What next for human rights organizations like Amnesty?

Autumn/fall must be the blue skying season. I ended last week having my remaining brain cells picked in exchange for yet another free meal by Amnesty A child walks around a fake tank parked outside the U.S. embassy during a protest held by Amnesty International in Mexico CityInternational’s Savio Carvalho (campaigns and advocacy) and Clare Doube (evaluation and strategy). Going to have to watch my waistline.

They are thinking through Amnesty’s global strategy for 2016-2019, and as with many INGOs, want to move away from a London-dominated, centralized model towards a higher degree of regional/national control, and local partnership. They are also eager to identify and build on their ‘USPs’ – Unique Selling Points – compared to other organizations. Here are some random highlights of the exchange.

On USPs for human rights organizations:

Protecting the protectors: there is a really worrying global crackdown on civil society activities. Amnesty could provide a great contribution as a watchdog and rapid reaction organization, working with the likes of ICNL or Civicus.

Talking to liberals: the language of individual rights is the language of political and economic liberals, who are put off by more collectivist/left wing discourses. We need to talk to those people (not least because they are in power in many countries), so it would be good if Amnesty maintained that position, rather than joining the herd of more overtly political NGOs.

A protest, not a funeral
A protest, not a funeral

Then there’s the lawyers. Human Rights is a highly legalistic domain. That has its downsides, but does mean that the legal profession is highly influential and a massive potential driver of change. Amnesty has a lot of lawyers doing pro bono work at global level, but lawyers at national level could provide a unique constituency for their work (think Pakistan, where suited lawyers demonstrate against the government).

As for ‘going national’, everyone (including Oxfam) is moving in that direction. But Amnesty is a Human Rights NGO and movement, which sees those rights as universal and indivisible. Does that make the process different from development NGOs?

According to Clare and Savio, they already struggle to find the balance between universalism and national context. Take sexual and reproductive health and rights. They are an essential element of Amnesty’s work, but when it comes to an issue like abortion while their policy position is clear, they only campaign on issues that are relevant within a particular country context. So in my view, there are limits to universalism, even for Amnesty, and decentralization is likely to strengthen that effect. Development NGOs, at least those with a rights based approach, also have red lines, but it’s probably easier for them to compromise with local context and reality.

On some issues, (say violence against women or children’s rights) global norms seem to be converging (albeit with some big exceptions) towards the kind of world Amnesty seeks, but on others (eg gay rights), norms seem to be diverging at high speed – think Africa v US. That places a strain on decentralized organizations, as local chapters often reflect national norms. Clare and Savio say (with a sigh) there’s no easy answer to this – you just have to keep people inside the organization talking in a ‘long conversation’. Yeah, right, I know what that feels like.

An added complication to this centre v country tension is the rise of regionalism.

Anyone fancy some convening and brokering?
Anyone fancy some convening and brokering?

Bodies like the African Union and EU are becoming increasingly influential in promoting rights (eg the African Women’s Rights Protocol) and Human Rights will have to shift resources to respond. Working more at a regional level could at least help straddle the tensions between global and national.

A couple of extra thoughts on the comparison between debates in our two overlapping but different sectors:

One characteristic of human rights organizations is that they appear, at least from the outside, to promote starkly demand side approaches – people on the streets or lawyers in the courts demanding an ever-expanding range of rights. But a lot of the research on institutional reform and accountability that I have been covering in recent years suggests that both supply side (human rights courses for the police) and demand side are less productive than a ‘convening and brokering’ approach that brings all sides together to search for common solutions – could Amnesty do more of that without compromising its principles?

Finally, an interesting discussion on inequality, in light of the launch of Oxfam’s Even it Up campaign. I’ve written about what a focus on inequality adds to the traditional poverty reduction agenda, but if a human rights organization like Amnesty wanted to get serious about inequality, what would it do differently? Would it focus more on social cohesion, social contracts, and political capture by elites? Would we see Amnesty trying to reform the rules for election campaign financing? Interested in your suggestions on that one.

And here are some related thoughts on the human rights approach to development.

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8 Responses to “What next for human rights organizations like Amnesty?”
  1. Ken Caldwell

    Thanks, Duncan – really interesting post, and thanks to Amnesty for being willing to share.

    You mention again the shrinking civil society space around the world. This is becoming a growing part of our sector discourse, but I am not sure on the basis of what evidence. Civicus have been in the forefront here, but their evidence base seems to be based on case studies of countries where civil society space is shrinking.

    Less in the public eye, there are quite a few developing countries where civil society is playing a much more active role in policy debates with government than ever before, but noone seems to talk about those.

    Has anyone done a proper comprehensive country by country analysis of where civil society space is shrinking and where it is growing? Or of what political conditions tend to create a clamp down and what to an opening up? Or of whether attempts to clamp down are a sign that civil society is coming of age as a force in the society, and beginning to influence established power structures?

    It would be great to open up a debate on this backed by more evidence

  2. Rowan Emslie

    Another potential upside to national level focus – Amnesty could be more careful about the results on the ground of releasing advocacy reports. This has long been a complaint of the advocacy (rather than project) focused model of Amnesty.

  3. Ken Caldwell

    Thanks, Duncan

    ICNL do some great work on this – their Defending Civil Society publications are a valuable catalogue of efforts by some countries to restrict civil society space.

    Is anyone tracking and reporting on the countries where civil society is advancing, or attempting to build up a balanced picture of where progress is being made as well as where restrictions are being threatened or imposed?

  4. Richard Cunliffe

    Interesting that you observe rights and development as “…two overlapping but different sectors”. Is this really the case? I would suggest that human rights and development are both concepts around which sectors may have grown up, but they are not separate and distinct parts of something bigger (like a society) which is how I think of a ‘sector’. I suppose it turns on what the definition of a sector is. But in any event, I wonder if there is something in this? Whatever you wish to call them, your observation that the two things are overlapping is obviously quite correct, but is there any need to think of them as separate? Perhaps this represents the dilemma which NGOs like Amnesty face – i.e. should they be advocacy organisations for rights only or could they / should they be advocacy organisations for development as well? If the distinction is so small then (apart from Amnesty wanting to carve out its own USP and mandate as a human rights organisation) why should they be thought of as any different from campaigning organisations which advocate for rights like equality (for example, ehum, Oxfam GB)? It seems that the USPs you refer to in your post may not be so unique to human rights organisations after all.

    • Duncan Green

      They may be converging, but I think they come from very different traditions – lawyers v engineers is a shorthand version. Savio and Claire drew the distinction between rights-based organizations and rights organizations, and many development actors are struggling even to be rights-based. As to whether it’s good those differences should persist, I think yes – too much herding goes on within development scene already!

  5. David D'Hollander

    Fully agree with Duncan. AI’s ability to be an uncomprimising human rights watchdog is its great strength, and this is a role which donor-funded development organizations, even if they are (human) rights-based, simply cannot replace. Still, both could strengthen each other and depending on the y context AI could indeed combine constructive ‘naming and shaming’ with multi-stakeholders ‘convening and brokering’.

    But perhaps AI could also play a role in supporting (human) rights-based development organizations by recording how the development sector can be implicated in human rights violations. Recent cases of forced sterilizations in several African countries and India’s ‘lethal’ sterilization policy come to mind as some examples of how strongly results-driven approach to family planning can lead to inhumane results. I have not verified if donors/NGOs where involved in the examples above, but the point is that in preaching ‘human rights-based development’ donors and NGOs should indeed make sure that they don’t contribute to ‘top-down’ solutions which generate high risks of human rights violations. By naming and shaming the ‘least rights-based’ development practices or actors, AI could perhaps give some much needed incentives to the whole sector…

    @Ken Caldwell: CIVICUS has recently launched it’s ‘Enabling Environment Index’ (http://civicus.org/eei/), which build on its previous Civil Society Index (not sure if this is still accessible).

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