What next for human rights organizations like Amnesty?

November 11, 2014 8 By Duncan Green

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.