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The Ethics of Human Rights Philanthropy

By news editor, on 11 June 2012

Claire Lougarre, UCL Laws PhD candidate

Professor Philippe Sands and Sigrid Rausing

What would you do if  Saif Gaddafi offered you millions of pounds towards a research project, or if Rupert Murdoch did? Accepting money for research from philanthropic sources, or from people who might want to set research agendas, is a difficult ethical minefield.

Luckily, at this UCL Institute for Human Rights event on 29 May, we had capable guides to see us through the issues. Even if they did not have all the answers, they were certainly equipped to ask and deepen our understanding of the right questions.

Professor Philippe Sands QC welcomed Sigrid Rausing (Rausing Trust), Professor Jonathan Wolff (UCL Philosophy), Anthony Tomei (Nuffield Foundation) and Dr George Letsas (UCL Laws) to the panel.

Preserving independence
Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia (UCL Political Sciences), co-director of the Institute, welcomed the large audience by highlighting the recent UCL campaign to raise more than £300 million for UCL projects from donors. Does giving money buy you influence and power?

UCL Council has asserted its commitment to preserve the university’s independence from any donor agenda. Nevertheless, in the light of recent scandals, such as Gaddafi’s funding of the LSE, which led to the Woolf Enquiry, the question of ethics in research philanthropy remains.

This is especially important when some of that philanthropy is directed at research with controversial aims, such as human rights. It is even more so when it aims to fund litigation that can change legal positions in a democracy such as the UK.

The event panel

Professor Sands used the diversity of the panellists’ backgrounds: foundations, trusts, academia and the legal profession to guide the discussion, which opened two perspectives: that of the donors and that of the grantees (funding recipients).

The donor’s perspective
Examining the donor’s point of view, the panel discussed issues surrounding the decision-making process in supporting human rights research/advocacy, and the importance of funding human rights litigation.

Having presented the Nuffield Foundation and the Rausing Trust to the audience, the panellists initially debated the issue of the decision-making process when allocating grants. Why do donors initially decide to support certain causes and not others who allocates the money, and according to which criteria?

Anthony Tomei highlighted the rigorous methods of the Nuffield Foundation in these concerns, by noting its peer-review exercise and the emphasis put on research methodology, quality and effectiveness when evaluating applications. He also considered the use of third parties to ensure the objectiveness of a donor’s decision.

As for the choice to support one cause over another, Sigrid Rausing stated that her wish to fund the human rights movement came from an awareness of the world’s history of oppression, an “obvious public interest”, and the need for governments to be accountable to their citizens.

She also highlighted the challenge that core grants can represent, in the case where the donor does not intend to dictate an NGO’s agenda but can discontinue its funding if it disapproves of certain practices.

Litigation and democracy
Dr George Letsas, co-director of the Institute for Human Rights, then brought to light a second issue: the importance of funding human rights litigation. He defended this type of funding by highlighting the development of case law, remedies and wrongs, as well as the great number of persons benefiting from judicial decisions.

This, he argued, outweighed the concerns that such support may create. From a democratic point of view, policies cannot always be adopted with the consent of the majority. A vulnerable person or community rarely has the means or support to start legal proceedings.

Finally, at a societal level, the power relationship between individuals and the state is inherently imbalanced. When asked whether there was something fundamentally different about influencing judicial decisions over state policies, the panellists did not raise any particular concern. It seemed to be more a matter of preference since government accountability can be challenged through other means, the priority being mostly the grantee’s clarity and coherence with regard to human rights.

Examining the grantee’s point of view, the debate focused mostly on the university perspective.

A reasonableness test
Professor Wolff warned against the danger of a maximalist account of an organisation’s responsibility: trying to avoid all risk of causing harm can lead to doing nothing.

He, therefore, defended a reasonableness test in the risk-taking process and emphasised the importance of keeping in mind the donor’s initial interests. In this concern, it is important to remember that certain donors may be completely driven by their research agenda while others may simply be trying to boost their reputation.

Does that still mean that we should accept money from arms or tobacco industries? The panel agreed that the worst case scenario was when donor funding might affect the results of research, which is where the notion of independence is paramount, especially in academia.

Sigrid Rausing reinforced this point by suggesting that it was also the responsibility of the grantees (here, in the context of NGOs) to follow the missions that they have initially assigned to themselves. Nevertheless, this cannot be pursued in times of economic hardship if there is no funding for good causes.


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