront of fighting the climate crisis. Let them focus their energy on that, not on building bureaucracies to fit into the mould of your foundation’s grantmaking procedures. This could mean being creative in how you conduct your due diligence, moving away from a focus on written reporting, or not requiring hierarchical governance structures from your grantees.
- Do not forget about Europe: The climate crisis does not stop at the border and supporting communities does not mean only focusing on the majority world (also referred to as “the global South”). Not only should we make sure to benefit from the mechanisms available in the region to hold some of the biggest polluters to account, fixating on the “global South” to the exclusion of Europe means falling into the trap that all is well in Europe. It is not. All this approach does is further entrench colonial hierarchies and an approach of “global North” saviourism while failing to address the impact that racism, classism, ableism, and so much more are having right here.
Equipping communities to fight back against the impacts of the climate crisis on their own terms will serve us all. The European climate funding space isn’t worse equipped than regular philanthropy in dealing with issues of racial, social, and economic justice or in approaching these issues in a meaningful intersectional way. However, climate philanthropy’s task is more urgent. If the communities that are hit hardest by the climate crisis are not enabled to fight back now, it may very well be too late for all of us.
Nani Jansen Reventlow is an internationally recognised human rights lawyer specialised in strategic litigation at the intersection of human rights, social justice, and technology. She is the founder of Systemic Justice, which works to radically transform how the law works for communities fighting for racial, social, and economic justice. Previously, Nani founded and built the Digital Freedom Fund, which supports partners in Europe to advance digital rights through strategic litgation.