Rising with Brilliant People in our Beautiful City

22nd February 2019 by Vicky Tongue and Krizna Gomez

This blog is written by Vicky Tongue, Programme Manager at the International Civil Society Centre and Krizna Gomez, from JustLabs. The blog looks at whow and why civil society can produce innovative responses to populism. Together they give a summary of the complex situation facings CSOs, reflect on some strategies to explore response and finally look at building alliances. This topic is our main focus at our Innovators Forum on 25 – 26 February 2019.

Rising with Brilliant People in our Beautiful City, by Vicky Tongue 

As we highlighted earlier this week, CSOs need to reflect on their legitimacy, embrace innovative approaches, and collaborate to continue shaping the new global world order. In this blog, ahead of our Innovator’s Forum next week, we further explore these ideas in the context of ‘reframing narratives’.

The need for CSO dialogue, innovation and reinvention must increase in tandem with rising speed of toxic narratives.

The need for CSOs to (re-)act is greater than ever. This includes working together in smarter ways, trying to reconcile and integrate ‘us’ and ‘them’ societal divides, whilst positively promoting the integrity of our missions.

The challenges facing CSOs in this respect are manifold. Increased scepticism of human rights activism and NGOs’ work is being fuelled by strategically-targeted and politically-motivated communications. For example, branding concerned voices of dissent as unpatriotic or representing foreign interests, and twisting core humanitarian principles of neutrality into partisan narratives of furthering faith group interests. Peaceful non-violent social movements have been counter framed as terrorist organisations, and deliberately linked to alleged ‘hate crimes’ through false association on social media.

The speed with which new toxic narratives against the causes championed by CSOs are churned out by populists and other detractors requires even greater velocity in the responses. However, these responses must not inadvertently repeat the negative narratives and thus fuel them further, but instead offer a more encouraging vision of the future. A vision which communities and ordinary people can easily embrace. For this shift in approach, CSOs need a space and an approach which allows for fast, fresh, brave and long-term thinking. 

Reflecting, by Krizna Gomez

At JustLabs, we have run a series of labs where people from very different fields of expertise brainstormed and designed solutions for civil society actors from facing serious challenges to their work because of negative narratives.

To ensure maximum innovation in thinking and to break the disciplinary silos which often isolate civil society from other fields which populists have been tapping into, only the clients came from the human rights field. All other participants were from other disciplines — political strategy, advertising, marketing, cognitive and behavioural sciences, business, and product development.

The workshops utilised design thinking, with its ethos of co-creation with the client, and stepping into the shoes of the communities with which they were seeking to rebuild relationships, while closely examining the power landscape they must navigate.

The outside perspectives helped open the clients up to new, potentially game-changing, narrative strategies which embrace emotions, tap into people’s values, and offer a sense of belonging to entire sections of society who feel excluded, ignored or left behind.

Adopting innovative approaches – which also “go back to the basics”

The prototypes produced in the labs reached out to people not on the usual basis of perceived threats or abuses by official power (for example, rallying people to protest an abusive policy) but rather by appealing to a sense of belonging, provide intellectual stimulation in cultural settings, or send messages which jive with their values from people they respect.

The imagery was not the traditional fists, protests, struggle/war or the scale of justice, but that of the “day-to-day”, the non-threatening and even the mundane, which tie communities and friends together—a cup of coffee, a football match, an embrace, even love. The narratives projected human rights not as a discourse or claim to legal protection, but as a bridge which connects people, a compass which guides people through a journey, and a glue which allows for ties that truly bind. Some of the narratives also used the metaphor of building and construction – where human rights are a blueprint or guide for creating a better society.

To achieve all these goals, civil society actors need the necessary support to skilfully use words in everything they say so they are grounded on findings from neuroscience and cognitive linguistics and involve mastery of sophisticated digital marketing tools—things they currently often do not have the expertise or means to do.

But beyond all this, we found that winning the narrative challenge means going beyond the mere use of clever words and social media hashtags. While narrative initiatives may often include communications campaigns, they encompass a broader array of tactics. In short, what civil society actors do—from the way we interact with communities, decide on the actors we work with, and design projects—is the narrative.

Building alliances, by Vicky Tongue 

Civil society organisations can build broad alliances which cut across our work on different themes, enable both short- and long-term action, dialogue and organisation, and combine complementary strengths for both online and offline diplomacy and mobilisation.

In the US, InterAction’s Together Project continues its inspiring and innovative role as a solidarity hub for NGOs vulnerable to disinformation and discrimination. It is now using the skills, strategies and solidarity networks it has developed since 2017 to support new organisations facing unanticipated risks of false information attacks. Mob Lab is launching a new project to convene, building solidarity, and developing practical solutions among organisations, groups, and individuals to foster alternatives to the rise of the far right. Ahead of the EU elections in May, online movements and ICSOs are collaborating on anti-disinformation initiatives to protect European audiences from the proliferation of ‘fake news’.

And next week, brilliant people from the leading international CSOs, online movements, national CSO platforms, donors and media organisations will join us here in Berlin’s beautiful city, to reflect and build new dialogues and alliances on innovation. We can’t wait.

Vicky Tongue

Vicky Tongue was the Centre’s Head of Futures and Innovation/Scanning the Horizon project manager from 2018-2022, leading the Centre’s futures strategy and collaborative trends scanning community. In this role, Vicky wrote and edited many of the Centre’s Scanning Sector Guides and Civil Society Innovation reports.

Krizna Gomez


Just Labs

Krizna Gomez is Director of Programs at JustLabs. A certified foresight practitioner, Krizna has been designing and delivering trainings for the past 12 years, using methodologies such as design thinking, futures thinking, popular education and contemplative-based practices, while bringing in her work as a researcher. She began her work at the grassroots with indigenous peoples communities, and later on doing community organizing in provinces in the Philippines with the highest number of cases of extralegal killings and enforced disappearances. She taught international criminal law at the Ateneo Law School in the Philippines and Gender Studies at the Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia, while also doing work on access to justice in Asia. In 2013, Krizna was granted a Presidential Fellowship at the Open Society Foundations in New York, where she focused on donor policies affecting the security of their grantees. In Ghana, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda, she worked on issues of gender-based violence, education, and the protection of human rights defenders. Until recently, she worked at Dejusticia, a think-do tank based in Colombia, where she led the organization's research and advocacy on civil society space and its work on providing solidarity support for defenders at risk in different regions of the world, while leading the organization’s international work. Kriz has a Master of Laws (LL.M) with a concentration in International Human Rights Law from Harvard, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Juris Doctor from the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.

A Beautiful City: How Civil Society needs to reflect, innovate and collaborate to shape the new world order

19th February 2019 by Wolfgang Jamann

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness”.

Charles Dickens’ famous opening of the novel A Tale of Two Cities is as accurate a description of today’s global issues as it was for Europe around the French Revolution. But is this the best or the worst of times for civil society organisations?

Today, many societies are shaken by the failure of established institutions to address global problems like wars, environmental catastrophes or just the worries of ordinary citizens over their future. As a result, people lose trust in governments and media, multilateralism is in the firing line, and the future of democracy is unclear. And admittedly, the world does not look good for those propagating tolerance, humanistic values, global solidarity and human rights.

But every trend has a countertrend.

While populism and authoritarianism seem to increase in influence, they are countered by new and vocal forms of civil activism. Youth movements, like the increasing number of school strikes, fight inertia around climate change on the streets. The rise of illiberal Civil Society has prompted a re-emergence of moral and ethical debates around a “common humanity”. Attacks on human rights and values are being pushed back through acts of solidarity and new empathic narratives. And chauvinistic attitudes and patriarchal patterns give way for liberal and feminist agendas, from the #MeToo movement to explicit feminist governments like Canada or Sweden, aiming at greater equality of opportunities for all.

A key development is that societal trends, good and bad, are exacerbated by the rapidly evolving information technology. Division of society is being amplified by fake news and online manipulation in social media, yet the Internet connects half of the world’s population and provides the greatest imaginable opportunity for global learning, exchange and transparency. And plenty of “technology for good” debates show growing concern and responsibilities in dealing with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The renowned think tank Carnegie Endowment sums it up well: “The world is at a transformational moment, defined by cataclysmic threats and unimaginable opportunities”.

Civil Societies role in shaping the new global world order

Many expect civil society to be the leading force in shaping these opportunities around a new global world order. While traditional civil society organisations have lost some of their soft power, they still form a sector of high credibility, outreach and positive impact on the lives of the people. But there are three important steps that CSOs will have to take to live up to the challenge.

Firstly, they need to reflect on their own way of working, the way they engage with citizens, and how far they are still visibly and convincingly connected with their missions. Legitimacy of international civil society organisations needs to be earned on a continuous basis, particularly when it comes to representing and reconciling minority and majority positions of the people they serve, and of those that support their work. Established power structures within organisations and within the sector need to be challenged. Likewise, those organisation lacking engagement with local movements and imbalanced partnerships with community-based organisations needs to be called out. Civil society must make sure to always keep an arm’s length distance from governments and for-profits, and make sure they don’t become instrumentalised for political agendas. At best, civil society shapes dialogues and collaboration with others outside the sector and drives global solidarity debates and actions, advocating for change when engaging with elites.

Secondly, civil society organisations need to embrace truly innovative approaches towards significant threats that are undermining the wellbeing of future generations. Innovation comes with the need to say goodbye to outdated business models reflecting a false “North-South” power structure, drop anachronistic messaging and . By focusing more on necessary societal adjustments in industrial countries CSOs can address, for example, the failures of the Global North to fight climate change. It requires courage to try and fail, persistence to scale up promising and successful initiatives, and to continue learning within and outside the organisation. It also means stepping aside when others have better ideas, and when a new generation is ready to take on the challenge. It also means powering new societal conversations about critical issues which will affect everyone in future – like what jobs and income will look like in a post-manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence-enabled world. And while digitalisation is a big part for possible innovation in the sector, it is by far not the only means, and one should not overlook analogue, local, citizen-generated and decentralised strategies to tackle threatening problems.

Thirdly, collaboration needs a step change between CSOs and possible allies within and outside the sector. Civil society is the sphere of dialogue, innovation and reinvention. Intersectional partnerships should free resources and multiply impact. Lessons are desperately needed and can derive from looking beyond organisational boundaries, and scanning the horizon for opportunities to join up should be a constant part of CSOs’ work. Territorial thinking or the focus on brands and logos need to be a thing of the past; instead, robust and more effective mechanisms for joint actions of solidarity within and beyond the sector should be developed to counter the organised attacks on civic space worldwide.

The International Civil Society Centre works with social justice, environmental, and human rights organisations who have an immense outreach, delivery power, resources and political influence. It provides room for accelerating the reflection, innovation and collaboration we need, and invites every sector to join its ambitions. In the coming months, we will focus on addressing authoritarian and populist attacks on the values that form the basis for Civil Society’s work, and will provide opportunities to collaborate across sectors towards the aim of a new “common humanity”.

In taking these actions we would be closer to Charles Dickens vision at the end of his book: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out”.


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.

New – 2019 flyer, find out what’s on and what we are doing this year

13th February 2019 by Thomas Howie

Welcome to our 2019 flyer. You can download or view the flyer below to find out about what we plan to do this year and how you can get involved.

Download 2019 Flyer (PDF)


Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Rapid response mechanism webinar by ProtectDefenders.EU

11th February 2019 by Thomas Howie

On 7 February up to 40 participants joined a Civic Charter Webinar on rapid response mechanisms led by was Javier Roura Blanco, Communications and Reporting Officer at ProtectDefenders.EU. It focused on their tools and resources available to activists who work on the frontline of defending human rights.

ProtectDefenders.eu is the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism, and provides emergency assistance and support to activists in many ways: from advocacy and capacity-building to material support, including temporary relocation, tailored to the specific needs of each individual, community or organisation.

Vincent Koech, Kenyan Human Rights Activist Vincent Koech, said:

“Personally I have learnt something new on how to protect myself and how to seek help and the presentation by Javier was on point and easy to understand and I would like to participate in another similar webinar”.

Miriam Niehaus, Securing Civic Rights Manager, said:

“From the number of registrations and participants we received, we can tell that this topic really hit a nerve with our Civic Charter community.”

“While there are a lot of fantastic resources available for defenders at the frontline, many don’t know how to access that or that they are even eligible. We will endeavour to offer more such relevant webinars in the next weeks.”

You can find all information about upcoming events and webinars in our events section.

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Oxfam Deutschland CEO on why the Centre plays an important role in bringing civil society together

6th February 2019 by Thomas Howie

Marion Lieser explains why the Centre plays an important convening role and what kind of work she would international civil society organisations engage on with the Centre


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Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Oxfam Inequality Report, why is important and should Oxfam be represented at Davos?

6th February 2019 by Thomas Howie

We chat with Marion Lieser, Oxfam Deutschland CEO, about why Oxfam’s Inequality Report is an important global moment for them and why part of the solution to inequality is “simple”. Also, we ask why Oxfam attends a meeting of the world’s wealthiest when it is critical of them.


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Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre