Throughout 2019, the Centre’s Scanning the Horizon futures community has explored the implications of China’s growing global influence on the future work of internationally-operating civil society organisations. Following a well-attended cross-sector meeting in Hong Kong in June, we have published a new Sector Guide of practical entry points for senior civil society leaders to summarise the key themes and implications for our sector. It provides strategic guidance for organisations to think through their current strategies and capacities, and further develop future engagement and adaptation approaches to be better prepared for this major trend.
To accompany the launch of this Guide, we invited this guest blog from Amnesty International’s China Strategy Manager, Heather Hutchings.
The rise of global China is impacting human rights.
In the increasing number of countries in which China is investing and operating, much-needed infrastructure and employment can help to fulfil the human rights of the people living there. But all too often their rights are abused as China fails time and again to consult with and address the concerns of communities affected by its overseas ‘development’ projects.
Furthermore, an increasingly assertive China has worrying implications for the human rights system as a whole. We see China operating from within the UN Human Rights Council to shrink the space available for the UN and civil society to hold states accountable for their human rights records, as well as making efforts to reframe human rights as a ‘cause’, as opposed to a state’s legal obligation to its people.
But China’s ascension to the world stage is a paradigm shift that is both driving and reflecting a new world order and balance of power. As this excellent new International Civil Society Centre guide notes, this is ‘widely regarded as one of the top global trends influencing the trajectory of other major megatrends for decades ahead’. This means, in other words, we can neither ignore nor resist global China.
Amnesty International vs Global China
I’m pleased – and relieved! – to see that Amnesty International’s global China strategy responds to many of the recommendations in this guide, while some others set us challenges to meet and aspirations to fulfil.
Amnesty views global China as a complex problem, or ‘VUCA’ for those who enjoy military acronyms!:
China’s impact on human rights abroad is not a simple problem that can be solved. So, Amnesty’s aim is not to bring an end to China’s global reach in a concise campaign timeframe. Our aim is to build capacity across Amnesty’s movement of more than seven million members and supporters to influence global China, now and over time, and adapt as global China itself evolves.
Amnesty’s 16 Regional Offices and 68 national entities position us well to respond to China in and from countries where it is active, and to do so in partnership with local civil society (recommendation 3). As Strategy Manager, I draw together the relevant China expertise from our East Asia office, the local knowledge and connections of our staff in or from countries in which China is active, and Amnesty’s thematic specialists (recommendation 6). Through this network, we add value to work already identified as important by our colleagues across the movement – easily done, given the many ways in which China is showing up in Amnesty’s work around the world (recommendation 1).
Complementing this action-oriented network is a web of horizon scanners who regularly share their views of China from locations as far afield as Buenos Aires, Brussels or Bangkok (recommendations 7 and11). Their broad, light-touch insights about China in the world help deepen our analysis of China’s foreign policy and practice and better equip us to anticipate developments, spot trends and see entry points for our human rights work.
We recognise that we don’t have ready-made solutions to apply to the complex challenges arising from China’s presence abroad. We know we can only influence change together with others by forging partnerships with civil society to engage China in their countries and communities, to negotiate their interests and protect their rights (recommendation 12). And we also need to engage Chinese audiences, inside China and the diaspora of Chinese living overseas, as change agents and in solidarity with human rights defenders in countries where China is active. This is critical if we want to target Chinese state actors and corporations that perpetrate human rights violations abroad, without isolating and vilifying all Chinese people.
Challenges and aspirations
Key to Amnesty’s approach in this ‘VUCA’ context is learning and adaptation, as we actively test our theory of influence and make adjustments to strategy and action.
Learning from our experience to date, we know that the critical approach to human rights in China coming from Amnesty’s base in the ‘Global North’ serves an important watchdog function, but is readily dismissed by Beijing as hypocritical and an attempt to ‘contain’ China. Hence, we have chosen to focus on south-south engagement – influencing China with and through civil society and governments of the ‘Global South’ – and moving beyond ‘naming and shaming’ by not (only) pointing to problems. This approach – which departs from Amnesty’s usual practice – is challenging us to frame advocacy messages (recommendation 14) that propose practical solutions and, where appropriate, encourage China’s leadership to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.
Amnesty also deliberately adopts an ‘outsider’ strategy (recommendations 4 and 11). The price of our freedom to criticise China – harshly when and where deserved – is that our channels for dialogue with Beijing are few, country access for Amnesty staff is extremely limited, and our website and social media channels are blocked inside China. Understandably, this does not always make us the partner of choice for ICSOs with in-country offices (recommendations 18, 19 and 20).
Even as Amnesty aims to establish an ‘insider’ position with some Chinese actors abroad on issues of mutual interest – and indeed we have already seen promising outcomes through exchanges with Chinese companies and industry bodies – recommendation 16 is, I hope, an aspiration of the not-too-distant future when ICSOs will bring together our complementary ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ strategies for greatest impact.
For Amnesty and across the sector, we need not only to develop a specific, organisation-wide global China strategy now. But also to continue developing and evolving our organisational responses over time, so that we may continually adapt ourselves to better influence the impact China has on the landscape for human rights and development. And thanks to the Centre and our sector Scanning the Horizon community, we now have a guide to help us do just that.
Global Perspectives 2019 in Addis Ababa was as action-packed as you’d expect. With more than 100 participants from around the globe representing a range of international civil society organisations, community-level bodies, innovators, academics and activists, it was a place of inspiration, exchange and learning.
The theme of this year’s Global Perspectives was “Let’s make lemonade”, based on the saying if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Consequently, the underlying spirit and challenge of the conference was how do we turn our lemons – problems and challenge – into lemonade – opportunities for impact and legitimacy?
As we are still digesting everything that we heard throughout an intense week, here are some first takeaways:
1. We can make lemonade!
In the Centre’s first ever Innovation Report, launched and presented at Global Perspectives, we have collected a number of inspiring, innovative and courageous case studies. These are all examples of civil society organisations – of different size, in different contexts and with different tools – changing the way they have worked in order to change the world. These organisations show that it is possible to reinvent yourself if the context requires – and they can serve as a great inspiration for all of us!
2. Connecting to our values and to people is a key ingredient for lemonade
We saw it in the case studies from the Innovation Report but we also heard it over and over again last week: As civil society organisations, we need to make sure we connect to our organisational values, as well as to the people we represent or who we advocate for. This is key for our legitimacy, our integrity as well as for our impact – and should be at the centre of any organisation’s approach to accountability.
3. Ethiopia – lemons and lemonade for civil society
We heard it loud and clear from several Ethiopians: This event would not have been possible just 18 months ago. The reforms that Prime Minister Mr. Abiy Ahmed and the new government have implemented have fundamentally changed the working conditions for civil society organisations. Participants noted, however, that Ethiopian organisations are now faced with the immense challenge of learning how to act and be impactful in this new context.
4. Hope can win, but only if we let it
A reoccurring theme of Global Perspectives was “hope”. Hope is an organisation’s best friend when it comes to communicating the world we want to see. Expressing what we want to see, rather than what we don’t, can be an infectious way of building support and affecting change. When participants unpacked this topic we saw real depth and complexity to the meaning of hope. This shows the potential challenges and opportunities of hope-based communications.
5. The value of making new connections
“I’ve met people here at #GlobalPerspectives2019 who can help us get justice for our tea garden community back in West Bengal.” The words of Video Volunteers Community Correspondent Harihar. On Harihar’s first time out of India, he reported on Global Perspectives by making a short 3-minute video reportage. The report explains that he met people who want to help his community get justice. Other connections were between innovator Jane Muigai and representatives from Plan International discussing how to jointly scale education of youth in Kenya. For us, this is exactly what Global Perspectives is all about – making connections and support people to change their world for the better.
6. Next steps: Let’s keep making lemonade
Our workshops focused on how civil society organisations can increase impact and legitimacy. At the end of the conference, we heard four ‘pitches’ of collaborative projects that aim to do just that. We encourage you to check them out, even if you didn’t attend:
Through a collaboration with Islamic Relief Worldwide, Global Perspectives participants were all part of the preview of the first ever Islamic Gender Justice Declaration, representing a call for action to end gender injustice. For more information, please contact Shahin Ashraf at Islamic Relief Worldwide (Shahin.Ashraf@irworldwide.org)
To explore how INGOs can meet the needs of the 21st century, including environmental, social and economic needs, in the face of recent failings and critiques of INGOs, a group is coming together to help us re-imagine INGOs and explore what needs to change. For more information, please contact Charles Van Dyck at WACSI (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There is the need to build mechanisms to support each other in solidarity when a civil society organisation is under undue pressure from governments or others. The Centre will facilitate the shared learning between ICSOs’ response strategies and developing mechanisms to act in solidarity in critical instances. For more information, please contact Miriam Niehaus at International Civil Society Centre (email@example.com)
In order to strengthen the legitimacy and accountability of Ethiopian civil society organization, a group has started working on establishing a national accountability framework. For more information, please contact Bilen Asrat at Ethiopian Civil Society Organisations Forum (firstname.lastname@example.org).
More formal follow up to come!
We hope everyone enjoyed Global Perspectives 2019. We will be sharing a more formal follow-up in the following weeks. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
In this blog for the 2019 Innovation Report on ‘Responses to Populism in a Digitally Enabled Era, Andy Nilsen, the Director of Advocacy, Communications, Campaigns and Media for Save the Children Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand describes key features of the political and technological context which are driving their innovative Shift! Project.
Myanmar’s rapid recent digital revolution
When I first visited Myanmar back in 2013, the country was in the early stages of a technological revolution. Still, getting my hands on a local SIM card was a challenge requiring all sorts of paperwork and bureaucracy. It was still a luxury item that had once cost hundreds, if not a thousand dollars. Internet access was reserved only for the super-rich or super-connected, and strict regulation of the telecommunications industry meant that in 2012, just 1% of Myanmar’s population had internet access. These barriers to information and connectivity during the military’s 50-year reign oppressed freedom of expression and restricted the ability of communities to mobilize.
Today, when I ask my Myanmar friends and colleagues about the most significant changes in their country since it re-opened to the world eight years ago, access to the internet – and specifically social media – is almost always near the top of their list. According to a 2017 report by Telenor, 90% of Myanmar’s population now live within reach of 3G or 4G services. That’s one of the highest coverage rates in Southeast Asia, and with smartphone penetration at over 80%, Myanmar people are integrating technology into their lives at a rate almost unseen in any other country in the world.
Social media for people or political power?
Myanmar’s prolific use of Facebook as a ‘one-stop’ interface for the internet has fostered an active new space for civic engagement and personal expression. By 2016, successful people-led movements driven through social media started to hold power to account. One such example resulted in the resignation of four members of Myanmar’s Human Rights Commission following public outcry on Facebook around the Commission’s failure to criminally prosecute the perpetrators of a high profile child abuse case. For a community still adjusting to the freedoms of citizen-led-activism, social media was becoming an effective platform for Myanmar people to find their voice.
The ‘honeymoon period’ for social media in Myanmar reflects that experienced elsewhere in the world. Remember when platforms like Twitter were heralded for their potential to break down barriers between individual citizens and institutionalized power? But the world is now grappling with the reality that these same tools can be used to undermine our access to ‘truth’ – and even disrupt and distort democratic processes themselves.
In Myanmar, social media has been used to deliver disinformation campaigns which use hate speech and ‘fake news’ to assert an authoritarian and nationalist agenda – which has further fueled ethnic and religious tensions in order to promote a more mono-cultural view of the country towards the Buddhist majority. The clearest example of this has been the rhetoric used to incite hatred against Rohingya Muslims, in part by evoking a well held myth that the group are ‘recent arrivals’ who should be treated as immigrants. This, along with ‘fake news’ about the actions of the Rohingya during 2017’s clearance operations by the Myanmar Military (e.g. that Rohingya Muslims were burning their own houses), has ‘weaponized’ information, created mistrust of social media – and made social cohesion an even harder task in conflict affected states such as Rakhine.
A new impetus for civil society innovation
The institutionalized use of social media as a tool for spreading hate during the Rohingya crisis has been well documented and sits in stark contrast to the use of these same platforms to drive positive change. This is the great contradiction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Myanmar, being played out through social media right now. On one side are well-organized forces wanting to reassert the control of military elites, discourage freedom of speech and expression, deny historical realities, and oppress ethnic and religious diversity. On the other side are the vast majority of Myanmar people who want to see peace, value diversity, and have fought for decades for democratic principles.
When I created the Shift movement, I was not directly trying to counter these anti-democratic forces within Myanmar. In fact, the primary purpose of the project was to support adolescents and youth to become more active in cyber civic spaces – and to ‘participate’ in a country where people under 25 have traditionally felt isolated from decision-making processes. But I now believe that our approach, by nurturing youth-led movements to campaign for positive change, is an effective way for civil society to push back against Myanmar’s populist and autocratic forces.
Our innovation: How ‘Shift’ works
Youth groups selected for our Shift programme attend a campaign accelerator workshop which connects them to creative mentors. We use a range of participatory activities to help them unpack their issue and eventually develop a campaign strategy targeting the kind of social triggers that need to be addressed to foster change. We also teach digital literacy and critical thinking skills which young people themselves feel is badly lacking within Myanmar’s education system. These skills are especially important given how hostile online spaces in Myanmar have become.
Shift’s philosophy is that all learning should be experiential. After co-creating their campaign plan, Shift fully funds and supports the youth groups to implement it alongside our creative partners. The groups feel instantly empowered to deliver change within their community, and supported by a larger, interconnected community of peers who are also carrying out their own individual campaigns.
The shift for Save the Children
Governments must be transparent and open to the people they serve. But even within the development sector, larger institutions must look for ways to disrupt our own power structures and ensure that resources and solutions are controlled more by the communities we exist to support.
In particular, when it comes to advocacy and campaigning, we must look for new ways to engage with communities, co-create approaches and transition resources through to grassroots organizations. We should be especially an enabler for children and youth to speak for themselves about the issues that matter most to them. By supporting these movements, I believe we will cause a snowball effect in countries such as Myanmar and sprout the seeds of citizen-led power throughout this emerging democracy.
Myanmar people have fought long and hard for the democracy they have today, but because the constitution still reserves 25% of parliamentary seats to military members, this transition is not yet complete. The strengthening of civil society will be critical over the next decade in building an individual’s belief that they can hold power to account and help shape the society around them. This transition of power to citizens must happen at all levels.
Investing in the transition of the 46%
We are supporting a shift away from ‘old power’ structures – that are rigid, authoritarian and seek to exclude people from decision-making processes – and inspire ‘new power,’ defined by citizen-led movements. We must therefore focus our efforts on people under 25 years of age, who make up 46% of Myanmar’s population. The world these young people live in is totally different to that experienced by a 20-year-old living previously under the military regime. This generation will lead Myanmar into its next phase of democratic transition and our Shift project is an investment in this 46%.
Encouraging this kind of transition is also an effective way to counter-punch the rising forces wanting to divide and dissolve citizen power. My fear is that our investment will fail to match the investments already being made by the other side. Technology can enable solutions, but we must not focus on it at the expense of investing in people – which is exactly the Shift we are making. After all, a stage is nothing without the actors upon it.