top of page

Top 3 Reasons Why The Human Rights Engine Is Failing Those In Need

By Jeanne-Mari Retief.

Human rights are contentious between the camp dubbed "idealists" and the camp dubbed "realists." Add to this the fact that human rights are, at its core, largely dependent on the whims of politicians, and it becomes easy to understand why progress is so painfully slow. The lack of practical outcomes in many human rights projects, agendas, and programs further exacerbates this issue. In a post-pandemic world, everyone is forced to look after their own and actively practice the "charity-begins-at-home-principle"; it is now even more challenging to advocate for hard-earned funds to be granted to projects of human suffering, no matter the degree.

I specifically refer to the "engine" of human rights in this article because, quite honestly, that is precisely what it is. It is no longer a concept for good, a system for change, or a way to bring power to the powerless. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry of corporates seeking tax write-offs, politicians seeking moments of victory, and large-scale human rights entities with processes as complicated as brain surgery (let's call these entities "Corporate Human Rights"). Making a decision or bringing about practical change is a long and drawn-out process that often results in a decision only after the victims have already resorted to their own methods and means to solve an urgent crisis.

I am an idealist, and my hope and belief in the power of practical human rights will never fade. However, my experience in this industry and the field has allowed me to understand the biggest hurdles that face those like me, who are just doing their best to bring about a practical change. Here are the top 5 reasons why the engine of human rights is failing


I have seen it so many times; Each organization hoping to bring change has its idea of how that should come about, regardless of the community they will be working in, regardless of the personal relationships that need building, and regardless of the impact their ideas will have. We must consider how the community will continue to build and thrive after the vans pull out and the volunteers return to their countries.

Seeking any aid from Corporate Human Rights or other sponsors is impossible for most of these NPOs. The simple reason: they need help understanding the processes of asking for help and then securing that help. To be clear, I have been in this industry for over a decade, and even I need help understanding all the complicated, red-taped processes. There is little consideration of the fact that most grassroots NPOs are run and staffed by community members working on little to no salary, who are purely driven by creating a better life for the people around them, because no one else seems to care. They are not accountants, lawyers, or high-level negotiators. However, they have one crucial characteristic that makes them different: A personal stake. They are personally affected by the help they can secure, and the support they can grant their communities.

Expecting an overwhelmed NPO leader like this to complete complicated budgets, make yearly projections, and write proposals is like asking a lawyer to do open heart surgery. They understand precisely why they need the funds, why they need to ask for help, and why the support required is urgent, but they need to gain the skill to apply for it through the human rights engine.

Here I have to be fair. If you think about the millions squandered in the name of human rights, the large sums donated per annum that seem to disappear into thin air, or buying the latest Mercedes, it is easy to understand these complicated processes. Although there will always be people who take advantage of any situation, most squandered funds in the human rights space are due to in-education.

For example:

  • NPOs not understanding how to narrow down the community's immediate needs on paper.

  • Not understanding all the elements to include in a budget (that extra telephone card you need to buy for the field worker, or the

  • taxi trips you need to pay for the volunteer).

  • Not knowing how to negotiate better prices for the services they need to acquire.

A lot of grassroots NPOs I have worked with fall prey to this. Their intentions are good, and their passion is real, but they crave guidance on how to make it a reality, from how to apply for aid to using it in a way that reaps practical results and is sustainable. Unfortunately, in my experience, this help is not afforded to grassroots NPOs. The route usually followed is complicated application forms, instructions, and Excel budgets (often not in their native language). When there is more help, it's quick online chats to walk them through an entire accounting education in an hour. Most of these calls are worthless because there is a good chance there will be little internet connectivity. There is no one on the ground spending time with the applicant, walking them through every step (in their language), and training them to be able to do this easily in the future.

The simplest solution is often sending someone from the West to tell (notice how I do not say teach here) the NPO how to do things, when to do them, and what will work best. They only stay for short periods, introduce methods and ideas foreign to the foundation of the community, and then ultimately leave. It is of little wonder that these programs always fade out and evaporate after the ground patrol leaves.


I am not projecting sour grapes here; I am merely stating the facts as I experienced them and as many of my clients have. If I could list the hours I spent on the phone trying to keep other human rights consultants positive when they have again run into the brick wall of bureaucracy, I would be sitting in a library of my own making. Entering corporate human rights to hopefully effect change and bring your expertise to the table as a native, and someone on the ground experiencing the practical challenges, is like trying to book a Michelin star restaurant one night before your anniversary.

Navigating the complex recruitment systems of these large human rights entities is not only extremely intimidating but unbelievably time-consuming. In a field dedicated to the human element, it is shocking to see how cold, and mechanical the process of offering your expertise can be: Lists upon lists of questions that always seem to repeat themselves, recreating standard and well-drafted CVs to fit the "look and feel" of each different entity's requirements, and explaining for the umpteenth time why you are the right fit for the project. The process is incredibly academic and works on ticked checkboxes. If you are out by one, the system is onto the next applicant on the list.

These systems fail to consider the on-the-ground experiences, perhaps not as part of the corporate human rights team but as a native and national. Often nationals with first-hand practical experience of the problem, and most importantly, the trust and the ear of the community. There is no room for expressing the passion and the functional change the applicant may have already brought about, or any unique ideas to build the community or address the identified issue that does not fit within the bureaucratic framework of "this is how we do it in our other projects, so this is what works.”

Alienating consultants that can help is a missed opportunity to place willing people on the ground who understand the community and the situation and can work to bring about the foundational changes needed for grassroots to function successfully.


Corporate human rights are incredibly guilty of this. There needs to be more consideration given to foundational education and mindset changes. Most of the human rights projects I've worked on focused on the problem, not the root cause. I will admit that many lengthy sponsor training sessions include complex diagrams and "trees" to be crafted to take you through the entire issue to get to the root cause of the problem. The exercise is overly complex but wonderful. Unfortunately, that is as far as it goes. When it comes to practical implementation, there is always a fallback to addressing the issue at hand.

Let's take an example: The community is starving. The tree diagram I drew shows me that the community is suffering due to a lack of primary education; this lack of basic education leads to a lack of understanding of the electoral system, which, in turn, leads the community to questionably exercise voting rights which leads to questionable leaders, making horrible decisions, resulting in hunger. This example is highly oversimplified, but I if I explain this in more detail I will need to write a few chapters for a book.

The solution to this is: Let's cure hunger. Bring in vans of food, teach people to cook and farm, and invest in dieticians explaining the need for nutritious diets for babies. Then, as always, the sponsor team leaves, the community is left to its own devices, and within a year, there is a request for more money to continue the project. This is a vicious circle that does not bring about any long-term change. Although there is something to be said for addressing immediate and urgent needs, more is needed to solve the root problem. So, unless we are willing to adopt every starving community in the world, something has to change.

The most effective change one can bring about is educating the victim and not educating them purely on their rights, but on their responsibilities in terms of those rights. Rights do not just appear; we are responsible for nurturing and protecting them and actively working to sustain them. In this sense, primary education and voter education are lacking in the human rights engine.

Most community issues stem from developing country governance, often based on corruption and shady government practices. Communities need to be empowered to stand up for their rights so they can work to change themselves. To do this you have to start at the beginning. Educate parents of school-going aged children about the benefits of an education. Teach them that what they can learn and how this will impact their future will have a much larger impact than staying home to relieve domestic burdens. This change in mindset is a significant sacrifice for them.

Get children excited about education and teach them more than the curriculum: Focus on life skills and dealing with anxiety, anger, and rejection. Explain worldly concepts like good communication skills, fundamental rights, and their responsibility to exercise these rights.

Follow this through until they are of voting age and invest in the education of voting-age youth. Help them understand the current political challenges, how they impact their everyday life, how to understand the different messages from different candidates, and how this may affect their futures. The goal here is to have educated youth who form part of the voting community and can make educated voter choices to elect better leaders who can, in turn, start bringing about change.

Again, I have extensively oversimplified this complex issue for purposes of summarising. Of course, a lot more goes into each bullet point above. Changing things at a foundational level is the most challenging task to undertake. It is human nature to become vested in your beliefs, especially if they have been passed down from generation to generation and it is the only beliefs you know.

To many, this explanation may be the epitome of idealism and why there will never be enough money to fund human rights. However, we also need to remember that we are willing to keep throwing money at the problem, we are just not ready to invest funds (that will be wasted) into permanently addressing the issue.

The Takeaway

Human rights are one of the most complex problems of our generation. There are too many in need and too little help available. I am not suggesting that there is a cure for all and that we will never have to deal with specific issues again. However, the current engine is not working and is not on the path to more practical and permanent solutions.

There are so many players serving their own agendas in this structure, there is too much red tape and bureaucracy for those willing to help, and the focus should be on the right solutions. Unless we change this, we will keep repeating this vicious cycle.

We must remember that human rights are, in fact, for the people. It is not a stagnant issue that can be clinically dissected and treated. The playing field changes whenever human suffering, emotion, and life is concerned. Are we going to change with it?


About the Author

Dr. Jeanne-Mari Retief. founded CALIBRICS, a global human rights consultancy, in 2012. She holds a PhD in international humanitarian and criminal law and is a Prince2 Practitioner. She has developed multiple human rights programmes and projects across the globe and works toward seeing practical change in her endeavours. She’s spoken on various panels, published in various international mediums and presented talks all over the world. She has recently taken a hiatus from the industry to focus her human rights background on other ventures where she believes she can affect more change.

She believes she cannot change the status quo unless she is an active participant in driving that change. Practical implementation is where human rights projects often fall apart, and she hopes to change this.


bottom of page