What We Learned from Tunisia and Egypt

three hands overlappingI met Regan Ralph at the Grantmakers Without Borders conference this year, a meeting of funders of social change projects throughout the world. Regan opened the conference with a thoughtful and straightforward perspective about what she had learned as a long-term funder of social change in Tunisia and Egypt. I quickly approached her to ask if she’d share her insights with Firelight audiences also. Firelight has been curious what the implications of the changes in Tunisia and Egypt may be for the rest of Africa. Regan’s guest blog provides some answers.  Thanks Regan. Robin Dixon, Firelight Communications Officer


Over a period of weeks in early 2011, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, something stunning and unexpected unfolded. Crowds of people came together to protest dead-end economies riddled with corruption and cronyism, to protest the lack of political freedom and the arbitrary terrors of state security, and to reassert their dignity as human beings. In many ways, these were real human rights revolutions.

The people of Tunisia and Egypt brought down two authoritarian governments, opened political space to new actors, and called into question longstanding assumptions about the Middle East. They did it without help from outside actors or governments. They did it without much preparation or organization, or clear lines of leadership.

What makes such powerful movements possible? Can we look deep into these revolutions and discern lessons for our work as funders?

Based on my experience as the executive director of the Fund for Global Human Rights, which has been supporting human rights activists in North Africa, including Tunisia, for eight years, I would say—tentatively--yes.

First, change happens at the community level. In Tunisia and Egypt, forces of change came from various places—a friendly crowd outside a community buildinglabor unions, youth movements, political opposition parties, citizen groups, social media networks, religious groups—and were motivated by various concerns—economic desperation, outrage over corruption and human rights abuses, limits on the most basic freedoms. While it’s true that human rights—notions of dignity, freedom, equality—drove people into the streets of Tunisia and Egypt, it’s also true that human rights activists didn’t create or spearhead the revolutions. The uprisings were popular movements, drawing from communities across Tunisia and Egypt. Thus the impact of individual groups, community-based, human rights or otherwise, matters not only for what is directly produced but also as part of a much bigger equation in creating a strong civil society.

Second, funders should be willing to support community-based and other organizations even in highly repressive environments, and not just in so-called ‘tipping point’ countries because it lays the ground for lasting change. This kind of support requires a long-term view and established relationships with grassroots organizations. Tunisia under Ben Ali was a deeply repressive country, where human rights activists were regularly attacked, defamed, and imprisoned by the regime. The government made it ever harder for funds to reach most independent groups, but advocates for change don’t give up because they don’t have money or operate under threat. These things do however make it much harder to be visible, to educate communities on their rights and to play a role in public awareness. Community leaders and human rights advocates are now playing a critical role in Tunisia’s transition, but they are struggling to meet demands. More support pre-revolution—when they were shrinking for lack of funds—would’ve left them better able to meet current challenges.

Lastly, we need to think about the long haul. It’s exciting to witness popular uprisings and wonder what made them happen. But Egyptians and Tunisians will tell you that the hard work is happening now; these transitions will take years. Egypt is still ruled by the military and entrenched interests control much of the economy and state institutions; Tunisia has postponed elections until October. Organizations need to ramp up operations, build and mobilize their communities, communicate with millions of people (most of whom do NOT have access to the internet) about political participation and the tools to exercise their rights. Perhaps most important, they must switch gears, from denouncing brutal regimes to crafting policy recommendations and informing the processes of reform.

These lessons from North Africa challenge certain assumptions about impact for all of Africa and all funders working to direct resources where they are most needed. Our challenge is not to craft grant-making strategies that spark revolution, but to ensure that groups are positioned to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.


This blog was written by Regan E. Ralph. Regan is the founding executive director of the Fund for Global Human Rights, a non-profit grantmaking organization which finds and funds local human rights heroes around the world who often work at great personal risk to strengthen and bring global attention to their struggles.