This NGO is pioneering an evidence-based alternative to international aid
9 September 2019 - Cathy Xiao Chen

Despite the amount of aid given to Africa every year, the number of Africans living in extreme poverty has grown substantially since 1990—even the optimistic outlooks estimate there to be 330 million poor in 2012, up from about 280 million in 1990, and it’s this dire situation that Cecilia Öman wants to help address. Her social enterprise, Human Rights & Science (HR&S) seeks equal partnership with individuals and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa in order to promote scientific research, innovation, social enterprising for lasting and improved livelihoods. As a social enterprise, HR&S is flexible, innovative, sustainable and oriented towards social impact. Operating on the belief that people will work their way out of poverty if they are given the opportunity, HR&S provides exactly that: work opportunities for Africa’s poorest. 


On her first trip to Africa, Cecilia wasn’t traveling as an aid worker, but rather as a chemistry researcher with an Associate Professor’s degree in water management from KTH. After seeing firsthand what a lack of opportunity and extreme poverty looked like, she gave up her scientific career and asked herself: what can I do? She could have joined one of the NGOs already operating in Africa, but she saw that a lot of what they were doing wasn’t working, and she wanted to do it a different way by pioneering an evidence-based approach. And thus, Human Rights & Sciences was born. While on the surface, HR&S may seem like a regular NGO, under the hood it’s a very different story.

Equal partnership, not donations

The first thing that might tip you off that HR&S isn’t your typical aid organization is that rather than giving money, it operates as equal partners with local institutions and enterprises, while also lending money out. While some might balk at the idea of lending instead of giving money to an already disadvantaged group of people, Cecilia is certain it’s the only way that the African economy will truly take off. She asserts that the current aid model played out by donor-driven NGOs, in which money is given away, creates dependency by the African people on more developed nations. So rather than ameliorating the economic distress borne by the colonial past, it actually engenders a donor-given attitude and perpetuates the power imbalance that ensures that African economies will remain weaker. But HR&S is predicated on the idea that holding all partners accountable for the funds they invest and generate is what actually fosters true economic and developmental autonomy. She uses Sweden as an example: Sweden used to be a poor country, but it didn’t escape that fate by receiving foreign aid. Rather, it created an environment in which business could prosper, thus creating a thriving economy with long-term, sustainable growth. By working in equal partnership and through social enterprising, HR&S aims to create stronger, lasting economic development for Africa that is not dependent on foreign aid.


HR&S expects repayments to be made but unlike Swedish investment platform Trine, interest on investments are not paid out to individual donors. Instead, the investment program builds capital growth in Africa over time. Here’s how it works: anyone can become an impact investor by donating money to HR&S (10,000 SEK is the asked amount), and, like in a typical donation, they will not receive that money back. HR&S invests donations into one of its African enterprises where it is repaid with interest. Now the original loan has a larger principal and can be lent out again to a different enterprise. In this way, the money and the local economy grow and compound over time. 

Not without risk

Of course, like any investment, it’s not always smooth sailing. In addition to the risk of business failure that is generic to all investments, HR&S must also tackle corruption, crime, dishonesty, and even violence in the areas that they operate in. Because the institutional infrastructure can be weak, social structures are usually the backbone of the communities. As such, HR&S aims to foster long-term partnerships so that they create lasting social contracts in the community, which then may have a better chance of holding up to the challenges of the investor-investee relationship. Throughout their history, HR&S has experienced serious challenges as they have faced corruption, crimes and violence, but they have still enabled vulnerable people to create and implement sustainable solutions. By turning those challenges into lessons learned and adjusting their approach accordingly, HR&S has remained strong and resilient in their mission.

Empowering African scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs

HR&S also runs programs to empower African scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs and to help take their solutions to market. One common problem, disguised with good intention, occurs when non-African companies import their own innovations such as water purifiers or solar panels, to Africa. While these companies are usually intending to help, the problem is that often these types of products have already been prototyped by African scientists and innovators that didn’t have the infrastructure to scale it into a viable business. So instead, a foreign company steps in and with every sale siphons off money that could have stayed in Africa and contributed toward sustainable long-term economic growth. 


To address this problem, HR&S offers seminars, workshops, and coaching to their partners, which includes African scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs, as well as to other institutions, so that they can bring their own designs and innovations to the African market and keep that money circulating in the African economy. In addition, they have a shop that sells items produced by their partners in Africa.  With this work, they capture and then promote scientific findings and innovation, and throughout the process, they ensure cross-cultural understanding, evidence-based evaluation planning, and transparency and accountability, all of which encourage success for these African innovators.

Leveraging the power of volunteers through Action10

The sister institution of HR&S is Action10, which has thirty Stockholm-based volunteers that support the programs of the local partners in Africa. The support of these volunteers allows HR&S to direct as many resources as possible to their partners on the ground in Africa, which spreads out their operations and stretches their funding as far as it can go.  


While HR&S and Action10 would like to be able to offer more employment opportunities, they operate on a very lean budget and like with many social impact enterprises, funding is a concern. As an additional hurdle, HR&S isn’t an aid organization so it doesn’t qualify for a lot of grants, and it isn’t a brand-name, glossy NGO that can reel in the big fish donors. But while these factors may seem like limitations, they do have their benefits: because they don’t feel the need to use contrived measures of impact just to prove their success, nor do they have the pressure to show cosmetic improvements for the benefit of their benefactors. It allows HR&S the freedom to focus their attention where it matters.


In addition to supporting their partners on the ground, Action10 pilots new approaches and initiatives, including the development of a set of tools that addresses the key aspects related to their mission: transfer from dependence on aid to equal partnership collaboration (TAct);  trust, transparency and accountability (TRUST); cross-cultural understanding (CROSS); evaluation planning (ROPE); implementation (InnoC) and testing for the strength of evidence for impact (TESTe). The strategy is unique and has proven successful—they are already operating in twelve countries in Africa and have had a positive effect on tens of thousands of people’s lives. 


The impact of Impact Hub

Impact Hub has been a boon to HR&S. For the affordable membership price, the organization has an address and venue space when it needs, which means that Cecilia can put all of her energy and attention to her projects in Africa, rather than also running an office in Sweden. Over the five years that Cecilia has been a coworking member of Impact Hub Stockholm, HR&S has had access to the enormous network of the global Impact Hub community—Cecilia is currently in talks to partner with both Impact Hub Nairobi and Kigali.


But it’s not just the far-flung, global Impact Hub community that’s helped HR&S grow, the biggest player has been closer to home. Cecilia specifically called out Cathy, Impact Hub Stockholm’s Head of Operations, who has been of invaluable support. Cathy has helped HR&S with its visibility and logistics, with networking and positive promotion, as well as offered her skills in photography, not to mention the daily personal support.


If you’d like to become a donor with HR&S, please get in touch with Cecilia. Or, if you’d like to volunteer, please contact Action10. Click here to read more about HR&S’ impact on their website.



Erica Reisman has a background in economics and agroecology, and freelances for startups that are aiming to strengthen the local food system.