When asked about what the Centre does, people familiar with us give very different answers: You will hear buzzwords like a hub for collaboration, an accelerator of innovation, a manager of disruptive change or a platform for foresight and future scanning. All will most likely namedrop our owners – 15 of the world’s largest international civil society organisations (ICSOs) such as Amnesty International, Oxfam, World Vision or Islamic Relief – or refer to us as a facilitator that tackles civil society’s most pressing issues.
All of this is true. Yet, to fully understand our unique offer and added value, it is worthwhile to look at our story.
In 2007, the Centre started off with a bold idea by two heavyweights of the civil society sector; Peter Eigen (founder of Transparency International) and Burkhard Gnärig (former global CEO of Save the Children, Terre des Hommes and Greenpeace Germany). Seeing an increasing, but yet unmet need, for genuine exchange between the sector’s leadership, both wanted to create a safe space for critical self-reflection and mutual learning.
The idea must have struck a chord: only months later the four global CEOs of Amnesty International, Oxfam, World Vision and Transparency International became founding shareholders of the Centre. Programme Director Asa Månsson still remembers how contracts were signed: “This was a milestone for the sector; all these organisations committed considerable financial resources and capacity to put the Centre on a solid footing. For me this was the ultimate recognition of the importance of working together”. Ten years on, the Centre today has 15 shareholders and three core supporters, among them organisations as diverse as Plan International, Greenpeace, Sightsavers and VSO.
The Centre was founded not just as a convenor but also to hold a mirror up to its shareholders. Speaking truth to power is of critical importance in a time where global trends disrupt the environment ICSOs operate in. For example, we are experiencing decreasing trust in institutions as shown in the Edelman Trust Barometer, rising populism with phenomena such as Trump or Brexit happening, growing inequality between rich and poor but also all-encompassing digitalization, also tagged as fourth industrial revolution, that will transform the way we interact, work and live.
Representing a strong global voice for human rights and sustainable development, International Civil Society Organisations have a responsibility to engage and bring about the best change possible for our societies in a constantly changing world.
The Centre’s mission is to challenge its owners and to eventually improve their resilience and impact in responding to civil societies’ most pressing challenges. We believe the best result possible responding to these challenges can only be achieved together. Together among cross-cutting causes such as children’s development, gender equality or climate protection, together with local and regional partners and together with other sectors such as business, governments and academia. Together, we have a huge lever to keep our promise for a more sustainable and equitable world.
That is why the Centre provides both a space for critical reflection and support for joint action. At least, twice a year the Centre brings together the international CEOs and international Chairs to exchange, learn and most importantly develop concrete collaborative projects. In manifold formats throughout the year, such as the Innovators Forum or the Global Heads of Division (Programme Directors and Operation Directors), we bring together ICSOs leadership with change makers and innovators from other sectors to enhance critical thinking and get the wheel moving for our collaborations.
Of course, there have always been sceptics who doubt the success of collaboration or consortia because they are too cumbersome, too unreliable or too slow…or because power imbalances get in the way of working together. However, the Centre has 10-year proven track record of successful collaborations among our owners and partners. These joint actions bring our community to life and are made of three key ingredients for success: trust between our members, commitment to contribute considerable resources, and the conviction that we can achieve more together. For our initiatives, we leave egos and logos at home and strive to achieve the best impact possible for the communities we work for. Thanks to our comparatively small membership model of leading ICSOs, we are able to act with agility simultaneously giving an immense global reach.
For example, we started an initiative such as the Leave No One Behind coalition. A collaboration of 12 ICSOs and local partners restlessly working on making marginalised voices heard and count by including them in every step of the SDG implementation cycle – from data compilation to policy implementation. Many inclusive initiatives are out there, however, none has so far proven the reach and lever to establish inclusive dialogues between governments and marginalised communities. We are proud we are filling this gap and together contribute to making the SDG promise a reality.
Similar initiatives such as the Civic Charter a global framework for people’s participation has been developed under the Centre’s auspices. All over the world, Civic Charter community members spoke out and took action when other members were arrested or under attack, and thus, promoted solidarity between human rights defenders. We also gave wings to the Global Standard of CSO Accountability and our subsidiary organisation Accountable Now, implementing a global reference framework and putting some order to – what among accountability experts is called – “mad” (Multiple Accountability Disorder).
Numerous foundations such as Rockefeller Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Bosch Foundation or Heinrich Boell Foundation have supported us. We work in truly cross-sector partnerships with government agencies such as the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA), multilateral institutions (like Unicef or the OECD), think tanks, other global and regional networks as well as businesses (i.e. PriceWaterhouseCoopers). One of our supporters, Claudia Juech, formerly Managing Director for Strategic Insights at Rockefeller Foundation says “I always appreciated the Centre speaking truth to the sector but doing so constructively and solutions-oriented. We need more organizations like the Centre that can effectively nudge the sector to advance its thinking and doing”.
Yet, we are only able to do so with the help of our supporters. They enable us to speak truth to civil society leadership, to leverage our owners’ commitment, to kick-off broad-scale collaboration and to eventually improve the livelihoods of countless local communities worldwide.
For sure, challenges will always be bigger than what one organisation can tackle alone. That’s why we continue looking for supporters that help the Centre to push their shareholders for better results. We promise to make your contribution count because we believe that supporting collaboration is one of the best ways to achieve lasting impact for the people we serve.
Listening to just ten seconds of the song ‘Yorktown’ about a 1781 battle during the American War of Independence, I was again in awe of the sheer originality of the hit musical Hamilton. It powerfully succeeds in taking the complex political history a US founding father, and links it cleverly to contemporary issues around identity and race. And it has done this in such an astounding and creative way – through hip hop and rap – that it has connected with brand new audiences, and become a cultural phenomenon in the UK and US.
This proves that with the right innovation, you can tell complex stories in a compelling and engaging way which reaches new people using both emotions and facts.
Next February, the International Civil Society Centre will convene civil society communicators at our Innovators Forum to find similar creative inspiration in response to growing social and political divides. What works best in ‘reframing the narrative’ in the context of populist and nationalist agendas? Here are three strategies civil society organisations (CSOs) can use, which we will explore in practical terms at the Forum:
Dejusticia’s human rights playbook for ‘experimentation. It stresses the need for formal CSOs to build ‘connective action’ – not just ‘collective action’, with social movements, online and grassroots activists, think tanks, and other actors responding to these issues. CSOs need to strengthen horizontal collaboration with these peers, create transformative relationships and effective mobilisation both on and offline, and find connective messages which ‘cut through the clutter’ in a crowded and fragmented social media environment.
Spaces are needed to bring together these diverse stakeholders, with their range of messages, tactics and experiences, to explore innovation and reinvention in narratives and strategies which can resonate with new constituencies and engage the ‘moveable middle’. This collaboration could generate ideas and identify ‘copycat’ lessons which can be deployed in different contexts, perhaps as successfully as populist movements have learned from each other. This is our hope for the Forum.
ICSOs speak out against the negative consequences of globalisation around the world, but not in ways which connect with domestic audiences who feel they are also economic losers from this process. Some people may also perceive international CSOs as symbols or even ‘advocates’ of globalisation. Stronger and more authentic storytelling by these organisations can counter populist challenges that they are part of ‘the establishment’ or don’t legitimately represent grassroots interests. Amnesty’s Thomas Coombes highlights that CSOs should better articulate the stories of individual ‘everyday heroes’ who have either gone on a journey of understanding to change their assumptions and prejudices, or are easier for people to identify could well be them, if circumstances were different.
The European Liberal Forum (ELF)’s ‘Toolbox Against Populism’ for political campaigning notes how, alongside emoting fear, populist parties have been able to portray their leaders as trustworthy and hard-working. In contrast, where are the public messages about the civil society leaders working diligently to build bridges in this space? One inspiring example (and a case study in Dejusticia’s playbook) is the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union’s total reinvention of its communications strategy, which involved ‘[telling] its own story about its values’, profiling its staff, and highlighting personal stories of its clients. There could also be a broader opportunity here to profile young civil society leaders responding to populist movements around the world.
Thomas Coombes’ blog also makes a compelling case that, ‘at a time when politicians are shameless’, traditional ‘name and shame’ approaches to communication no longer suffice. Rather than highlighting threats and triggering fear responses, new narratives need to communicate opportunity and motivate through hope. CSOs must promote a positive vision of the society we want to live in, which is so evocative and compelling that people can easily picture it mentally, and depictions of communities already benefitting from inclusion, diversity and stability.
One key factor driving domestic populist attitudes is the perception of key economic resources, such as jobs, as being under pressure. Yet some scenarios of the future foresee a world of abundance, not just scarcity, such as Peter Frase’s book ‘Four Futures’. Can CSOs still communicate potential futures of abundance, alongside the calamities of climate change and growing inequality? And can they shift societal conversations about the future of work away from short-term focus on migrants and jobs, towards collectively shaping how we will live with automation?
These may be some pointers to help ICSOs better portray what they are ‘for’ and connect to audiences through positive emotions and visions for the future. This must be done without oversimplifying the complexities of identity, history and politics. Hamilton shows how this can be done if you innovate in the right way. Join us in February to explore this further!
This is a joint article by Miriam Niehaus, Securing Civic Rights Manager at the Centre and Matt Beard, Executive Director of All Out. Here, they each write how the fight for greater Civic Rights and LGBT+ Rights are connected to the fight for our Human Rights.
Criminalized and persecuted in many countries, the LGBT+ community and their activists are often on the frontline of the human rights struggle. So today, on Human Rights Day, I ask the Civic Charter Community and all of those believing in Human Rights, to stand in solidarity with the LGBT+ Community.
The Civic Charter Community are those who believe in and are committed to its principles; principles, which are based on human rights. We stand in solidarity with each other when we come under
Some 6 weeks ago, I participated in an eye-opening meeting. From 22-24 October, we convened the International Civic Forum, usually set up as a meeting of civic freedom experts from different sectors. For the first time, we ran this meeting not as a stand-alone event but within another conference and therefore with another audience: the International Anti-Corruption Conference. Consequently, the topics of the Civic Forum sessions all related civic freedom issues to corruption.
One session stood out in particular. It was run by Matt Beard from All Out, along with Sana Ahmad and Bisi Alimi, on extortion of gay men in Nigeria, among other aspects. By understanding extortion as a method of corruption, the anti-corruption community could readily relate to the struggle that All Out is in. At the same time, the then described method of state actors rang familiar to participants working more generally on civic freedoms, who are aware of a wide range of government methods, usually used to intimidate activists and CSOs.
In this instance, a new sense of connectedness between activists and CSOs of different ‘sub-sectors’ came about. And it is this spirit in which we need to show more solidarity with each other, making a conscious effort of relating our different experiences to each other and being open to that.
The opening line of the Civic Charter boldly declares “We, the people, have the right to participate in shaping our societies”. For LGBT+ communities living in hostile environments around the world, this is a rallying call for our equality, our dignity and our agency as citizens. And with 69 governments around the world continuing to make same-sex love illegal (and nine of these using the death penalty against us), these words are also a call for our very existence as citizens.
LGBT+ people are so often denied the vision for human rights outlined in the Civic Charter. There are far too many examples. In Russia, a so-called anti-gay “propaganda” law prevents freedom of expression – earlier this year, a sixteen-year-old boy, Maxim, was arrested for posting gay-related content on a social network. In Uganda, a Government Minister, Simon Lokodo, has repeatedly denied the LGBT+ community the right to freedom of assembly, using violence to prevent peaceful Pride celebrations. In Tanzania, LGBT+ civil society organizations are obstructed or closed down, in a denial of freedom of association. In deeply hostile environments like Indonesia, LGBT+ people must hide in the shadows, unable to play a role in the community and denied
At All Out, we believe that human rights are inalienable and indivisible. We believe that the