The value of diversity in creating systemic change for human rights

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.

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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.