Be the narrative: revolutionising human rights


James Savage


2019 has been the year that narrative-building went mainstream. As my colleague James Logan foreshadowed in January, human rights groups and their funders have increasingly realized that narrative strategy is an essential part of a well-equipped toolbox. This recognition offers new opportunities and fresh challenges for us as activists and funders.

In a new learning paper, Be the Narrative: How Changing the Narrative Could Revolutionize What It Means to Do Human Rights, JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights show that engaging in narrative strategy is more than just being capable in our communications—our practices need to reflect the core purpose of human rights work. The authors of the paper, Krizna Gomez and Thomas Coombes, suggest this means not only articulating a clear, compelling vision of a just society, but also embodying it in practice, inspiring it in others, and internalizing the empathy, shared hope, and agency that collective action can bring about. Put another way, ‘What you do is the narrative, what you say is your attempt to frame it’.

For many civil society groups, this could represent a profound challenge to what it means to do human rights work. New ways of organising, communicating and behaving require courage to experiment, iterate and adapt in finding that new form.

The funders who resource human rights work need to support bold reforms at the tactical, organisational and field levels. That demands more from us, in the form of resources, technical help, accompaniment, and flexibility. We must encourage and share in self-reflection and learning from doing (and failing). Institutional and behavioural change can be incredibly hard in hostile contexts.

Many groups we support now face deeper stigmatisation by a wave of populist actors. No longer just contending with smear attacks from fringe figures, activists must respond to an orchestrated shift in the range of ideas tolerated in mainstream discourse which has allowed extreme rhetoric to pass for socially acceptable beliefs. As human rights groups focused on legal and policy mechanisms for change, they largely ignored the need to win popular support. A growing populist, nativist movement—whose worldview plays on insecurity and fear, marginalises key populations and, at its most extreme, fuels hatred and violence—was quicker to understand the power of hearts and minds. By controlling the mainstream narrative, they’ve determined the new normal.

The answer for the human rights community is not more legal and policy work (though that work remains important). Rather, the way forward is to engage deeply with the values and views of those around us who have been fed a diet of fake news and outright lies about human rights and its advocates.

Long-standing champions of strategic communications and narrative-building have expertly researched, tested and encouraged more effective ways to tell our stories and communicate our causes. We’ve all learned that the reliance on fact-checking and myth-busting is not only ineffective, it is sustaining negative narratives and giving longer life to the myths we aim to debunk.

Reassuringly, there are now a host of helpful guides, tools and case studies from which groups can learn and apply techniques that could transform their communications, disrupt the negative narratives they face and contrast them with alternative positive visions.

But NGOs need more than communications consultants. JustLabs and the Fund worked with a group of funding peers and allies to dive deeper into the narrative struggle, and we found that smarter messaging won’t help obscure the same institutional, operational outfits – in fact, these communications risk being perceived as a façade for the same outdated ideas. If human rights groups want to reclaim the legitimacy and space for human rights and activism, they’ll need to redefine themselves first. As the report says: ‘to change the narrative, you have to be the narrative.’

In a series of creative workshops, JustLabs and the Fund brought together 12 human rights groups from countries facing illiberal or authoritarian threats to better understand the populist appeal and develop practical solutions motivated by everyday human values.

The groups worked with experts outside the human rights community—drawn from the social sciences, technology, marketing, communications, culture/arts and even neuroscience—to glean insights from a diversity of fields and design new ways to harness narrative momentum. For some, working with external experts was inspiring and liberating; for others, it was difficult to engage with allies outside the traditional human rights space. In the end, it pushed each activist or group to take risks and try out new tools and tactics.

JustLabs’ process of iterative design was new and uncomfortable for some groups—and for me, as a funder—in terms of methodology and results. Concerns about evidence, rigour, uncertainty and sustainability threatened to stall the creative momentum that animated the fast-paced process. For many activists, narrative-building lies well outside their typical scope of work. But charged with cultivating deeper change, the groups pushed themselves out of their comfort zones and, over time, developed more confidence in the creative process. They came up with rough ideas that they played with and built on, or discounted and used the learning to start fresh.

The groups produced 12 prototypes for bold human rights work that speaks directly to people. These ideas range from a truck in Venezuela that delivers public goods like food and free wifi while also providing legal advice, to a social media competition in Hungary that aims to counter populist rhetoric by crowdsourcing the creation of a new, positive word for ‘activist’—literally changing the narrative according to the people.

These prototypes are more than just communications strategies—they integrate community, culture, and cooperation into the practice of doing human rights, and offer a grassroots alternative to the legacy power of states and institutions. These ideas could transform human rights work by embodying a new narrative that puts people first.

We are now moving from ideation to incubation with four selected groups, piloting their narrative prototypes for six months to learn what works and what doesn’t before the initiatives are launched in earnest over the next two years. The process so far has highlighted several ways that funders must adapt or fundamentally shift the way we support human rights through narrative strategy.

Firstly, we need to see more funding for experiments that value community-building as a way to shift popular narratives. Iteration and embracing failure are critical parts of that design process. Gomez and Coombes suggest ‘this means that human rights actors, especially their funders, will need to be comfortable in spending resources and time on arepa mornings, coffee afternoons or beer nights, and measurement of impact needs be adjusted to include community ties as real, desirable outcomes.’

Secondly, funders must back groups that engage in managed risk-taking. Allowing for unknown, unpredictable outcomes and anticipating possible backlash and reputational risk might bring about more effective narrative action and wider institutional or behavioural changes.

Thirdly, there’s a huge imbalance in funding for narrative work in the US and Europe versus the rest of the world. This work needs to be internationalised and scaled beyond the so-called Global North to resource local changemakers, create connectivity and cross-fertilisation between initiatives.

Finally, comprehensive narrative-building requires serious investment in grantees’ skills, capacity, knowledge and the infrastructure around them. Allies and experts from different disciplines—such as neuroscience, technology, digital marketing, arts or culture and other fields—have much to offer in terms of common cause and local resources.

As we turn the page on a new decade, more learning and action spaces are exploring and supporting narrative change work. As JustLabs and the Fund, together with activists in several countries, continue on our multi-year journey with narrative strategy, we encourage our peers and allies to join these initiatives, share our experiences, build on our ideas and, most critically, embrace collaboration.

James Savage is Program Officer for the Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders Program at The Fund for Global Human Rights

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