"Save us from saviours" is the piercing refrain of a growing human rights movement demanding that sex workers be recognised as more than victims to be rescued or strategic populations to be targeted for public health campaigns. It's likely to strike a nerve among some in the traditional aid and development industry, often criticised for top-down, paternalistic projects.
"Sex workers are discriminated against and their human rights unrecognised around the world, even where sex work isn't illegal," says Nadia van der Linde, co-ordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund, the first global grant-making mechanism set up to give sex workers more control of projects that directly concern them. "Even when they stand up for themselves, it's very hard for them to find support."
The fund, which was launched in April 2012, and will announce this month who will receive its first grants, grew out of a multi-year collaboration between sex worker organisations and interested donors, who first met five years ago to discuss campaigns to curb human trafficking.
Embracing a philosophy of "nothing for us without us", the innovative fund is governed by sex workers, who sit alongside donor representatives on the committees that oversee and manage its work.
More of this, please. When I've mentioned that movements for social change often flounder because of a lack of attention to infrastructure, the lack of things like the Red Umbrella Fund are exactly what I mean. Movements need resources, but that's traditionally an area that would-be activists don't think about. Witness Occupy, for example, which often had no idea to handle the funds it received, and ended up with horrors like meth fiends in control of finance.
That's what happens when an organization, whatever its philosophy, doesn't think about, well, organization. Shepherding resources carefully is even more important for the causes of the poor or ignored, because they're less likely to have patrons capable of just shoving them suitcases full of cash. A lot of worthy causes flounder because no one pays attention to the details.
Furthermore, structuring the organization carefully around access to those resources — instead of treating them like an afterthought — helps to increase the power of the populations who most need them. This looks like a promising model, and I hope to see more of it.