The GDPR is an opportunity for civil society, not just a challenge

28th May 2018 by Laura Guzman

As inboxes full of updated privacy notice emails can attest, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is here. The GDPR is the EU’s regulation on data protection, which came into force on May 25th and grants individuals greater knowledge of and control over their personal data. As a regulation, it is a binding legislative act, not just a directive, and will be directly binding and applicable in EU member states.

Civil society organisations face unique, sometimes daunting challenges to implementing the GDPR. Some of these challenges are specific to the GDPR, but most relate more broadly to how we interact with technology and data as a sector. Facing each challenge thoughtfully will help us think more clearly about what we’re doing and how we can do things better in future, not just for the GDPR but for our constituents, too.

At its core, the GDPR means we can no longer gather personal data “just in case”, and that we must clearly articulate why we need to collect and store it. The Engine Room’s work focuses on supporting civil society to increase their impact through strategic, responsible use of data and technology. The attention on the GDPR has given us a lot of opportunities to continue developing and sharing these intentional approaches.

Think about the long-term strategy

Treating GDPR compliance as a one-off endeavour is a potential pitfall facing NGOs tackling implementation. As it stands, NGOs may already be pursuing technology and data projects in one-off bursts, without considering ongoing tool maintenance or how technology integrates into existing work. We’ve long advocated for taking a more critical and strategic approach to implementing technology and data projects, and think that there is a lot to be gained from doing the same when it comes to the GDPR.

By taking the time now to build strong processes, we can support our organisations’ data governance processes well into the future. Creating processes – like guidance documents on regularly deleting data you don’t need (after considering its value carefully!) or steps for responding to a data breach – can be much more valuable than any one-off checklist. Thinking about compliance as an attitudinal shift, not a single-day project, is key.

Strong operations create strong programmes

Some organisations may see GDPR as an ‘operational’ issue that is peripheral to their overall mission and de-prioritise it as a result. There is a long history of operational issues receiving less attention and fewer resources within the sector. This happens both because organisations lack operations-focused staff with the necessary skills, and because funders are not always willing to provide core funding for organisational development.

When implementing the GDPR, it can be helpful to dedicate an internal point-person (or team) to managing the process of compliance. It might be useful to establish an explicit internal prioritisation of operational tasks, and have a conversation with funders about the necessity of this prioritisation. In our case, it meant creating internal educational documents and templates that would help the entire organisation understand the importance of the GDPR and how it will enhance our work going forward. No matter what, it means realising that strong operations, policies and practices are fundamental to building strong programmes and achieving our mission(s).

Advantages to being an NGO

One of the great (but tricky) things about the GDPR is that it’s cross-organisational. It affects all data held – whether for finance purposes, communications or programmatic work – and it affects the activities of technology teams. That’s to say, it’s complex.

But so are the challenges that civil society organisations tackle. We’re already mapping information flows, connecting disparate ideas and trying to increase collaboration, sometimes on a daily basis. These same tools are critical in continued adherence with the GDPR. At The Engine Room, we managed this kind of GDPR-specific collaboration by creating things like an audit document that outlines everywhere we hold personal data, how we collect it and who is involved. This required input from every corner of our organisation, and sparked conversations that are continuing today.

The GDPR also provides an opportunity to look outside of our organisations to find new ideas and collaborators. There are many existing networks that bridge NGOs and technology, and the GDPR offers an opportunity to both grow these and create new ones. As one example close to us, the GDPR has popped up on the responsible data mailing list, a space where people share challenges and develop best practices to prioritise the rights of those reflected in the data we hold. It also was the topic of a community call, which highlighted both shared concerns and resources. The eCampaigning Forum (ECF), a network of practitioners using digital media for advocacy, also has a very active mailing list where the GDPR has been under detailed discussion.

What’s next?

Thinking about the GDPR is a valuable opportunity for many NGOs to consider our data in a more holistic way. By placing the GDPR within a larger context of building responsible data practices, we can increase the effectiveness of our projects and better serve our partners and the communities we work with and for. After all, it isn’t just about the GDPR itself, but about the ethical management of the data we hold.

To take this broader approach, it’s important to find communities that perhaps work in a similar area as yours and who also want to make their responsible data practices an ongoing project. For specifics, see a little bit of what we’re doing about implementation. Remember to document, document, document, as demonstrating an intent to prioritise the data rights of individuals will always be a good thing to have in your favour. Use the GDPR as an excuse to do a ‘spring clean’, and take stock of your work, but also make sure to think about how it interacts with your long-term processes.

The GDPR presents a challenge for many resource-strapped organisations, but it is one that we can all face together. With collaboration and coordination, we hope that its implementation will be a positive step for the sector’s long-term tech and data projects.

Laura Guzman

Communications Coordinator

The Engine Room

Laura is an editor, writer and designer interested in the intersection of technology and social good. Her past work has led her to arts and culture organisations, social enterprises, and international grantmaking foundations. Currently, she works at The Engine Room, exploring ways to share ideas and practices around the effects of technology in civil society

Abuse of power within NGOs is hard to digest

22nd May 2018 by Wolfgang Jamann

This blog first appeared in German on 

Oxfam, Save the Children, Weisser Ring – charitable organisations are not immune to cases of sexual assault and abuses of power. Is that surprising? Common sense tells us that it’s not, that of course these institutions reflect the problems that exist elsewhere in society. Morally, however, this knowledge is harder to digest than, say, the faults in the glittering world of Hollywood or in Germany’s media and film industries.

We naturally place high expectations on moral authorities such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support the weak of this world. Much like doctors, they should aim to do no one any harm, comply with high ethical standards and set an example in doing so, and keep their actions somewhat removed from the worldly profane. Money, power and exploitation have no business here.

This became clear a few years ago, with the scandal surrounding Unicef Deutschland. The disappointment felt by thousands of volunteer supporters about high consultancy fees led to disputes, resignations by the CEO and board members, the loss of donors, and serious damage to the image of Germany’s development aid sector as a whole. However, it also eventually led to improvements in governance standards at charitable organisations and clear responsibilities for decision-makers.


A similar thing is happening now. Misconduct by staff in Haiti, London and Lübeck, and abysmal management by the supervisory bodies are dragging an entire industry into the wake of the discussions surrounding #MeToo and other abuses. Of course, none of the cases should be downplayed, and serious efforts to address the problems and improve protections are urgently needed.

In the case of development agencies, some associations – in particular Bond in the UK and Interaction in the US – have begun working to improve common standards, reporting obligations and transparency. And here in Berlin, the globally active accountability organisation Accountable Now! is strengthening its standards for ethical action, including measures to protect women and children from assault.

But this will not be enough. It seems that facts alone cannot curb the excessive amount of criticism being levelled at aid organisations. This is especially true in the UK, where the mass media well and truly declared open season on the sector. For days on end, they ran cover stories, published confrontational interviews, and sent journalists out to hunt down the next “case”.

The special moral standards to which we hold NGOs can only partially explain the intensity of the criticism. Oxfam, for one, spent years loudly denouncing injustices and inequalities, which earned it many enemies in the establishment and so surely made it a very vulnerable target for a backlash. In today’s world of social divisions, just a few small events can be enough to trigger massive political campaigns.


In recent years, therefore, aid agencies have become more than just charitable organisations. They have increasingly assumed a political role and have helped to identify and fight injustices around the world. Millions of people’s lives have noticeably and demonstrably improved as a result – and despite corruption, wars and refugee crises, the work of NGOs is a cornerstone for constant (though often too-slow) progress in the battle against poverty and disadvantage.

In order to continue working effectively, however, these organisations must view the current situation as an opportunity to reflect on their mission and the moral foundations of their work – and to pair this with efforts to further professionalise protections that ensure the safety of their staff and those entrusted to their care.

Abuses of power are unacceptable, whether they happen in a charitable or state organisation or elsewhere in the economy and society. If they do occur, though, we must focus on making improvements instead of limiting ourselves to hunting down the responsible and guilty parties.

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

Macedonia is ready for the Civic Charter

15th May 2018 by Biljana Jordanovska

As a human rights organization, CIVIL is always in contact with the citizens, on the ground, and has been highly visible, effective and successful in the promotion of the Civic Charter.

In a swift and uniquely composed and conducted campaign, CIVIL teams have reached thousands of people in direct communication, and many more through the CIVIL’s media platform, which is rich in content and highly influential in the society. Workshops and meetings, as well as the conference at the end of the campaign, have involved decision-makers at the local and national level, including politicians, government officials, institutions, civil society and media. Active citizen participation in decision making processes at local and national level have proven to be imperative for building a healthy democratic society.

Our analysis has shown that local governments have been put under pressure by the central government for a long time. Although the previous regime has fallen and a democratic government formed, the process of democratic transformation is very slow, and local level decision making is still facing big challenges. Fear of institutions and active citizenship is deeply rooted.

Nevertheless, CIVIL has shown visible success in encouraging active citizenship and strengthening public awareness on the Civic Charter.

The support citizens have given to the Civic Charter, at public squares throughout Macedonia, has shown that there is a strong will for cooperation and participation on issues within the area of the Civic Charter. As many have told us, they know best what the needs and priorities of their communities are. And they agreed with the Civic Charter.

The workshops and the conference have shown that there is readiness for cross-sectoral cooperation and partnership between civil society, the local and central government, business community and political parties in the field of citizen participation in the decision-making processes.

CIVIL through mutual interaction, pointed out to the participants of these sectors of society that if there is a wish, on the one hand, and political will, on the other hand, that joint cooperation will encourage effective participation, but will also contribute to the changes that the citizens need at the local and national level.

Biljana Jordanovska

CIVIL Macedonia

Leave No One Behind Annual Meeting – ICSOs connecting to go beyond organisational limits

11th May 2018 by Thomas Howie

Over 30 representatives from International Civil Society Organisations gathered in Dhaka, Bangladesh for the Leave No One Behind Annual Meeting between 2 – 3 May. The group focussed on the progress made in the project’s pilot countries* and developing a joint political message, for the high-level political forum, from the initial key findings.

The next phase of the project pilot will involve rolling out the projects unique data collaboration between country offices of ICSOs. The aim is to ensure the recognition and validation of community-based data in the official SDG implementation of the five pilot countries. This will achieve the project’s main target: to make sure that people’s voices are heard, understood and acted upon.

Wolfgang Jamann, International Civil Society Centre Executive Director, said:

“The SDGs were created in the spirit of “leaving no one behind”. This means that they will only be considered fulfilled if all goals are reached, for everyone – especially those who live at the margins of society.

“This project is about raising the voices of those marginalised people around the world. By bringing together the wealth of evidence that is being collected by international civil society organisations we can put their voices at the centre of SDG implementation.

“Collectively, as a coalition, we have made some huge strides since this project started last year. The project shows that when leading ICSOs connect, they can go beyond organisational limits. By collaborating, we stand a better chance of reaching the SDG targets in more places. That can only be a positive thing.”

Peter Koblowsky, Leave No One Behind Project Manager, said:

“I am really pleased with the progress we have made in the two days. Our next steps will focus on consolidating country-level experiences and findings. This will help us to refine our planned activities and develop a scaling-up strategy for the project to be carried out in an increased number of countries, thereby reaching more marginalised communities around the globe. In addition, the outcomes from Dhaka will be used to prepare a joint message to be delivered at the High Level Political Forum. I hope that our common effort will be a success, so that the voices of the most marginalised around the world will be heard and make a difference in the implementation of the SDGs.”

*Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Kenya and India

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Putting the mantra “Leave No One Behind” into action

8th May 2018 by Wolfgang Jamann

Leave no one behind – a brave and bold ambition that forms the theme of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to eradicate poverty and injustice by 2030. The international community, including the civil society sector, takes this as guidance for its programmes and projects. As part of that ambition, one area of focus will include the most marginalised communities and people in every country. And there are many: discriminated ethnic minorities, mutilated war victims, impoverished children, desperate refugees and displaced families, to name but a few.

Last week, the global ‘Leave No One Behind’ (LNOB) coalition met in Dhaka, Bangladesh, bringing together several of the largest international civil society organisations. The aim: to join forces to raise the voices of the most marginalised. The group has been working in five pilot* countries over the past six months and is developing a plan to combine data, distil learnings and use those for better programming and advocacy nationally and globally.


Bringing together many actors from different national contexts has many complexities, but provides for valuable learning, and hopefully, greater impact through a collaborative approach. In one country, for example, Vietnam, this coalition is already becoming the principal voice of civil society vs the Voluntary National Review which is submitted annually to report progress on SDGs. One overriding theme at the meeting was indeed, how the coalition can input into those government-led monitoring mechanisms, which too often lack disaggregated data and the voice of marginalised communities. And it proved beneficial to have representatives of the Bangladesh Government attend part of the meeting, which was hosted by the influential NGO BRAC, in order to discuss better linkage of monitoring between state and civil society.

Figuring out what marginalisation means is a key, and difficult task, because of its highly contextual nature. Bangladesh, again, is a good example of this, as it is now hosting one of the largest vulnerable and marginalised refugee communities, which fled from neighbouring Myanmar last year. Giving Rohingya people a voice is imperative, without losing consideration of those communities that are less visible.

Inclusive data gathering needs to cover quantitative data according to the many SDG indicators that exist. But every marginalised person has a story, which should be told so that underlying causes for discrimination and injustice are understood and addressed. In a world of increasing use of big and small data, their protection and the concerns for privacy need to be dealt with seriously, especially as marginalisation often has highly political dimensions. The LNOB coalition is seeking expert advice on data use so that people‘s rights are not violated.

The High-Level Political Forum of the UN exchanges progress and challenges on the Goals every year. The LNOB project is aimed at this Forum and will be represented there this year. It will link up with similar initiatives to bring the voices of the most marginalised and poorest into the centre of discussions. Without prioritising them, the international community will not achieve the Goals, nor live up to the needed structural changes that need to happen in social, economic and political terms.

If your organisation is interested in joining the coalition or in finding out more, then please contact the project manager Peter Koblowsky at

*Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal and Vietnam

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

Report: The Fight Back Against Rising Repression in On

1st May 2018 by Andrew Firman

In the face of rising restrictions and brazen attacks on fundamental freedoms, citizens across the globe are responding with resolute resistance, in creative, and powerful ways.

This is the main takeaway of CIVICUS’ 2018 State of Civil Society Report.  Findings from the report identified 10 key trends. Notable among these is a spurring of peaceful resistance by active citizens and civil society against unjust actions. The report points out that almost everywhere we look, we see signs of citizens organising and mobilising in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, fight for social justice and equality, and push back on populism. This trend is most exemplified in the spotlight that has been shone on patriarchy, sexual harassment, gender and power imbalances, thanks to the #MeToo and Times Up movements.

The report references several positive examples to illustrate fight back against restrictions and regressive policies. These include citizen action to persuade the government in El Salvador to pass a law banning gold mining practices that harm the land, water and communities. In Romania, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to resist government plans to soft-pedal on corruption, and in South Korea, mass protest action led to the impeachment and jailing of a corrupt president.

This review of civil society highlights how when the worst of humanity came to the fore in places like Myanmar, Syria and Yemen, civil society showed its best by voluntarily placing themselves in the firing line to expose human rights abuses.

The other trends explored in the report relate to the different ways in which civil society and democratic space is being squeezed.

There have been increasing instances of personal rule and the politics of patronage eclipsing the rule of law and undermining democratic institutions in many countries. Among these are examples of Bolivia and Uganda, where leaders sought to illegitimately amend national constitutions to stay in power to extend their tenures. China’s president Xi Jinping followed suit by potentially making himself president for life. The report also points to instances where hard-line presidents have engineered courts in their favour, such as in Venezuela where judges were jailed for opposing the president and proxies were appointed to skew court decisions.

Another noted trend is the rise of polarising politics and unjust economic systems dividing societies and reducing the international community’s ability to address key global challenges such as violent conflict, inequality and climate change. The report finds that identity-based politics are trumping issue-based politics through neo-fascist ideologies that encourage xenophobia and narrow notions of nationalism in several countries including Hungary, India, Israel, the Philippines, Turkey, Uganda and the US.

Attacks on the independent media and online freedom are other key highlights. Several high-profile journalists reporting on corrupt activities of political and economic leaders or covering public protests are being attacked in brazen ways.  Examples include the car bomb killing of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana, who exposed high-level corruption in Malta.

The promise of the internet and social is being compromised with illicit surveillance becoming more commonplace. Many in civil society are being targeted by false propaganda is spread by rogue states and extreme right-wing elements. At times of contestation, such as elections or national protests, governments, such as those in Cameroon, Iran and Togo during 2017 shut down the internet or access to social media tools to restrict communication. The report finds that online platforms have become battlegrounds in which regressive voices are seeking to shape opinion with misinformation and myths, including through trolls imploding progressive conversations.

Another worrying phenomenon is the rise of ‘uncivil’ society – socially conservative forces claiming civil society space, increasingly emboldened by populist and repressive politics. These groups – which include think tanks that advance nationalist and xenophobic ideas and protest movements against LGBTI, refugee, migrant and women’s rights – are seeking to weaken the impact of civil society that advances progressive positions. An example, the report notes, is Poland, where state funding schemes have been reworked to enable greater support for uncivil society.

The report makes a number of key recommendations for active citizens, democratic governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, media and academia. Democratic governments are encouraged to model the deepening of democratic practice by enabling spaces for discussion, dissent and dialogue at all levels and to resist moves to weaken human rights standards at the multilateral level. Active citizens are urged to connect locally, nationally and internationally on social justice causes and mobilise in different ways, including through volunteering.

Another key recommendation is that multilateral institutions should reinforce the primacy of civil society participation in decision-making and find new ways to open up spaces for public participation in their activities, while the private sector, media and academia are encouraged to make common cause with civil society in the defence of human rights by forming new alliances, sharing platforms and partnering in joint campaigns.

Andrew Firman

Editor in Chief