Taking to the streets: How will social movements change human rights advocacy?


Regan Ralph


This year, the power of people has been on display in streets and squares around the world – from Minsk and Lagos to Minneapolis and Bangkok. Frustrated and fed-up, hundreds of thousands of people have mobilised to protest corruption, injustice, and entrenched economic interests.

These mass social movements are shaking the status quo and creating political reform. Their ability to mobilise, often over sustained periods of time, could be a game-changing source of political power to advance human rights. Some long-time activists, however, fear that movements’ visibility and success have sidelined vital human rights groups that spent decades building an architecture for justice.

The smart move, then, is to figure out how to bring these forces together.

In the aftermath of WWII and colonialism, early human rights advocates sought to create a countervailing force to check abusive governments and their allies. They developed a playbook with an eye to the long game: articulating and reinforcing a set of global norms while developing credible international and national nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to monitor human rights conditions, expose abusers, and use international scrutiny and pressure to secure reforms. In some ways, these advocates were wildly successful. In other ways, however, their efforts felt incremental and their achievements fragile.

For more on social movements and philanthropy, check out Alliance’s June 2020 issue.

Then came the unprecedented scope, scale, and ambition of mass social movements pressing for systemic change. Their visibility has focused new attention on age-old challenges and raised questions about the methods and meaning of human rights organisations in an era of leaderless movements and horizontal politics.

Astute observers – including the donors who have long supported human rights NGOs – recognise that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Instead of leaving human rights movements behind, we must embrace adaptive thinking and foster creative collaboration to reclaim momentum away from the expanding grasp of authoritarians.  

First, think beyond the moment of protest.

Loosely organised social movements, aided by social media, can orchestrate mass demonstrations, but it takes more to translate the moment into lasting change. One option for donors is to fund movement organisations, which are directly accountable to the communities they serve and represent. Effective groups like the Association of Women Alone in India build grassroots constituencies – in this case, over 100,000 women across eight states – and mobilise their people power for targeted campaigns. Donors can support those efforts that allow social movements and their leaders to press their agenda over time and adapt as needed.

Second, focus on cultivating the political agency of local communities.

Popular movements show that people are prepared to take big risks to set their own agendas. In Honduras, for example, where invasive development projects are often granted illegal land concessions by corrupt authorities, local communities have organised in protest. MASSVIDA, a network of volunteer organisers, counts among its strategies popular protest, legal advocacy, community consultation and government advocacy. More a grassroots movement than a traditional NGO, a group like MASSVIDA shows how communities can build what they need to advance their agenda. Trust-based donor support allows them to choose their direction, implement their strategies, and establish their leadership.

Third, comprehensive collaboration is key.

As a funder, we’ve supported actors at multiple levels, using complementary skills and tools to pursue a shared goal. When human rights organisations and movements collaborate, each playing to their own strengths, they create multiple pressure points for change. Ongoing demonstrations in Thailand provide a perfect example. There, human rights NGOs have long used strategies like petition drives and impact litigation to enforce human rights protections, while deftly navigating taboos that limit critical public discussion about reform. Months of youth-led protests across the country have shattered those norms, creating new opportunities for seasoned human rights defenders – who, in turn, have advised and defended the rights of protesters.

The truth is, there is no one way to ensure social justice and human rights. The winning strategy is the one that forges collaboration between the power of movements and their human rights allies. As they say, the people united will never be defeated.

Regan Ralph is the president and CEO of the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Tagged in: Funding practice

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