The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) in Malawi was created in 2017 to provide protection and support for human rights defenders (HRDs), and to defend the civic space within which these activists operate.
Civil society groups and actors were facing growing challenges because of a lack of accountability, and because of the impunity afforded to those committing human rights violations. The coalition’s overarching focus has therefore been on tackling corruption.
Threats, attacks and harassment
During the 9 months of protest, there were multiple cases of serious physical threats and attacks made against members and leaders of the HRDC. These attacks were designed to instill fear in activists and deter them from organising further protests. Prominent figures of the HRDC were also subject to other forms of harassment. For example the HRDC vice-Chairperson and an executive member were arrested and charged with inciting people to contravene the law, after they called for citizens to protest in front of the State House as the President was yet to assent to a rerun of the election. The government also attempted to sue HRDC organisers. They claimed that protestors were damaging property and looting, and demanded that the organisers should bear the cost of such damage. These tactics drained the coalition of capacity and resources, and put membersat risk of physical harm.
Capacity and resources is an ongoing issue
The coalition’s leadership has not had the time or resources to build the capacity of its regional and district members regarding the HRDC’s mandate, and human rights awareness more generally. Although some limited funding and capacity building support was secured, allies and funders were quickly put off by government threats. For example it was reported in the media that HRDC had been ‘trained in guerilla warfare’ and an international civil society organisation (ICSO) was named as having provided support to that end (they had in fact been providing much needed security training). International actors were afraid to associate themselves with HRDC, as the issue was thought to be ‘too political’. As a result the coalition struggled to secure financial or practical support during a critical period.
De-centralised power empowers people
A decentralised structure gave people at the community level the autonomy to make suggestions and decisions, within the coalition’s mandate. This meant that the HRDC leadership, who could not be everywhere at once, had contacts whom they could trust to make decisions at any level.
Bridging to the legal sector was important
By formalising a connection with the Malawi Law Society, the founders of the coalition built a bridge between civil society and the legal sector from the outset, gaining connections with lawyers who were able to support activists and CSOs under attack as they challenged the fraudulent election results. In contexts where the judiciary has not been compromised, the rule of law is an important tool for defending space for civil society.
International solidarity matters
Organisations including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Frontline Defenders stayed connected with HRDC and raised the alarm at the international level over arrests and threats. This awareness and solidarity was an important form of psychological support. Members sometimes struggled, wondering whether they were doing the right thing in mobilising people to demonstrate but hearing others elsewhere speak out on their behalf motivated them to continue. On the other hand, solidarity was less forthcoming when the coalition sought diplomatic solutions to the crisis. Whilst protests and litigation were ongoing, HRDC participated in a task force convened by development partners, involving political parties and diplomatic representatives from other states. HRDC found themselves having to make the case for why demonstrations were needed, as external stakeholders feared the situation would degenerate into civil strife or war, and were averse to associating themselves with the movement. This underscored the importance of ensuring that international allies have a thorough understanding of the specific context in question, and revealed how this can require advocacy with international actors (and therefore resources and capacity) in order to secure solidarity.
Technical capacity is needed
HRDC and its members need ongoing support from ICSOs and allies, for example to develop technical capacities, such as financial and legal knowledge, to hold the new government to account and defend civic space. In particular, the coalition aims to develop proposals for a strong legal framework that would support the work of HRDs and civil society, and to work with the government on this framework whilst there is still good will. The international community can provide training and learning on best practice to strengthen these proposals, whilst in turn learning from the experiences of HRDC and Malawian civil society.
The High Court and the Supreme Court dismissed the government’s request for an injunction against protests, concluding that the right to demonstrate was unconditional and that the state could not impose blanket bans or use the courts to ban the protests.
The Constitutional Court nullified the results of the 2019 presidential election, calling for a new election to be held, and the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission finally resigned. A new Chairperson (elected by the judiciary) was able to push through plans for a fresh election.
In June 2020 an election rerun took place, and a new president, Lazarus Chakwera, was sworn in, leading a coalition government. Promisingly, Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party’s campaign promises had included the support of operations of local and international human rights civil society organisations (CSOs), “through a permissive and enabling policy” (CIVICUS (2020): MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’).
The demonstrations, alongside legal approaches, played a key role in ensuring that the Electoral Commission and President were ultimately held to account.
“Judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held… key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led demonstrations… This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing.” (CIVICUS (2020): MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’).
HRDC members have been able to meet with the new President several times already to have candid and honest conversations about the issues Malawians are facing. The President has already addressed some of the issues raised during these meetings, for example the coalition has secured an agreement with the Corruption Bureau for a new whistleblowing initiative. By engaging in pro-democracy action at a critical moment, HRDC has helped to increase the odds of a more open context for civil society, whereby CSOs and activists can contribute to good governance and therefore to broader social and development goals.
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.
The Articulación Feminista de Nicaragua is a network of over 100 organisations and individuals that works in pursuit of democracy, and the exercise of full citizenship by the Nicaraguan population. The movement is involved in processes to find peaceful solutions to Nicaragua’s current crisis, ensuring that women’s rights are central to any potential solutions.
The Articulación has worked alongside new and emerging youth-led movements born out of the April 2018 protests and resulting national crisis. It has brought the feminist agenda into the public debate, strengthened digital activism, and deepened collaborations between different organisations focusing on democracy, justice and rights. The Articulación has contributed to enabling some youth movements and women’s movements in the interior of the country to connect to national networks and has worked to protect activists from attack in a context of severely closed civic space and repression.
Risk of physical harm
By protesting and organising, members of the Articulación risk imprisonment, where they are often subjected to violence and sexual abuse. Movement leaders face threats from the police and paramilitary groups, and as a result many have had to flee, seeking refuge in countries such as Costa Rica or Spain, an exodus resulting in significant ‘brain drain’ across the movement as the civic space has closed. Members of the Articulación have continued to protest and organise despite these risks.
Some feminist organisations were closed in 2018, and most groups are now under pressure because the government is constantly enacting new legislation targeting CSOs, including several recently approved repressive laws. These include the Law for Regulation of Foreign Agents, used to repress those CSOs receiving resources from international sources; a law on cybercrime, which seeks to censor digital media; and a law on hate crimes that introduces life imprisonment for political dissent, without a clear definition for what acts amount to dissent.
By trying to alter the narrative and the ‘macho’ culture that is so pervasive throughout the country, women’s groups and feminists find confrontation not just from the state, but from their own families and communities. Sexual assault has become part of the repression experienced by activists and women, and the impunity around this must be addressed.
Sustaining coordination and engagement
Sustaining internal coordination and alliances with other movements and spaces is particularly challenging given the complexities of the context and the risks involved. The Articulación’s lack of structure or formality also makes engagement with international groups difficult, as such cooperation often requires quite rigid standards and models that do not easily accommodate social movements. It is also difficult to dedicate time to advocacy strategies vis-à-vis international feminist movements, as the Articulación is occupied with more immediate defensive and protective work. Maintaining the movement’s existence without resources or permanent support from international allies is very challenging.
Youth groups have their own dynamics, and it is important to take these into account and respect their ways of working, when collaborating. Young women’s groups need their own space. The Articulación underlines the importance of strengthening other organisations and movements, rather than overriding or replacing them through the neglect of their particular objectives. They also stress the importance of engaging in dialogue with groups where there is agreement on aspects related to democracy and justice, even if these groups do not entirely align with the Articulación’s agenda. In these mixed political spaces, feminists contribute by defending the exercise of full citizenship rights, promoting the role of women as political actors.
Narrative and cultural change take time, but movements can also take advantage of key national moments. Feminist movements were able to use the crisis to highlight the nature of the dictatorship and its detrimental effects on the country and center the narrative of peaceful protest and freedom, as opposed to one of violence and war. Young people have taken up this civic struggle, and do not see war as a way out of the political crisis.
Women’s groups are operating in a dictatorship where they are seen as enemies of the state, and so their continued existence and activities are a positive outcome in this context. They are a successful and effective movement just by virtue of continuing to operate.
Specific outcomes include:
Bond is a membership body for UK-based organisations working in international development.
It unites over 400 civil society organisations in pursuit of global change, with members ranging from small specialist charities to large international civil society organisations with a world-wide presence.
Concerned by restrictions made to the enabling environment for civil society in the UK, and the precedent that this could set internationally, Bond has engaged in coalition activities on civic space issues, carrying out convening and coordination with its members and other civil society actors. This work has ranged from campaigning for the voice of civil society organisations within the UK, to advocacy efforts focused on influencing government policy on diplomacy and development.
Individual measures and restrictions are very technical in nature, making it difficult to garner support for reform. They are too complicated for many CSOs to engage with, and it is challenging to secure support from politicians and the public on such complex issues.
Existentialism vs. capacity
Many CSOs do not perceive these types of measures to be existential threats to their ability to continue operating and achieving their objectives. For example, international development organisations do not usually make use of mechanisms such as judicial reviews. Therefore, although there is a recognition that these measures do add up to a shrinking of civic space, many groups cannot justify dedicating capacity to the issue over and above their core work.
Some organisations have become used to the restrictions and see them as the ‘new normal’, in terms of the environment in which they must operate. They are adapting to restrictions rather than speaking out against them. Bond’s members work on international development – understandably, they prioritise their capacity on the core issues, i.e. their primary missions and the causes they were founded to address such as ending global poverty.
It is important to have broad, diverse coalitions. Advocacy on these measures and restrictions has been most effective when it has been part of a collective effort involving both international actors and domestic groups from all backgrounds. The leadership of key players in the domestic sphere such as the Quakers and Friends of the Earth enabled connections with CSOs across the UK and across sectors.
Given the technical nature of the legislative or policy-based restrictions that are introduced, expertise is needed to enable sector-wide understanding and the development of strategies to push back. Deciding where this is housed and resourced within a coalition is important.
Given the reduced advocacy capacity amongst many organisations, and the natural disconnect between primary missions and technical restrictions, umbrella bodies are key actors in the resistance.
Engagement with the UK Electoral Commission, and the resulting publishing of new guidance on the Lobbying Act, helped CSOs to feel more confident about campaigning in the run up to the general election in 2019. The collaborative actions of Bond and others helped to thaw the chilling effect that had silenced organisations in previous years.
The collective action and networking that was developed in response to the Lobbying Act resulted in a platform that was then well placed and poised to continue campaigning as new restrictions or measures were introduced. Certain organisations or alliances might actively work on specific issues, such as the judicial review process, whilst the wider network has been able to amplify messages and offer solidarity when required.
Organisations who have viewed the growing package of restrictions as an existential threat – mostly environmental and human rights organisations who engage more in public campaigning – have advocated against the measures and lobbied for civil society’s voice to remain intact.
In drawing a connection between the international and domestic spheres, Bond saw the need to be more outspoken, and engaged in collaborative, multi-sector advocacy efforts to resist the closing of civic space in the UK. In doing so, they have highlighted the key role that can be played by umbrella bodies with the capacity to undertake the more technical work required, and the political will to campaign on behalf of their members. They have also underlined that international solidarity must be underpinned by a commitment to civic space ‘at home’: “By ignoring these regulatory issues at home, we – civil society actors, funders, regulators – are complicit in closing space abroad: effectively saying to the world that these restrictions don’t matter and that they don’t cause harm. But they do.” (Bond (2018): Is the UK setting a bad example on civil society space?)
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.
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.
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.
UnidOSC is a coalition of organisations formed in Mexico in 2015.
It seeks to foster coordination among civil society organisations (CSOs) on the defense of rights inherent to the freedom of association, and on the construction of an enabling environment for civil society.
Galvanising a diverse range of CSOs
Some invited organisations have expressed an interest in the coalition, but have not committed to participate actively, mainly because CSO rights are frequently seen as second in importance to CSOs’ own causes. The coalition is working to expand membership for broader scope and diversity, but this remains a challenge.
It can be challenging to incorporate the multiple priorities of so many different types of CSOs. To mitigate this, the Committee tries to identify the different needs of the membership and translate them into initiatives that can be of benefit to most organisations, or for those that are most vulnerable. Some regulations affect all
CSOs and cross-sector solidarity is needed
to tackle these.
Technical assistance as solidarity
UnidOSC has benefited greatly from technical assistance from international groups experts in civic space such as ICNL, ECNL, Human Security Collective, the WINGS network and others. These groups have provided technical assistance either relating to legal aspects of the enabling environment, or by sharing good practice from other countries such as strategies for digital security, or inviting UnidOSC representatives to spaces and platforms for exchange and learning. This kind of solidarity has been invaluable, and should expand.
It has been difficult for the coalition to engage with more international civil society organisations (ICSOs). Whilst there might be the desire to engage on civic space at an international or secretariat level, those concerns are not necessarily shared by colleagues in ICSOs’ country offices, as their focus is often more on the cause related to their specific mission. UnidOSC has formed good relationships with some ICSOs who participate as full members, as they see the close connection between the protection of civic space on the one hand, and the work that they are mandated to do on the other. However, that link is not always clear. Some ICSOs have, however, acted as allies to the coalition, if not as full members, for
example by supporting with the dissemination of research.
Expertise and capacity: Although the initial campaign has not yet succeeded in reforming national CSO legislation in Mexico, the work formed the base of even more advanced legislation that has since been presented at state-level. If those reforms are adopted, it would create a precedent that could lay the ground for future national reforms. UnidOSC’s work has helped to create a feedback and solidarity loop whereby regional, national, and local advocacy initiatives can strengthen one another.
Access: Members have benefited from the coalition in terms of access and direct participation, including access to research, the exchange of learning, and an opening up of dialogue with multiple different authorities and stakeholders that influence the regulatory framework for CSOs.
The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) is a coalition of Canadian civil society organisations, established after the adoption of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001.
The coalition’s aim is to protect and promote human rights and civil liberties in the context of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Since its creation, ICLMG has been a platform for exchange among organisations and communities affected by the application of national security laws.
This case study looks at how this long-standing coalition has developed, and the strategies it has used to advocate for greater accountability and transparency in Canada, and to resist the overreach of national security.
Maintaining energy long-term
In being such a long-standing coalition, ICLMG sees a high turnover of representatives from member organisations engaging with the campaigns and activities. The secretariat has to serve as a shared institutional memory for the policy positions that organisations have taken, and there is a challenge inherent in having to remind members of past engagement and in encouraging renewed participation.
Maintaining funding long-term
Turnover in representatives, alongside financial constraints faced by members, has meant that maintaining a consistent and increasing level of funding takes ongoing work.
Technical nature of work
Coalition members generally recognise the importance of the work undertaken by ICLMG, but it can be challenging to translate this into support amongst the general public, particularly in order to build pressure to change laws and policies. However this presents opportunities for the coalition to think through how to articulate the problems clearly.
Value of institutional memory
Long-standing campaigns need a consistent coordination mechanism driving and leading the work. ICLMG was the only institution with a detailed memory of the key moments between 2001 and 2017, and they were able to link this important history and background to the present day work, ensuring that the learning from years of advocacy informed the demands of civil society when the opportunity to participate arose.
Common discourse is vital
At the time of ICLMG’s founding, the language and discourse around national security and civil liberties was in flux. By developing a common set of principles, policy goals and public discourse, the coalition was able to have an impact on the framing of these issues, particularly in the media.
Despite existing for 20 years, the ICLMG coalition has never formally incorporated as a standalone institution. Staff has been housed and employed by several different member organisations, including Inter Pares. Likewise, the coalition’s finances have been administered by a succession of member organisations. Functioning in this way has allowed the coalition to remain responsive and agile, and allowed for coalition staff to have much needed administrative support. This places a higher level of importance on institutional memory and individual involvement.
Coalition members came to a consensus on every question in the national consultation, meaning that everyone was on the same page in their advocacy efforts.
The introduction of a Review Agency was finally included in the National Security Act of 2017 and the Agency was then established in 2019. Although the coalition is critical of many of the other changes brought in through the Act, for example the increasing of surveillance powers, the inclusion of the Review Agency is a success. Its introduction means there will be one body with the power to look across the collaborative work of multiple security agencies, providing greater accountability and transparency, and therefore, protection.
Civic Organisations. It Works is a coalition of civil society organisations in Poland. The coalition came together in 2017 to consider the narrative used in the media and by the government that had enabled considerable attacks on civil society organisations in the public sphere, alongside growing restrictive legislation.
Members of the It Works coalition reinvented their communications in order to improve public perceptions of civil society. Rather than use reactive strategies in response to government attacks and smear campaigns, they developed a long-term approach rooted in ‘hope-based communications’, designed to reveal the role and added value of the third sector as a proactive strategy to keep space open for civil society.
Reaching a consensus
Collective decision-making can be a challenge. With a communications team made up of representatives from 10 different organisations, reaching a consensus can sometimes be a long process. However, the principle of democracy is considered important as each group brings different strengths. It also helps to ensure broad buy-in for the strategies taken, and unity of messaging within campaigns.
To begin with, the coalition wanted to be an umbrella for all CSOs. However, it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t work, as there were certain contexts that required a political stance. For example, members wanted to run a campaign alongside planned gender equality parades, using communications with the slogan ‘Love. It Works’ to demonstrate solidarity with LGBT+ communities. There was pushback, because such a campaign would inevitably alienate some organisations. In order to enable participation in the parades and to help steer future actions, members took the decision that their actions and strategies must be guided by a set of values centered on freedom, human rights and equality. This would enable them to determine when they could take necessary political positions to stand in solidarity with minority or vulnerable communities. This meant that some organisations would not join the group.
Doing the groundwork pays off
It was important to make the difficult discussions at the beginning of the process, to clarify a shared agenda and purpose, to build trust amongst members, and to create a strategy that all members could endorse. As a consequence, there was a heavier time commitment and workload from members in the development stage. But as a result, once a strategy had been agreed on, the day-to-day work was more straightforward and now only light consultation is needed when clarifying next steps on campaigns.
Campaigns grounded in values create solidarity
Hope-based communications are effective. Although the coalition does not yet have the numbers or statistics to fully demonstrate the change in trust amongst the public regarding CSOs, there has been an encouraging response to the campaigns conducted to date. Well-known public figures have endorsed the messages, and the sector as a whole has been keen to be involved. This is because the campaigns are rooted in values rather than just in specific topics, and this has created the space and structure for cross-cutting solidarity.
By sharing photographs, films and infographics, the coalition showcases CSO programmes and projects and demonstrates how they make a difference to the lives of people in Poland. Interviews and stories have been featured regularly in various publications including Vogue Poland, whilst some of the films produced for the campaigns have been shown in cinemas across the country. So far, campaigns have attracted over 4 million online visitors.
Although the impact in terms of a change in public perception is difficult to measure, as is often the case with long-term communication initiatives, organisations do feel safer engaging in communications campaigns and advocating for civil society, due to the protective umbrella of the coalition. By being part of a collective effort, the risk of raising one’s voice is reduced. As the coordinator has highlighted: “We believe we are now stronger in the face of attacks.” Meanwhile there are plans to conduct a survey to measure any change in the levels of public trust.
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.
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.
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.”
The #KeepItOn campaign and coalition, hosted by Access Now, unites and organises efforts to end internet shutdowns worldwide.
Members of the #KeepItOn coalition work together to identify, verify and document incidents of internet shutdowns in order to raise awareness of how they violate human rights. The coalition also works to prevent their occurrence through advocacy, capacity-building and litigation. Uniting under the banner of #KeepItOn and now with 220 members worldwide, they have successfully fought internet shutdowns in several national contexts, while raising the profile of the issue at the international level.
Coordinating a holistic response
It is a challenge to ensure that the right resources are in the hands of the right partners in the right place at the right time. Contexts where shutdowns are most prevalent are also settings where civic space is narrower, or closed. Thus, there are fewer civil society organisations operating there who are able to work with a global coalition, or who have the skills needed for a holistic response (policy expertise for understanding the political context and technical expertise for running tests and identifying how the shutdown is implemented). Coordinating these moving parts is challenging – the grassroots grants programme is aimed at developing this infrastructure through capacity-building, in order to mitigate this ongoing challenge.
Coalition members have learned from different contexts to be proactive rather than reactive. Now, rather than waiting for a shutdown to happen and then responding, they try to anticipate the challenges that may arise, for example around upcoming elections, and create strategies depending on the risks that are foreseeable.
The decentralised model has been key to the coalition’s success. Although Access Now is an international organisation, many of its team members don’t have first-hand experience of internet shutdowns. It is vital therefore that those with direct experience of blackouts and restrictions are able to speak for themselves. Access Now has provided guidance and resources and initiated the development of the coalition, with the aim of being inclusive and raising up the true diversity of experiences. More support is needed from ICSOs to support those communities on the ground who are most affected by restrictions.
High-level figures and international and regional bodies have denounced internet shutdowns as a result of the coalition’s advocacy efforts, for example:
This has created important international and regional support and accountability, and is an important step in ensuring that shutdowns do not become the new normal.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Civilizáció (Civilisation) was established as a joint campaign of Hungarian civil society organisations in early 2017.
Their mission is to strengthen the image, constituency and support of civil society and civic action; to increase levels of solidarity; to share knowledge and skills to strengthen the civil society sector; and to take action against shrinking civil space and increase the opportunities of democratic participation and the diversity of civil society.
Civilisation was established in response to a crisis, and therefore their coalition has been built upon resistance. They work best together when there is an external threat or something to respond to. Without a common, clear goal to motivate their joint work, there is a risk that the interest and engagement of members will decrease. The government has gone relatively quiet during 2019, and so the coalition has been ‘on standby’. They cannot maintain that mode infinitely, and so a common focus or theme is needed that brings the members together and inspires joint action.
How to cooperate
This has been the first real cross-sector coalition in Hungary, and learning to cooperate and to work together took time. Members had to work hard to recognise and acknowledge different styles and types of CSOs, and different attitudes, approaches, appetites and agendas. It took some time to harmonise this, and to recognise and appreciate the diversity of the network. The lessons learned during earlier (failed) coalition-building efforts contributed to this – they taught more experienced members to exercise patience. Mutually agreed internal decision-making rules, based on the principles of ‘one member – one vote’ and ‘everyone contributes according to their capacities’ were also important, particularly for smaller, weaker members to feel safe and comfortable in the coalition.
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.
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.
In 2018, Spaces for Change (S4C) – a Nigerian civil society organisation (CSO) working to infuse human rights into social and economic processes – initiated the idea of a learning-and-sharing hub on closing civic space.
What began as an informal network designed to deepen cooperation and solidarity eventually transformed into the Action Group on Free Civic Spaces in Nigeria, a coalition of 61 organisations working to co-create a unified sector position and voice to defend civic space against security-induced restrictions. Members work on diverse thematic issues, however they are all committed to ensuring that government regulations (framed around national security) do not shrink civic space.
National security questions are sensitive, and so as groups started to convene and collaborate around this, it took time to build trust and overcome the sensitivities in the room.
Balancing inclusion with capacity and skill set
It is important to try and ensure that group actions are inclusive, so that certain sector voices are not left out. However, when dealing with something like a Mutual Evaluation process, high level evidence based analysis is required, and so inclusion must be balanced with the capacity and skill set needed for that level of discussion.
Getting buy-in can be challenging. People can be suspicious when approached to join a coalition. It’s vital to find the central themes that connect constituencies and connect to the spirit of different organisations’ missions.
Nigerian civil society organisations have developed coalitions in the past, but they have proved difficult to sustain. In this instance, the Action Group has worked hard to ensure there is a sense of ‘Common Ownership’. Rather than the coalition being led by one group, it belongs to everyone, which has created a sense of buy-in that ensures the work is relevant and sustainable.
Non-financial support can be just as helpful as funding. Many groups have contributed meeting spaces, covered their own transport costs, or shared resources in place of contributing funds, and this has helped to keep conversations going and to strengthen the coalition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Outcomes outside Uganda
Vuka! is a broad coalition of approximately 160 international, regional and national civil society organisations, working to incubate new forms of resistance and organisation.
Its Secretariat is housed within CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) and maintains a 19-member Steering Group.
With its large membership, multiple action teams and multi-country focus, Vuka! is something of a ‘meta-coalition’. With its Country Coordination Calls, Vuka! manages country-level responses to closing space.
Opening civic space
Coordinated action to respond to an opening rather than a narrowing of civic space, have proved more difficult to carry out. Among ICSOs, there is rarely a coordinated response to ‘opening space’. Civil society is skilled and experienced at fighting restrictions, but when there is sudden access to resources and space, what should support from ICSOs look like? It’s proven more challenging to determine what actions can be agreed upon on ’opening’ country calls.
Tension between depth and breadth
Coalitions often struggle with a natural tension between depth and breadth. Should the network dedicate their time to fewer countries and do deeper work there, or respond to a larger number of countries what would benefit from increased coordination?
When asking people to dedicate time to information sharing and collective discussion, you must first build trust and prove the value of engaging. Part of that is about not dominating the conversation, and making rather than taking space. Those stewarding or coordinating a coalition shouldn’t be in competition with members. The secure platform developed for Vuka! has been invaluable in helping to create that trust.
Coordinator role is key
Someone needs to be able to synthesise the information shared in order to properly identify potential next steps.
Resources and mechanisms
The collating of information and identifying of solutions needs to be backed up by resources and mechanisms to enable those ideas to reach fruition.