How do we solve structural inequality in global networks?

The jury is in: global civil society is not a flat, undifferentiated network of united, mutually altruistic and reciprocally information-sharing organizations. Rather, recent research shows that it is intensely hierarchical. All organizations are not equal. Many have conflicting agendas. All compete for short-term contracts. Some have greater funding, greater visibility and greater access to global power centres. And unsurprisingly, organizations likeliest to have these advantages tend to be geographically rooted in the global north.

How might the network structure of global politics be leveraged to carry ideas more inclusively?Such power discrepancies do not just determine who commands authority, who gets media attention or who gets grants or a seat at the table. They also determine which ideas end up on the global agenda, and which human rights count as rights. As a result, the uneven network structure of global civil society greatly impacts the global human security agenda. Hierarchies among organizations determine whose issue agenda will proliferate throughout networks, with central “hubs” in issue areas playing a promulgating or gatekeeping role. But judgments about network dynamics also determine how these “advocacy elites” decide on the legitimacy of issues.

These discrepancies explain why survey research done on global south human rights activists—when compared to predominantly northern-based activists—showed a uniform perception of organizational dominance in the human rights network, but vast differences in which issues were seen as most important. For example, northern-based individuals tended to focus more on bodily integrity rights violations; individuals in the global south named economic, social and land rights as the most important.

How might this change? Lots of advocacy elites I interviewed expressed discomfort with their own power relative to more marginalized actors. If we value the idea of a more inclusive human rights movement, how might power brokers use their power to affect the flow of ideas, resources and leverage within the system? How might the network structure of global politics be leveraged to carry ideas more inclusively?

The wrong approach is to flatten global networks entirely. Even if that could happen, it would likely lead to suboptimal outcomes for human rights policy. There is a reason why the most successful campaigns centralize agenda-setting and decision-making authority around one or two powerful organizations: a unified, centralized approach makes for more effective advocacy. The small arms and landmines campaigns showed that differences in centralized network structure were a key reason why some campaigns succeed and others stall. The same principle holds for organizations themselves: a centralized internal structure helped Amnesty International rise to prominence in the network. Agenda-setting power rested with the Secretariat, while the power to implement its agenda diffused to the chapters. A different organizational structure might have made Amnesty—and campaigns it led or joined—less effective.  

The trick is to ensure that “hubs” around specific thematic issues recognize their influence and expand it to include voices from a range of contexts—the global south, as well as marginalized communities in the global north. And who has the power to ensure that? Donors. Here are five ways to think about how resource allocation can increase international access to power centres.

  1. Support the development of global-south-based hubs. Multi-issue/multi-country organizations like Derechos/Equipo Nizkor, which focuses on Latin America, or EuroMediterranean Human Rights Network in the Middle East provide examples of online information centres with the potential to grow into regional advocacy powerhouses. Donor prioritization could strengthen their advocacy skillsets and portfolio relative to their northern counterparts, enabling them to more effectively press southern concerns in northern settings. In turn, this could augment the voice of myriad lesser-connected NGOs in these regions. New southern hubs could also develop through an emphasis on a cross-national, cross-thematic focus that would tie regional currents to global architectures.

  2. Support the brokerage role of middle power NGOs. Less powerful organizations with social ties to advocacy hubs are a powerful resource for peripheral organizations that can access them for advice, contacts or legitimacy. A small NGO in Bangladesh may not be able to make a meaningful social connection with Human Rights Watch, but it may be able to connect to a middling NGO whose staff-person knows someone at Amnesty, or who can give advice on how to approach the big internationals. Indeed, some middle-power NGOs specialize in such “matchmaking” activity, identifying neglected causes and assisting political entrepreneurs in pitching them to power centres. Others strategically occupy ideational gaps in networks, putting disparate communities in touch to create new synergies and open the agenda. For example, Global Witness played this role in the area of conflict minerals, and Article36 has played this role in the humanitarian disarmament network. This type of “network entrepreneurship” is not always about promoting a specific agenda and often occurs outside the realm of NGO mission statements. But it is vital to greasing the wheels of information between the core and periphery, and funders should provide resources to encourage it.

  3. Support periphery efforts to engage the core—and vice versa. If funders prioritized travel expenses and networking opportunities for global south activists at major events in the north, over a sustained period, this could lead to a broadening and deepening of social ties within the network. Despite the flowering of civil society in the global south, most global policy decisions are still made in the north. The UN human rights agenda is set in New York and Geneva. Powerful NGOs are headquartered in these cities, London or Washington. Grassroots activists worldwide often lack the procedural skills to participate effectively. Those coming from the global south, even if they have English-language and social media skills, face an uneven playing ground simply in terms of participation at meetings and conferences—they must travel farther, often with fewer resources. Much of the social lubricant in global civil society is informal face-to-face-interactions cultivated outside plenary sessions, through friendships developed over iterated encounters. This puts activists traveling from afar at a disadvantage unless they are able to return repeatedly, get to know people and develop fluency in procedures.

    Flickr/UN Geneva (Some rights reserved)

    A Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.


  4. Support “campaigns” instead of NGOs. Campaigning around specific themes such as forced marriage or autonomous weapons involves coalition building. This in turn involves the kind of networking across geographic and ideational divides that will enhance synergies and provide avenues for information exchange across different aspects of global networks. Funders could promote norms of diversity in their support for campaigns—looking not merely to the list of member organizations, but also to which campaign steering committees include and actively involve organizations from the global south. Donors could provide the resources for travel to campaign meetings and advocacy events that make this type of participation a reality rather than just lip service.

  5. Think beyond “internationalization”. A global upper class that includes individuals from many countries is still a movement that excludes the marginalized. My focus groups with human security elites were careful to include representatives from the global south. They were diverse both in nationality and in where these practitioners were based. Nonetheless, participants in these groups observed that they remained a fairly homogenous group: predominantly urban-raised, upper middle-class, Western-educated. One noted that a young person growing up in rural Idaho or inner-city Chicago might not be any more fluent in international human rights mechanisms or able to access global power centres than their counterpart in southeast Asia or Latin America. To truly include marginalized voices requires more than representation from specific countries and regions; it means a global effort to empower individuals at the grassroots with knowledge of rights, procedural skills for pursuing them, and a sense that there is room for their concerns to be heard in the councils of nations.