The value of diversity in creating systemic change for human rights

The human rights movement must value and mobilize the expertise of all players, from local to international levels. This is a work in progress that has only just begun.

Globalization has resulted in a situation where the violation of human rights of two people in different parts of the world may be the result of a single transnational corporation or government, based elsewhere in the world. As Ford Foundation’s representative for Southern Africa, Nicolette Naylor stated recently, “The rise of nationalism and populism accompanied by exclusionary politics and ‘othering’ has seen the ‘othering’ of the human rights movement itself. Accompanying these trends are targeted attempts to close the space within which civil society operates in the North and the South.”

For these reasons and more, Ford embarked on the Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide (SHRW) initiative in 2012, a $54 million, five-year investment to strengthen and diversify the human rights movement. This year, at the end of this initiative, Ford contracted an independent team to conduct a review to assess what it did (and did not) accomplish and what the field could learn from it.

Pixabay/Reisefreiheit_eu/(Some Rights Reserved).

The human rights movement has to more explicitly identify how to maximize the value of all players, from local to international levels.

One of the first key findings was that human rights groups need to target whatever part of the “system”—policies, practices or perspectives of governments, whether local or national, and regional or international intergovernmental bodies—that is responsible for the problem they are addressing, or is well positioned to influence those who are responsible. The experience of Ford’s SHRW initiative has demonstrated that to move an agenda, strategies must flow back and forth between the local, national, regional and global levels.

Indeed, the international human rights movement is better understood and operationalized as a mosaic of diverse groups with diverse contributions rather than a ladder in which abuses happen at the local level and are fed “upwards” to be addressed by international NGOs (INGOs) at international level.

Only in situations where taking litigation to the international level requires the exhausting of local remedies does the “ladder” approach apply. In most other circumstances, who is best placed to move an agenda and therefore where to target advocacy, is a matter of strategy.

Given the general loss of moral valence of the West, it is more important than ever that human rights groups from other parts of the world strengthen further their ability to influence their own and other governments and regional institutions, and social movements.

Since the global UN Conferences of the 1990s, a wide range of organizations, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and membership-based organizations representing diverse constituencies, have become actively involved in engaging regional and international human rights bodies, whereas previously this terrain had mostly belonged to INGOs. However, the ecology of the human rights movement remains divided with INGOs based in the West still controlling most agendas, as well as the processes of engagement by national groups in international spaces. The majority of funding for human rights work comes from philanthropic institutions in the US and Europe, and most of the funds for global work go to INGOs headquartered in the West.

"As more national groups and groups from the global South operate in the global field, they may face the same challenges facing INGOs."

As more national groups and groups from the global South operate in the global field, they may face the same challenges facing INGOs—that their professionalization may make them gatekeepers keeping out the perspectives, or understanding of the problem and possible solutions of less well-resourced social movements, communities or constituencies. These national NGOs need to build and sustain in their ways of working, processes that listen and hold themselves to account.

Many of the groups involved in the Ford Foundation initiative have been invited into governmental, NGO and academic decision-making spaces at national, regional and global levels. This is an indication of the emergence of powerful voices for human rights outside of a Western lens. Some groups have also set up offices in cities where they focus a lot of their UN advocacy. In general, global South groups find that having their own people, for example in Geneva, gives them greater strategic leverage than relying on collaborations with INGO staff in those spaces. Forum-Asia ’s experience is that having an office also increases the perceived legitimacy of such groups, by government delegates and even INGOs.

While these efforts increase the legitimacy and power of global South organizations vis-à-vis international institutions, it also devours resources. Indeed, many of these changes are being achieved with access to resources from this initiative that are not usually available to groups in the global South. To address this challenge, CELS and Conectas pooled resources to contract an individual to represent the interests of their constituencies without setting up office, which has helped them raise local issues in real time linking local and international actions simultaneously, while saving on costs.

Regional institutions are gaining increasing geo-political importance and need the ongoing attention of human rights groups. Often states accuse the international human rights system of having a Western bias and failing to understand the local context. In the traditional human rights ecology, national groups advocate to their own governments, INGOs advocate to other governments. But the review of the initiative demonstrates that global South groups, including national human rights groups, are supporting activists to challenge the system in other countries without the aid of INGO intermediaries.

Grantees as well as other experts argued that effectiveness from local to international levels requires spaces in which organizations and individuals in the human rights movement can bring issues, evidence, experience into the broader movement, and can learn from others. This begs questions about how the movement can improve its ability to learn and share, given the continued massively disproportionate allocation of resources (funds, access to libraries, knowledge production, in relationships to media, to internationally influential decision-makers among others) between international organizations in the global North and regional or national groups.

Clearly, the “system” needs to be brought into closer conversation with local struggles so that local people can use it effectively, especially as governments across the globe tighten controls over human rights organizations and defenders. Groups working locally and nationally need the requisite resources—funds, links to media and to those with international power—to be able to think and strategize in a global context; in turn, INGOs have to meaningfully partner in the framing and development of strategies with local groups, and have to recognize that their voices may no longer hold the most weight, nor should they, among governments and the public at large.

Overall the review suggests that the human rights movement has to more explicitly identify how to maximize the value of all players, from local to international levels. This is a work in progress that has only just begun.

Nearly seven decades after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the International System still effective in protecting the world’s most vulnerable and marginalised people? Leaders of Human Rights organisations around the world describe the strategies and alliances they are adopting to respond to current global challenges.

This video is a product of the independent Learning Review of the Strengthening Human Rights Worldwide global initiative of the Ford Foundation.




Barbara Klugman is a South African strategy and external practitioner, and co-coordinator of the South African Constitutionalism Fund. Previously, she ran the Ford Foundation’s international sexuality and reproductive rights portfolio and established and ran the Women’s Health Project, South Africa. Barbara is a part-time visiting professor at the School of Public Health of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and chair of the board of the Urgent Action Fund-Africa. 

Ravindran Daniel is a human rights lawyer from India. He served as director of the Human Rights Division with
the UN peacekeeping missions in East Timor, Libya and the Sudan. In 1991, he established the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and was a member of the committee that launched the International Network for Economic Social and Cultural Rights. 

Denise Dora is a lawyer and human rights activist in Brazil. She was a founder member of Themis - Gender, Justice and Human Rights in 1993, and is currently a senior partner of a law firm specialised in civil society organisations, right to equality and socio-environmental law.  She serves on the board of the Brazil Human Rights Fund, and Land of Rights. 

Maïmouna Jallow is a Kenya-based communications consultant and storyteller. Previously, she headed the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) regional communications team in the Horn of Africa and worked as producer and correspondent for the BBC World Service. She is co-founder of the Positively African media group.  

Marcelo Azambuja is a lawyer and human rights activist in Brazil. For the past ten years, he has worked with social movements, including the landless rural workers movement and the national movement for housing. He is currently a senior partner in a law firm specializing in freedom of association and human rights. 


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