Do African rights groups have the “how” to internationalise?

Globally, the human rights movement continues to multiply and congregate. Groups based in the global North and South are interacting more closely and developing partnerships that seek to add more value to their work. African rights groups need to consciously strategize and periodically review these strategies to benefit fully from the dividends of internationalisation. This will enable them to collaborate on equal footing with international groups implementing human rights activities in Africa.

Clearly, an African strategy should focus greatly on the needs, wants and aspirations of the African populace. However, it should also adapt to emerging trends as well as threats in order to maximise opportunities and mitigation strategies. This will lead to stronger organisations and investment in long-term sustainability, improving local groups’ legitimacy and relevance.

The “gaps”

Many advocates focus so much on securing continuous funding streams without looking at the broader issues of organisational and operational capacity, identity and programmatic impact.

The first—and main—challenge in strengthening local groups is the insufficient number of skilled advocates to effectively implement programmes and develop the capacity to influence policy processes. A robust and vibrant rights group with an international outlook should have the capacity to remain resilient to pursue its programmes in the face of the changing local or global landscape. But many of these groups have a poor leadership culture and weak succession planning agenda. Therefore when the “founder” moves on, there is a high risk of the institution disappearing. These groups also exist and function within an increasingly restrictive political, legal and operating environment. Additionally, insufficient organisational, technical and financial sustainability strategies mean that local human rights groups have less effective long-term plans, as recently articulated by Wanja Muguongo. All of these are critical compounding factors that slow down the contributions of local human rights groups on the continent.

 However, the ability of rights groups in Africa to converge, leverage and play an effective role within the global arena goes beyond just the availability of funds. Unfortunately, many advocates focus so much on securing continuous funding streams without looking at the broader issues of organisational and operational capacity, identity and programmatic impact. We need to take a critical look at our work, revisiting those vital aspects that will enable organisations in the sector to make more meaning of their tireless and repeated efforts.

The “how”

The first step towards improvement is to examine what is already working and ask how we can imitate those successes. ActionAid, for example, began its journey of answering the “how” question by ensuring that the organisation had strong operational capacity that could support its new members. This in turn ensured effective coordination and mutual accountability.

Such an approach highlights the need for human rights groups to have an effective and efficient operation that includes human, material and infrastructural capacity to operate programmes. Expanding on this foundation, local groups must take into account the following strategic pillars of organisational establishment, empowerment and sustenance as vital stimulants for their success.

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Can African rights groups flourish without tapping into local funding pools?

  1. Financial resources: the quality of human rights work in Africa is directly linked to the viability of rights groups. Diversification of financial resources beyond traditional donor sources is critical, and a key step is tapping into the African domestic resource pool. Challenges with African philanthropy are a poor understanding of what domestic resource mobilisation is and the lack of appreciation and acknowledgement of Africa’s domestic resource potential. Potential mechanisms for mobilising resources within the continent are on-line and crowd funding mechanisms, diaspora giving, service delivery and ownership of for-profit subsidiaries.
  2. Unbiased accountability: rights groups should not only be accountable to donors and governments but also accountable to their beneficiaries, themselves and their peers.  Rights groups have a responsibility to recognise stakeholders, particularly those at the lower strata of society and find effective ways to communicate how they use their resources. In addition, sound financial management practices, human resource systems and structures, as well as basic governance structures, should be prioritised.
  3. Uncompromised institutional capacity: the importance of institutional capacity needs to be stressed. Even in the face of financial difficulties, new competencies, skills and knowledge need to be built in various aspects of human rights work including fundraising, how to remain visible, policy influencing, and gaining support from constituency, membership and partnership formation. This can be done through various strategies including identifying the innate potential of staff and leveraging on their skills, knowledge and experiential capabilities. The organisation should also promote a culture of internal learning and sharing of skills-based knowledge.
  4. Credibility: it is crucial that rights groups take continuous steps to remain relevant and legitimate through periodic reflections and strategic reviews. Results-based communication involves ensuring that every milestone is highlighted within the organisation and the scope of their projects, avoiding the simple amplification of final achievements.  Relevant publications such as project or activity reports, annual reports and active engagements on social media are important tools to facilitate this process.
  5. Value-added networking: it has also become vital that rights groups build strategic alliances with informal influential actors, the private and public sector. Alliances that can be cultivated include strategies to acquire organisational development expertise, policy influencing skills and leveraging on the grassroots base of faith-based organisations (FBOs).
  6. Multi-sectorial collaboration: private sector firms are currently pursuing a wide range of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes rooted in the social and developmental mission of human rights organisations. This is an opportunity for rights groups to enhance their operational capacity by leveraging on the wealth of the private sector, through mutually benefitting partnerships. It is important that rights organisations are strategically aligned with these partners, and that they approach any conflict of interest by asking what commonalities exist and how the rights organisation can add value to the CSR agenda of the private entity.
  7. Leadership: there is a critical need to invest in visionary leaders with an understanding of the changing global human rights landscape. Leadership building is a process that includes identifying staff with natural commitment to lead and providing them with opportunities to exert their talents. Human rights groups must explore and capitalise on opportunities to groom potential leaders, such as the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders and WACSI’s Civil Society Leadership Institute (CSLI). Mechanisms that support peer learning and cross training are especially important.

The internationalisation of human rights experiences will greatly progress when organisations in Africa operate with a strategic orientation, efficiently and effectively using human, material and financial resources.  Even so, rights groups will continue to struggle to balance organisational development plans that easily respond to global changes. The current wave of internationalisation presents African rights organisations with the opportunity to profit from the continuous process of capacity development, adaptation and results-driven partnerships.