Don’t ditch the “local” when scrambling to “go global”

Last year, I argued that expansion southwards by northern human rights organizations should complement, not supplant, existing initiatives. Establishing and running organizations in the global South from cities located in the global North sometimes stifles attempts to deepen local human rights advocacy. Priorities and local conditions inevitably change, often quite quickly. But when activism is driven from outside, there is little or no incentive to prioritize what matters most to local people.

Elsewhere in this new openGlobalRights debate over the internationalization of human rights, Colombian activist, César Rodríguez-Garavito shares my opinion. Some northern-based groups are trying to globalize, he notes, but the “ultimate decision making power is likely to remain concentrated in [these groups] northern headquarters.” After all, the northerners want to remain in control. And while this enduring northern control may maintain cohesion in the short term, it will inevitably alienate southern groups over the medium and long term, while also making it hard to respond rapidly to changing environments.

Oxfam International/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

Constance Okollet Ochom, a farmer and community mobiliser from Eastern Uganda addressing her community. When activism is driven from outside, there is little or no incentive to prioritize what matters most to local people.

Another danger, Rodríguez-Garavito notes, is that globalizing NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch “are likely to privilege collaboration within their [own] globally dispersed organizational structure”, rather than working with new southern partners. Again, this is for obvious reasons—people prefer to remain within their comfort zones. Yet this too is a sure recipe for exclusion.

Centralization of funding in the global north is also a major problem, as noted by Wanja Muguongo of the African group, UHAI EASHRI. She advocates instead for strategic “human rights advocacy investments…informed by the target beneficiaries and responsive to the[ir] specific needs.” I agree. Long-term support of projects in the global South helps keep their issues on the front burner. On the other hand, sporadic support of efforts that seem to fit within strategic objectives set in the North tend to guarantee short-lived results. The better option is clearly obvious: empower southern rights groups.

The challenge of building respectful partnerships is especially acute in Africa. Yes, the media (both traditional and new) have made it possible for people worldwide to learn about African events. Regrettably, this often makes people assume that they understand the challenges confronting the continent and can therefore prescribe solutions without engaging those directly affected. The danger, however, is that the media focus on what is “newsworthy” as determined by its audience. Since journalists do not always sort fact from fiction, it falls upon northern NGOs and donors to do this sorting exercise, which requires connection to, and legitimacy with, southern groups. A few of the larger, northern-based NGOs have begun to recognize this, illustrated by the new trend towards joint authorship of human rights reports (e.g., “We’re Tired of Taking You to the Court” and “Waiting for the Hangman”). There have also been some efforts to enlist the support of domestic organizations in drafting statements and letters (e.g., the Joint Letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister on Charges against Bloggers and Journalists and the Joint Statement on Human Rights for All Post-2015).

Yet southern groups must also strengthen their ties to northern entities. If we agree that Africans are best situated to articulate and address African challenges, Africa-based NGOs must take the lead in developing strategies and plans. This leadership role would then provide the grounds for engaging northern organizations with a record of respectful and sustainable partnerships. The standards need not change even if the supporting organizations are based in the global South.

Earlier in this debate, Amnesty secretary general, Salil Shetty, agreed that in previous decades, “seeding sections [of Amnesty] in the global south was difficult for a variety of reasons, the main one probably being the simplistic idea of transposing a western model on the rest of the world.” This is indeed a major challenge, for Amnesty and most other northern organizations. But there is another challenge: failing to build the required base of support to ensure that human rights ideas take root and grow. When people in the global South feel that the work they do only advances the interests of people elsewhere, they are less likely to develop personal interest in, and commitment to that endeavor. Conversely, when they find a clear connection between their work and daily experience, it is easier to devote considerable attention to it.

We don’t always require a global human rights agenda. Different regions have different priorities, and regions may wish to adopt different strategies to address a universal human rights challenge. 

Amnesty International seems to have learned this lesson with its new “Moving Closer to the Ground” initiative, which takes the form of building new national chapters “much more customized to the context.” I hope they resist the temptation to direct these chapters’ affairs from London, and that they demonstrate a real commitment to allowing local people, with the requisite expertise and experience, to lead.

An integral part of this local leadership is an understanding that global initiatives need not always take precedence. Indeed, we don’t always require a global human rights agenda. For one, different regions have different priorities. Even where there is a seemingly universal human rights challenge to address, it seems to me that different regions may wish to adopt different strategies for this purpose. This is why local leadership is critical as it helps to define “success” against realistic benchmarks, not globally determined and sometimes impracticable standards.

It is possible to be both global and local in outlook, and to allow the local to take precedence when needed. The world’s diversity demands this combination, and my experience, as well as that of many others, suggests this is the way of the future.