ICSO mechanism
May 2021
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Hivos: In solidarity with content creators: The role of art in the resistance against shrinking civic space

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Hivos is an international development organisation guided by humanist values that works in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America on civic rights, gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and climate justice.

For more than 20 years Hivos has supported the arts and cultural sector, because they believe that art has the power to question the dominant powerful structures in society, create alternative narratives, imagine new realities, and bring about progressive social change.

As part of their response to the growing trend of the shrinking of space for free expression, Hivos developed the Resource of Open Minds (R.O.O.M.) Program to support artists, culture and media producers, to create critical work and freely express their views on social issues and injustice, and share this content in different contexts. Through the R.O.O.M. Program, Hivos aims to diversify dialogue and debate in society through thought-provoking and critical audio-visual productions that question harmful practices, stereotypes and injustices. The R.O.O.M. Program works with critical makers who “strive for openness and lead the resistance against the shrinking civic space”.

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Balancing scale and creativity
Given their size or model, content creators and creative hubs cannot cope with large grants or burdensome policies and procedures. In order to support these actors, Hivos staff have had to learn how to operate like an incubator, developing alternative, lean procedures to suit the nature of their partners and balancing growth and sustainability with the makers’ needs to be fast-moving and creative. This is more akin to supporting social movements then traditional CSOs, and the capacity-building strategies employed by the R.O.O.M Program are fundamentally different to those Hivos uses when engaging with other organisations. This form of solidarity and support requires a tailored approach depending on the needs of each partner, and rather than focusing on stability and procedures, it looks at independence, content and criticality (i.e. how makers can create art not just for art’s sake, or for commercial purposes alone, but instead art that is geared towards creating change).

Bringing makers together
Many creators have chosen commercial routes for their content, as that is where the money is, and it can be difficult to untangle the narrative of entrepreneurship and innovation, and encourage thinking around critical content that seeks to spark dialogue and debate. There is also natural competition amongst makers, and so solidarity is not always easy to nurture.

Gender divide
How can you actively encourage young women to enter the fray around freedom of expression and critical content creation in spaces dominated by men with a culture of exhibitionism of the female body, i.e. online platforms and social media? It is hard to tackle this issue given the nature of algorithms, however the R.O.O.M Initiative is trying to support more women by giving grants and building capacity to women makers, and by including gender training in workshops for creative hubs.

Be patient
Changing narratives and norms is not measurable in the short-term, and these initiatives will not always have an immediate impact. However, the mid- to long-term future will show the effects of a new tech-aware generation of content creators.

Class divide
As well as an unsurprising rural/urban dichotomy around internet access, Hivos has noted a divide between different urban neighbourhoods. Existing creative hubs tend to be situated in more central areas, and are not necessarily accessible to poorer young people from other areas of cities. Hivos has therefore tried to support hubs and spaces in poorer neighbourhoods, in close proximity to artists from marginalised communities, in order to create access and community for more young makers.

Different way of working
Hivos has had to learn how to frame the R.O.O.M Program in an appropriate way, so that makers feel able to apply for support, and are not put off by traditional CSO language or frameworks. It has also been very important to communicate that makers are not being invited to create something in service of INGOs, driven by a foreign agenda, but are being invited to create what they value as critical content, with independence and with freedom.


  • Makers become more self-sufficient – With financial support and capacity-building around finance, management and professional organisational skills, content creators are better positioned to apply to other funders and therefore maintain their independence. Hivos is often a seed-funder or an early-stage supporter, supporting makers to become less reliant on commercial assignments. In this sense, the R.O.O.M Program acts as an incubator for small and emerging initiatives, thanks to its holistic, tailored support. 

  • Makers create more critical cultural and media productions – As the R.O.O.M program enables makers to better balance and distinguish commercial work from editorially independent, critical content, makers have been free to produce documentaries, feature films, podcast series, artworks, animations, music pieces and books. Through these productions, content creators have been able to challenge repressive social norms and tackle specific areas of civic space that have come under threat, by leveraging online space for dialogue, debate and dissent. Capacity-building support and networking opportunities facilitated by R.O.O.M. have helped partners reach wider and more diverse audiences with their productions.

  • Makers have access to safe, well-resourced spaces – Hubs and studios supported by R.O.O.M are able to facilitate the productions of more makers, because of increased capacity, new tools and services, and more inclusive community-building. This capacity is developed with support from Hivos, for example, via the Creative hub leader’s toolkit (produced by Hivos, Nesta and the British Council). As well as providing services such as internet access and workspace, these hubs represent physical safe spaces where young creators can feel safe from harassment, and feel a sense of community and support that directly affects their creative process. These spaces also act as platforms and knowledge-generators for key issues affecting all young content creators, such as surveillance capitalism, or ‘who owns the Internet’ across Africa?

Report Date | May 2021     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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VSO Ethiopia: Advocating for policy reform in Ethiopia

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Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an international development organisation with a vision for a fair world for everyone, and a mission to create lasting change through volunteering. VSO has been present in Ethiopia since 1995, contributing to the development of healthy communities and strengthening inclusive education systems.

The introduction of repressive legislation in Ethiopia in 2009 led to a decade of severe crackdowns on human rights organisations, and a severely repressed environment for civil society. Foreign funding was curbed, the legislation violated international standards related to the freedom of association, and VSO was struggling to deliver its programmes in a context of severely closed civic space. VSO saw the need for collective action, and therefore took steps with partners to help found the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Forum (ECSF) in 2013, the main coalition advocating for civil society organisation policy reforms in the country. A new government in 2018 opened up the opportunity to build a new relationship between civil society and government, and as a result of successful advocacy, reform was achieved in 2019. This case study looks at VSO’s role in providing leadership and strategic guidance, and mobilising and amplifying collaborative action for an enabling environment.

Problem-solving can overtake programmatic focus
Investing time and energy in Forum-related activities created an additional burden for VSO staff, and this was challenging at an organisational level. It meant that the country office could not focus on the growth of its programmes, as instead it was focused on problem-solving. However, given that the office had received a warning letter from the government concerning its programmes, this strategic engagement was a priority to ensurethe organisation’s ability to remain in Ethiopia.

Risk of hosting
Hosting the Forum was not straightforward. The Civil Society Agency believed that the Forum was working against the government and its policies, and so there were risks for VSO associated with this hosting function. VSO had to try and ensure that the Agency saw the work in a positive light, in order to mitigate the additional risk, which made for a difficult balancing act.

Overcoming misconceptions and mistrust
VSO and the Forum’s leadership committee members had to work hard to develop trust amongst some civil society groups. As the Forum had to work closely with government officials in order to ease the tension and secure a safe and constructive working relationship, suspicions were raised that the Forum had been set up by the government, and was therefore not to be trusted. Consultations were undertaken to clarify the purpose of the Forum, as well as to collect input, to create broad, cross-sector buy-in. Trust gradually developed thanks to consistent and persistent communications and action from the Forum’s leadership.

Building a shared vision
It was vital to engage with a broader agenda, and not just focus on individual organisational problems. VSO’s long-term goal was the existence of a vibrant civil society, able to advocate for the rights and needs of others. Engaging with that broader vision and agenda meant that VSO and the Forum were able to win the support of donors and other CSOs. It opened up the space for discussion across sectors, informing the more strategic advocacy that could address the issues of all civil society organisations. By working to ensure that everyone was behind a shared vision and agenda, contributing to and supporting the Forum, they were able to eventually bring about change.

Committing to building bridges
The government at the time was strong, and there was no flexibility on policies. A strong commitment was needed with a long-term view taken on how to build trust and bridges. For example, the Forum organised consultative workshops and invited representatives from the regulatory body, so that civil society could directly share concerns with those from the Agency. This approach, over time, positively affected the Agency’s perception of CSOs, and meant that space opened up to move from the resolution of more immediate issues to the broader advocacy points for an enabling environment and reform. It would have been too simplistic and ultimately counterproductive to classify the government as ‘the enemy’, therefore constructive ways of working had to be found.

Multi-level advocacy is key
As an international organisation, VSO was able to engage in advocacy with donor partners and call for international advocacy on the issue, encouraging diplomatic approaches from different stakeholders to try and open up space. VSO was in a position to push the agenda from these multiple angles, and this was important in providing a sense of international solidarity and cover.


  • As a result of sustained pressure and successful advocacy, the CSO legislation was amended. The Charities and Societies Proclamation was introduced in January 2019 as part of new civic reforms, and the Law of Ethiopian Civil Society Organisations passed in February 2019. The new law has lifted restrictions on foreign funding, has allowed for the re-entry of international organisations to the country, and has updated the regulator to be a more robust ‘critical friend’ to civil society.

  • These changes have resulted in greater accountability and transparency, meaning increased operational freedom for VSO and other civil society groups, and an increased legitimacy of CSOs and their activities. Specifically for VSO, compliance concerns have been eased, and interventions on issues such as gender equality and social inclusion and accountability can now legally be integrated into programming.

  • The Forum has not since dissolved, and is now taking part in the transition period after the ratification of the new legislation. Forum members are developing a code of conduct for CSOs to support perceptions of legitimacy, and establishing a council to represent organisations and serve as a communications conduit between civil society and the regulatory body and different government sectors.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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Transparency International Cambodia: Balancing advocacy and service delivery when the space for civil society is restricted

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Transparency International is a global movement working in over 100 countries to end the injustice of corruption. Country chapters hold the powerful to account for the common good.

Through research, advocacy and campaigning, they work to expose the systems and networks that enable corruption to thrive, demanding greater transparency and integrity in all areas of public life. Transparency International Cambodia was founded in 2010 by anti-corruption activists committed to the creation of an accountable and transparent Cambodia.

In order to survive and operate in a severely restricted environment, and be resilient to attacks, Transparency International Cambodia has had to adapt its approach. By working with all stakeholders and balancing advocacy with strengthening of service delivery, TI Cambodia aims to ensure a perception of neutrality. This approach helps to enable its ongoing access in the country whilst strengthening civil society capacity and participation, thereby keeping the space for civil society functioning.

Anytime TI Cambodia releases new reports or research reflecting the levels of corruption in Cambodia, the country chapter’s relationship with the government is jeopardised (given the government’s sensitivity to criticism and aversion to accountability). Calculating how far they can go with their advocacy, in order to maintain their neutrality and avoid the risks associated with speaking out, is a constant balancing act. On the other hand, if their relationship with the government becomes too close, they risk becoming trapped and unable to speak out at all. Engagement therefore has to be measured, with a relationship that is not too close, but workable. They manage this by focusing all engagement with ministries on capacity building for transparency, accountability and integrity alone. In that way, the relationships are not so close as to constrain TI Cambodia’s programmes, and they can still act in pursuit of their main mission.

Lack of government capacity
The government ministries and offices are understaffed and under-resourced. This means that they welcome resources and capacity-building from TI Cambodia, however it also means that initiating any joint work requires high levels of negotiation. The lack of capacity makes it difficult for departments to maintain new activities, and they often want more support than TI Cambodia can provide. For example, when introducing the mobile app for public engagement around service delivery, the department in question was concerned about how they would continue to operate and maintain the app, and wanted more technical support from TI Cambodia on this.

Evidence-based advocacy
When employing a balanced approach in order to cement a perception of neutrality, it is vital that advocacy is data-driven or evidence-based. Any statements or positions must be based on research and facts on the ground, rather than on opinion alone. In a space that is so narrow, it’s vital that everything is backed up by the research and evidence, so that a policy position that differs from the current practice or that is critical of the current reality is not a position against the government, but rather a position basedon the facts. This is constraining for the organisation, as it means they are not able to express perceptions and opinions freely. However, by working with all stakeholders, and not favouring one actor over another, TI Cambodia maintains the legitimacy to be critical.

Finding the right level
TI Cambodia’s work with the government is based on relationships with reform-minded officials and technical staff within ministries and departments rather than with those in top positions. TI Cambodia has built relationships with specific offices and mid-level government staff who understand that corruption is an issue and who want to see reform. More generalised pushback or stigmatisation from, for example the Anti-Corruption Commission, does not tend to damage that engagement.

Coalitions are a form of protection
TI Cambodia has also found that working in coalition with other CSOs on certain issues ensures that single organisations are not so easily targeted and that together their voices are stronger and louder. This has been an important protective strategy when advocating on critical issues such as corruption and transparency in such a limited space.


  • In general, the balanced approach that TI Cambodia has taken by engaging with all stakeholders as equals has helped to secure its reputation as a neutral institution, mitigating the government’s misperception that TI Cambodia is somehow affiliated with the opposition party or linked to foreign interests. Relationship building of this kind enables TI Cambodia to continue its interventions in the country, and to avoid crackdowns or attacks.

  • The project that TI Cambodia has initiated with the Ministry of Interior is still underway, and so it is challenging to draw conclusions about the extent of the impact achieved at this stage. What they have seen, however, is that the project has expanded narrow civic space, by enabling youth, particularly those living in rural areas, to engage in more social and civic activities.

  • By partnering with the Ministry of Interior, TI Cambodia is able to work with relevant authorities at different levels. Without such a partnership, CSOs normally need permission from national or sub-national authorities in order to implement their programmes. Working without those permissions would most likely result in surveillance and the interruption of activities by authorities.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Asia     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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Plan International: Strengthening the resilience of youth-led organisations in Latin America through direct funding and mentorship

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Plan International is an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. They work with children, young people and partners in over 75 countries across the world.

In response to shrinking civic space in Latin America – alongside the ambition to shift power dynamics and improve partnerships with youth-led organisations – Plan International initiated a pilot project to direct-fund and mentor youth-led organisations in the region with core and flexible funding to enable them to adapt to risks as they arose. This saw Plan fundamentally change its approach to supporting youth-led organisations so that they could act more independently, while Plan worked in solidarity alongside them. A risk-analysis tool on the enabling environment was created to accompany this process so that both Plan and youth-led organisations could manage closing space conditions more effectively.

Securing buy-in
It is challenging to maintain the principles of transparency and full participation. These principles are often difficult to maintain because of conflicting donor requirements. In this instance, making the case for the key difference between direct funding and supporting groups via intermediaries, and advocating for more flexibility when reporting on and auditing the funds, was a challenge. The hope is that through this project, Plan can demonstrate to donors the balance needed between accountability on the one hand, and supporting youth-led organisations and new leadership on the other. This is especially relevant in contexts of high risk where capacities need to be strengthened in order to build resilience in the face of closing space. In this case, Sida’s flexibility and ambition to strengthen civil society made the project possible.

Generational differences
There is a generational issue to overcome. Many of those working in international civil society organisations (ICSOs) have a vision for the world and for society informed by parameters and ideologies set several decades ago. This means they risk missing out on what young people see as change, in terms of political participation, trust in democracy, how to build solidarity or connect. For effective partnership and solidarity, there needs to be transparent conversations – and active listening – on what all stakeholders expect of change.

Balancing risks and rationale
It was important for Plan to be able to articulate why it wanted to work with youth-led organisations. This connects to risk analysis, and how far an ICSO will go when acting in solidarity with youth. Without answering this question, an ICSO risks constantly coming up against the barrier of not being willing to take that risk.

Solidarity requires courage
The support of empowered staff at the technical level within Plan country offices was key to the success of the pilot project. Importantly, there were courageous staff willing to take on the additional challenges and risks of working more directly with and mentoring youth.

Involving the right decision-makers
Involvement of finance staff was key. Plan’s financial procedures are generally strict, with limited flexibility, and so it was necessary to have the buy-in of finance staff for a project that aimed to change the way local, youth-led organisations were supported.

Ensuring that the youth-led organisations themselves drove the project’s agenda was vital to developing Plan’s understanding of how to contribute to the strengthening of the resilience of these organisations. For example, work on sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) in Nicaragua revealed how sexual identity had become deeply politicised and how SRR were therefore a political issue. The awareness of this was important to ensure Plan could fully assess risks and responsibilities when working with youth-led organisations on those rights in that context.

Energy needs support
The pilot project revealed that although the youth-led organisations involved need opportunities to learn, alongside certain tools, most of the time they are ready to organise themselves without further intervention. ICSOs and donors have a tendency to suppress energy and leadership that is already there, as they impose northern-led systems. This energy is vital in advocating for an enabling environment for civil society more broadly – it must be strengthened through flexible support and solidarity.

  • The pilot phase of this project has now been completed and evaluated. The model is currently being scaled up across the region into a new phase that will run until the year 2024 involving 15 youth-led organisations and networks.

  • The cross-regional connections that were made, along with Plan’s international presence, contributed to the sense of solidarity between the youth-led organisations on these challenging topics.

  • Quote from the evaluation: “It is evident that Youth Organizations were strengthened from the Pilot Project. Their strengths can be seen in… the optimal use of resources and general organizational capacities. It is also evident… the maturity that Youth Organizations achieved throughout the project, their regional and national projection, and therefore their ability to have more political influence, as well as the ability to create new alliances and obtain new resources. Clearly, the Pilot was highly beneficial for all Youth Organizations and for strengthening new capacities in the people who comprise them.”

Report Date | November 2020     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Americas     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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Helvetas: How to use selected human rights mechanisms for effective advocacy

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Helvetas is an independent organisation for development based in Switzerland, which supports poor and disadvantaged women, men and communities in 30 developing and transition countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Together with partners, Helvetas aims to tackle global challenges at multiple levels: with projects on the ground, with expert advice, and by advocating for conducive framework conditions benefiting the poor.

When civic space is closing at the national level, international mechanisms become more important, but are not always easy to access for national or sub-national organisations. Helvetas responded to this challenge by developing guidance for its country offices and local partners on how to advocate through the United Nations human rights system when national governments may be restricting civil society. The guidance sets out multiple entry points for advocacy beyond national boundaries through which national decision makers can be held to account, and which allow sensitive issues to be addressed in a safe space without exposure.

Securing buy-in
Securing organisational buy-in for this work can be challenging: there is some critique that it can feel like ‘just another paper’, and there have been questions about what the real outcome of these processes is if governments then don’t change their behaviour. It can be a long process, but advocates have underlined that it is still valuable in terms of providing safe space for groups to raise issues of concern, and that is an achievement regardless of government action or inaction following any reporting. International or multilateral-level work, and the creation of a safe space for discussion and exchange, is even more important when national-level space is severely restricted, helping to aid the resilience of civil society in the long-term.

Long-term funding
There are concerns about how to secure long-term funding, as donors can be wary of advocacy work in restricted environments.

Mitigating the risk of exposure
Local partners may be concerned about the risk involved in engaging in these consultations, as it can require a certain level of exposure. This can be mitigated by integrating information into joint stakeholder reports (e.g. CIVICUS in Country A).

Be selective and strategic
It is vital to filter and select those UN mechanisms which suit your work: the UN system is large, multi-layered and complex, and so it is important to focus time and resources only on those mechanisms which have a chance of supporting your work.

Facilitation is key
Facilitation capacity at country level is key. Helvetas have found that the process is most successful when there is someone in the country office who both knows the lay of the land and who has the capacity to convene, coordinate and facilitate civil society groups on the ground to contribute to any report or process.

Agency matters
It is important that this facilitator role does not set the agenda. They need to help structure things, but also ensure that there is space for issues to be raised by local partners, enabling national voices and agency.

  • There has been demand and appreciation from country offices for this cross-cutting advocacy support and the strategic use of UN human rights mechanisms to strengthen country-level and thematic work. Feedback indicates that it is helpful to have someone processing national issues into ‘UN language’, and supporting the consultations (these consultations must follow certain rules and procedures, and be structured in a certain way in order to comply with UN standards and terminology).

  • The consultations provide a safe space for constructive dialogue between civil society and government, and this itself opens up civic space and builds capacity and resilience at the local and national level, building the confidence of local partners to speak out.

  • Formal recommendations issued under the UPR (or other UN) Process are recorded and can be a powerful point of reference for advocacy at all levels.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Asia     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
October 2019
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Islamic Relief Worldwide: Building a Reputational Risk Management Strategy in the face of Islamophobia-motivated attacks

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Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) is an independent humanitarian and development organisation. They have an active presence in over 40 countries across the globe, and strive to make the world a better and fairer place for millions of the three billion people still living in poverty.

IRW has often faced disproportionate hostility and scrutiny because of its Islamic faith and framing. However, it faced a new level of threat in 2014 when it was designated as a terrorist organisation or front – first by Israel, and then by the United Arab Emirates. It responded to these designations swiftly and as robustly as possible, but the organisation felt that it was constantly on the back foot during this fight. Three years after the designations, prompted by fresh reputational risks, IRW decided to adopt a more proactive approach, and invested in developing a new strategy to manage reputational risk.

Some of the tools needed to either repel or prepare for threats are expensive, such as legal or lobbyist fees. They’re effective mechanisms, but expensive, and so need to be included in budgets.

Staff time
Often, the people best-positioned to deal with these issues are in demanding, senior roles – to find time to deal with these issues can be difficult. The new role of Senior Communications Advisor at the International Secretariat has been vital in helping to underpin their strategy, doing the legwork that the crisis management team requires. It also means that the rest of the communications team can continue with their business as usual, rather than spending all of their time on reputational risk management.

Engage with the truly influential
Engage with the truly influential, and not necessarily with your opponents. Fighting back on every false allegation or vilifying comment gives those attacks oxygen and draws more people to the debate. Time is better invested in targeting those actors your opponents are trying to influence, to make your case there.

Make friends while the sun shines
It’s important to identify your key stakeholders and invest in building relationships with them. Ensuring that you have transparent, close relationships with those groups means that you can seek their support, and where appropriate their endorsement, in the face of an emergency.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Risk analysis and scenario planning are key.

Say who you are
In response to reputational attacks, do not to get dragged into publicly arguing about what you are not. Instead, re-double your efforts to talk about who you are and what you do. Invest the time and resources required to tell your story and represent yourself in order to protect against misrepresentation.

It’s important to acknowledge where issues are bigger than ‘communications’ alone, and your strategy must recognize areas where the work needed goes far beyond what you can achieve in isolation.

For example, due to continuing bank de-risking, IRW’s Head of Governance has undertaken outreach work on the issue. He is on a tri-sector committee convened by the Treasury in the UK, which brings together government representatives, banks and leading civil society organisations to discuss and analyse the ongoing uncertainty of financial services for locations of greatest need, as only a joint approach can address this issue.

  • Islamic Relief Worldwide is better prepared for any threats to its reputation and operations, and therefore more resilient. Since the designations in 2014 which were made by two influential nations, IRW has continued to grow as an organisation. That in itself is a success, and an endorsement of its actions on this front.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Global     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
October 2019
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Greenpeace International: Developing resilience to SLAPP suits through joint action

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Greenpeace uses non-violent, creative action to pave the way towards a greener, more peaceful world, and to confront the systems that threaten our environment. It is a global network of 27 independent national and regional Greenpeace organisations, and Greenpeace International is the coordinating body for this network.

Risk-taking is part of Greenpeace’s identity and therefore central to their usual risk-management processes. However, over the last decade, a series of emergencies in different national contexts has highlighted that work was needed to ensure all local offices were aligned in their approach to ‘smart risk-taking’. This case study focuses on a uniquely proactive response from the Greenpeace offices, in relation to the threat and damage of Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs) in the USA and beyond.

Communicating civil litigation
How to communicate civil litigation in an interesting and engaging way? Not many people know about SLAPP suits, and so basic awareness raising has been difficult for this technical, legal issue.

Incentivising commitment
When Greenpeace International and GPUSA were conducting the initial outreach work with US CSOs, there was interest from others and a desire to know more, but it was hard to incentivise commitment without a more formalised structure in place. Transitioning from an informal support network to a formal structure is difficult and takes time.

Differences between coalition members
Members of a coalition have many differences. There are different risk appetites, different priorities and agendas, and different appetites for ‘political’ work or stances, all of which makes joint planning and action challenging.

Coordination is key
Although the initial conference in 2018 was helpful in terms of brainstorming and building connections, the work was slow to progress until a coordinator was brought on. The project itself was ambitious, due to its multiple functions (legal, communications, campaigns). The governance structure worked well, but the key element was a coordinator who could spot links and ensure things were done.

Enabling easier participation
It’s important early on in the life of a coalition to establish mechanisms and structures that facilitate contributions from members, for example templates for sign-ons (advocacy campaigns). Member representatives are often busy with day-to-day work, so building structures that make their participation quick and straightforward makes for easier collaboration.

Greenpeace International helped incubate Protect the Protest for 12 months, and then withdrew, leaving their Greenpeace USA office as an active member. A separate anti-SLAPP coalition has been established in France – ‘On ne se taira pas’ (We will not be silenced) – to which the Greenpeace France legal counsel has contributed. Through these collective actions and their strategies, Greenpeace as a whole is much better prepared to deal with future SLAPP suits. They are now looking to take their experience and expertise and develop similar networks in other regions, thereby continuing to strengthen their own resilience to this tactic, and that of wider civil society.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Americas , Global     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
October 2019
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ActionAid and ActionAid Uganda: How to scenario-plan for attacks and the narrowing of civic space

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ActionAid is a global justice federation working to achieve social justice, gender equality, and poverty eradication. Presently in 46 countries, ActionAid works to strengthen capacity and agency of people living in poverty and exclusion, especially women and young people to assert their rights.

ActionAid was early in identifying the closing space issue in 2013 and invested time and resources as a federation to research the problem, developing ways to build resilience and resist external threats. ActionAid Uganda, a member of the federation’s working group on this issue, would soon put the organisation’s early efforts to the test when their offices were directly attacked by the government in 2017. Their experience and the lessons learned have fed back into the federation’s thinking and strategising on this topic, and they are now sharing that learning with other national offices, and supporting the development of a Rapid Response mechanism.

Collective resilience
Simultaneous attacks were carried out on peers and partners of ActionAid. These partners were not as resilient as ActionAid Uganda, and whilst ActionAid were able to manoeuvre through the crisis, there remained an element of risk or exposure because of these partners. ActionAid Uganda managed to support one organisation in retaining their office space, however, given that their own accounts were frozen, they did not have the resources to do more. There was a collective gap in resources and resilience.

Long-term impact
ActionAid Uganda underestimated the medium to long-term impact of the government’s propaganda against them. Some citizens still think that their accounts are frozen and some donors still feel sceptical of their work. They needed to do more in terms of counter-engagement and communications beyond the initial attacks to reverse that impact.

Staff insecurity
Following the office raid, some staff no longer felt comfortable engaging with sensitive issues for fear of the backlash they might personally experience. Even though psychosocial support was provided, more was needed to build staff resilience.

Since the attacks, several civil society actors have been compelled to tread more carefully and civic engagement has become more subdued. ActionAid Uganda has had to consider how they can provide assurance and courage to others in the sector, to build sector-wide resilience.

Remaining uncertainty
The case brought against ActionAid Uganda was never resolved and the police never released a report. Although the accounts were unfrozen following political and legal engagement, the unresolved case means the office has a level of uncertainty hanging over its existence. Could they have “exploited the opportunity in the crisis” and pushed back more at the time of the attack, to resolve the case and regain more civic space?

How can you ensure, when in an emergency, that the office can remain operational, a response to the external threat can be mounted, and the governance or programmatic work for which the group is mandated can also continue? While ActionAid Uganda had healthy reserves as per federation policies, this was just about enough for the three months.

Always keep your house in order
Raids or inspections are mostly impromptu, and authorities seek immediate access to various documents and reports. Ensuring that these are readily available avoids potential additional scrutiny or suspicion.

Understand all processes
All staff and all board members must understand all processes. Questioning of organisational representatives in different locations must produce a consistent picture of how the organisation operates, in order to avoid contradictions that may further raise suspicions.

Legal response
A rapid legal response is necessary.

Relationship with the media
A positive relationship with the media is essential. In order to reduce reputational damage and have a platform for underlining an organisation’s legitimacy and value, links to media or social media platforms are important.

Be relevant to civil society
It is vital that an organisation be relevant to civil society and to local and national citizens. If it is, then there will hopefully be a show of solidarity that demonstrates its relevance and value.

Be transparent about operations and mission, and defend the organisation’s values.

  • The organisation’s bank accounts were unfrozen.
  • The amendment on land acquisition was eventually shelved, pending ‘further consultation’. However, the amendment concerning the President’s age passed, and has recently been upheld by the Supreme Court but the civic resistance movement continues to grow.
  • ActionAid Uganda saw the importance of civic space as an issue and have since integrated this into their programmatic work. For example, they now run a Sida-funded programme that coordinates the response to shrinking political space. Through this they developed a response mechanism that covers documentation, analysis, strengthening resilience and extra-legal support, and which helps to bring actors together.
  • They are now budgeting for the defence of rights and activists in an intentional way, for example by setting aside resources to enable them to respond to actors facing threats from the state.

Outcomes outside Uganda

  • The experience of ActionAid Uganda helped to inform an internal Learning Paper which has been shared across the federation. Lessons from the national level have fed back into the federation-wide discussion.
  • ActionAid Uganda is supporting other offices to develop scenarios and planning, based on their experiences.
  • Work is ongoing on strengthening federation resilience. For example, a Rapid Response mechanism is in development. ActionAid Uganda has supported mapping work and analysis of potential structures, looking at how this tool could monitor civic space and make predictions for the federation.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Africa , Global     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

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