Fear of advocacy funding cut has ‘chilling effect’

Advocacy experts have warned that slashing funding to interest groups could damage society and said many in the sector believed their funding was at risk if they were too critical of Government departments and State agencies.

The Advocacy Initiative, itself funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, said fears of funding cuts were having “a chilling effect” on the sector.

The organisation made its comments following a week in which the Irish Patients’ Association was informed by the HSE that its core funding will disappear from next April.

The IPA said it would directly impact on 500 client cases. Two other patient interest groups are retaining their funding.

The Advocacy Initiative is carrying out a study on advocacy in Ireland, but an initial report carried out by researcher Brian Harvey, to be published shortly, indicates that, on average, voluntary and community organisations derive 53% funding from the State; 25% from individual giving; 4% from fees and sales; 3% from foundations; 2% from the corporate sector; 1% from their members; and 12% from other sources.

It states: “The Advocacy Initiative is concerned with evidence that voluntary organisations have experienced funding cuts or been threatened with funding cuts as a result of advocacy activities that they have undertaken.”

Anna Visser of Advocacy Ireland, who is overseeing the compiling of the reports, said: “Too often in recent times, we have heard that ‘criticism’ or NGO advocacy is a luxury for the good times, despite repeated evidence that without consistent and informed engagement with those working with the most vulnerable, we will repeat the mistakes of the past.

“The key issue is that if groups close completely, or are no longer able to undertake advocacy activity, we will all lose.

“Large parts of our society will become excluded from political debate, and this will impact policy- making and implementation which will lack an evidence base in terms of experience on the ground.

“Other functions include a watchdog role in terms of flagging new and emerging problems, and indeed the state loses a partner in communicating particular changes.”

Organisations that have been phased out in recent years include Combat Poverty and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Inter-culturalism.

When asked if there was a concern in the advocacy sector that funding could be cut if it is too critical, Ms Visser said: “We cannot say that yet, but there are fears, and there is also the risk that these fears, founded or unfounded, have a chilling effect on the sector.”

The Irish Human Rights Commission also warned of the dangers of a diminished advocacy sector.

The IHRC’s acting chief executive. Des Hogan. said: “The IHRC’s work is informed by civil society organisations that deal with people’s human rights problems on a daily basis.

“Without such a vibrant sector, it would be that much harder for people to seek help. A strong civil society is part and parcel of any democracy that values human rights.”

Privately, a number of high-profile advocacy groups working in different parts of the sector said they were concerned about continuing funding cuts and the sometimes arbitrary way in which decisions on funding are made.

Few said they believed that funding was at risk because of vocal criticism of Government or State agencies, but some expressed concern that some departments, in wanting to protect budgets, referred groups seeking funding elsewhere.

Mr Harvey’s report also finds that the grant-making process “reveals inconsistent practice by Government” and adds: “Although there is evidence of State tolerance of advocacy, there is less evidence of the State being prepared to fund such a contribution.”

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