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SWAN hosts a webinar on the changing funding landscape for sex worker-led organisations in CEECA

In recent years, global developments and changes in donor funding patterns have been creating a crisis in funding for many sex worker-led organisations, particularly those in the CEECA region. On Febuary 28, SWAN hosted a webinar addressing the complex funding landscape confronting our member organisations. 

The discussion delved into SWAN’s various activities, from capacity building to advocacy efforts, yet the dire funding situation persists due to donor withdrawals like the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and restrictive funding practices. This is compounded by geopolitical turmoil and rising conservatism, necessitating strategic responses from sex worker-led organizations.

The webinar highlighted SWAN’s efforts to navigate funding challenges, including an assessment of the impacts of OSF’s restructuring and the Global Fund transitioning out of the region.

One significant concern discussed was “mission drift,” where organizations adapt their missions to align with donor preferences rather than community needs, potentially compromising the effectiveness of their work. The concept of innovation, often demanded by donors, was critiqued for its imposition of unrealistic expectations and competition within the sector.

A survey report compiled between October 2023 and January 2024 gathered data primarily from SWAN member organizations through surveys, interviews, and desk research. Despite not being a comprehensive study, it highlighted common funding issues across the region.

Key findings revealed a significant funding shortage for sex worker-led organizations, with less than 1% of total human rights funding allocated to them.

The report emphasized the urgent need for equitable distribution of funding, considering the vital intersectional role sex workers play within key populations. Major donors like the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and the Global Fund were noted as primary contributors, with OSF providing multifaceted support beyond financial aid. However, challenges with donor requirements, complex reporting structures, and language barriers were highlighted, along with the political challenges faced by organizations, particularly in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Simplifying application and reporting processes, supporting smaller organizations, providing multilingual support, and offering networking opportunities were recommended strategies to ensure equitable access to funding and foster sustainability within the sector.

Natalia Isaeva, founder of Legalife Ukraine, shed light on the practice of reporting the use of unpaid volunteers to donors to highlight funding gaps within sex worker-led organizations. Isaeva recounted how, at the onset of the war, the Global Fund allowed them to reprogram funds according to their urgent needs, leading them to allocate resources from police trainings to purchasing food hygiene items. Despite their critical work, leaders at Legalife Ukraine found themselves distributing goods across Ukraine without receiving funds for their efforts, with only overheads covered for postal services while personal time went unpaid. Isaeva stressed the importance of paying fair wages, advocating for equal compensation for outreach workers and highlighting disparities within organizations that claim to hire sex workers but fail to adequately compensate them. She emphasized the necessity of paying salaries to retain skilled activists:

Expecting volunteers to work tirelessly without compensation is unsustainable and has led to a lack of younger activists joining the movement.

Isaeva’s remarks underscore the crucial need for sustainable funding models to support the ongoing work of sex worker-led organizations.

Another one of our member organisations, Tais Plus in Kyrgyzstan, experienced significant changes in their funding landscape and organizational structure. In 2022, Tais Plus opted out of implementing Global Fund (GF) projects due to irreconcilable differences with the Primary Recipient, UNDP. These differences included challenges in meeting national GF grant indicators and disagreements over engagement with media and social networks, which posed risks to the community and organization. Additionally, UNDP involvement in staffing decisions and misidentification of community members further strained relations. Despite two months of communication with UNDP to address concerns, Tais Plus ultimately declined the grant, noting that their suggestions for improvement were later adopted by others. By 2023, Tais Plus saw a significant reduction in staff, from 17 to only 5 members.

The loss of funding has both tangible and intangible impacts, jeopardizing critical services for sex workers and walking back years of progress in the sex workers’ rights movement.

Stronger relationships with donors and diversification of funding sources are vital in ensuring the sustainability of this movement. Many thanks to the SWAN members and donor organisations who attended, and to Trajche Janushev and Staša Plecas for presenting. 

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