A time for change? The future of INGOs in international human rights

The first 50 years of the global human rights movement after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed were about agreeing on common, universal standards. International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) led the charge in early days, but many of them are thinking about changing the way they work through decentralizing operations. But is there another way?

INGOs and civil society actors are the beating heart of the international human rights project: advocating additional protections, monitoring abuses, holding states (and others) accountable for abusiveness. Yet, recent criticisms have revealed the gap between what INGOs have achieved and what human rights ought to be. INGOs are not perfect—they commit blunders, they under- or over-estimate the wrongdoing in the world, and they may prioritize internal concerns over global or local ones. They get caught up in rhetorical wars against one another. One overriding concern that has caught the attention of INGOs and their observers has been a lack of representativeness in the work of human rights INGOs.

Representativeness is crucial, especially in the human rights world. Protectors of human rights cannot ignore those they are intending to protect. Many INGOs have sought to remedy what might be called a representation gap by making their organizational flow charts reflect geopolitical changes. For human rights and development INGOs, this largely means decentralizing—setting up hub offices outside of London and New York in efforts to better recognize the growing centers of influence in Jakarta, Johannesburg, New Delhi and Sao Paolo. But is decentralization “better” for the kinds of work such groups do? In some ways, the dismantling and rearranging of integrated, albeit complicated organizational structures might be an inappropriate response to a perceived representation gap.

In Internal Affairs, I wanted to know what kinds of organizational structures might make global campaigns mounted by INGOs more effective in changing the policies, viewpoints and behavior of states. “Better” in this context meant changing what states did and in turn, improvements for the human rights agenda generally. I argued that limiting who could say what an INGO should pursue, while encouraging the entire organization and its supporters to promote one agenda in their own ways, was key to running a global campaign. It was also critical to solving the transnational dilemma of making global concerns local and making local suffering universal concerns. Many INGOs had thought that better, together, centralized, was the answer until very recently. Oxfam International, for instance, was founded in 1994. Save the Children formed Save International in 2009 after many decades of effort to build such a structure.

People and NGOs in the global South (and rightly so) looked at the growing human rights agenda worldwide and asked why their parts in the project were always relegated to the backseat, the receiving end, rather than the deciding end. Why did INGOs, based comfortably in wealthy Western cities, get to decide what kinds of rights were more important than others? Shouldn’t a truly global human rights movement be representative and not just effective in telling people what to do? And as Wanja Muguongo argues, shouldn’t it work for the very people whose rights are endangered or denied?

Amnesty’s recent efforts to “move closer to the ground” is an admirable response to these concerns. While it has always consulted local and domestic NGOs to inform its work largely done in London, now Amnesty has created regional “hubs” to work closer with stakeholders, be able to respond quicker to crises, and “rebrand” human rights as less Western-imposed. It creates the possibility for a decentralized Amnesty response; after all, conditions in Nairobi are going to differ from situations in Mexico City. A truly global human rights INGO should be able to see these differences clearly, and respond accordingly.

But to follow this decentralization policy through cuts away at precisely the strengths Amnesty on which built its brand in the first 49 years of its existence. Putting nearly all of the research capabilities in the hands of the International Secretariat gave Amnesty the edge in the quality of reporting, the consistency of its information and advocacy, and helped coordinate massive campaigns that seemed “impossible”, including Amnesty’s crucial work against torture in the 1970s and 1980s, in which it served as the information and advocacy center in anti-torture campaigning.

Control Arms/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

Campaigners stand outside of Parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal to call for countries around the world to join #RaceTo50. The Arms Trade Treaty, suffered for lack of a cohesive agenda for years before the establishment of Control Arms, which has created clear focal points and campaign tactics to convince states to enact new law.

Centralization of agenda proposal and enforcement creates the “stuff” of campaigns that allows stakeholders with different preferences to coordinate. 

This perspective isn’t just all historical, either. Take a look at some of the recent massive human rights-related campaigns, such as the ban on landmines. The anti-landmines campaign was inclusive, but the agenda was clear and determined by the leading INGOs in the coalition. Similarly, the Arms Trade Treaty, which has finally taken wings at the United Nations, suffered for lack of a cohesive agenda for years before the establishment of Control Arms, which has created clear focal points and campaign tactics to convince states to enact new law. Centralization of agenda proposal and enforcement creates the “stuff” of campaigns that allows stakeholders with different preferences to coordinate.

Effectiveness at the expense of representation is unsustainable in the long run. Under current models, there is an inherent trade-off between the two values. One way to make the trade-off less painful is to focus on what each actor can bring to the table by more explicitly creating a division of labor. Practical guides from practitioners themselves emphasize the differences between various organizations, but it is this diversity that offers the optimal mix for an explicit division of tasks.

This approach does not require dismantling existing organizational structures that made INGOs the significant actors that they are in human rights politics. There is no shame in claiming the Western mantle as the home base for a particular INGO, just as there is no shame in claiming a perspective from a developing country. Organizations should capitalize on opportunities for mutual engagement to coordinate their efforts. This goes beyond the important steps of providing opportunities to build relationships or funding southern NGOs or supporting their capacity-building. Established Western INGOs have built and can build upon infrastructures designed for worldwide campaigns that influence international state leaders. Similarly, groups in developing countries have expertise in issues that affect them most, and have the contacts and legitimacy to do human rights work. Where INGOs might be too birds-eye and universalist, local and southern NGOs might be too focused. We can have the best of both worlds by combining forces, rather than reinventing organizations.