This blog entry was originally published on campaigns.savethechildren.net. All rights reserved.
There’s nothing new about children and youth being involved in movements for change, from the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa, to the earlier and more hopeful chapters of the Arab Spring. But what feels different now is that young people are increasingly creating and leading campaigns themselves. Many of these campaigns are being pulled together very quickly, using digital channels, with limited resources and little formal governance. Usually this is being done by young people who may have little formal experience of campaigning, but maybe for that reason, are less jaded, and more willing to take risks.
There are open questions about how durable many of these campaigns are in terms of impact. Some movements emerge in response to a specific outrage, and can subside almost as quickly, once political and media attention moves on. Others lose momentum in the transition from mobilisation to organisation. For example, the March for Our Lives campaign for gun control didn’t secure its objectives in the US mid-terms in Florida (at the same time, the history of campaigning shows that you can lose battles but win the war, and March for Our Lives may well have all sorts of long-term indirect benefits in fostering civic engagement).
But what struck me most was that, of all the examples shared in the conference – from student-led road safety campaigning in Bangladesh, to Australian children campaigning against single use plastics – none was initiated, driven or significantly supported by traditional NGOs.
A group of us spent time at the conference discussing the searching questions such campaigns raise about how we’re approaching change, and working with children and young people to make it happen.
A few key themes came through:
Logos and egos – the widespread preoccupation with NGO brand and profile in campaigns can be a major turn-off for many child and youth campaigners. Big, brand-conscious NGOs find it especially hard to leave egos and logos at the door, but will increasingly struggle to be heard by young people unless they do so.
Agility – many of the most powerful child- and youth-led campaigns are fast and improvisational, testing different approaches as they go along, to see what works best. At least in their initial stages, they’re light on governance and decision-making, and are not shackled to a rigid strategy. In contrast, NGO campaigns tend to overestimate how much we’re in control of the agenda we’re seeking to influence. Big organisations tend to create slow and difficult decision-making, which can paralyse the campaigning muscle.
Support, incubate and release – it may be that organisations with revenues in the hundreds of millions and many thousands of staff cannot easily become agile, movement-based campaigners. But our advocacy-led campaigns can often be a powerful complement to grass roots activism, and we do have lots of skills, resources and connections that can be useful to child-led campaigns. One suggestion, from Change.org, was that all INGOs should create youth organisations, where they agree on the goals, give them some start-up resources, and then let go. Save the Children Norway has done something very like this, but such a bold approach is still the exception rather than the rule.
Campaigning with, and about people – many of the most effective child- and youth-led campaigns are led by people directly affected by the issues on which they’re campaigning: from movements to confront gender-based violence on Indian campuses, to Black Lives Matter in the US. This gives the campaigns integrity and authenticity. Campaigning rooted in personal experience can also have its own shortcomings, if single-issue campaigning becomes isolated from wider movements for justice. However, the ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra does challenge INGOs. Too often our campaigns (and programmes) have limited input from the people who are the focus of the desired change. Coalitions and partnerships are frequently an afterthought, rather than a starting point.
Many INGOs are mobilising adult campaigners in one place (usually wealthier countries) on issues affecting people in another (poorer, more marginal) place. Where they do engage children, it’s often easiest to do this amongst the educated, networked and mobile. Solidarity campaigning between people of relative privilege, and people who are more affected by an issue, has a valid place in the campaign ecosystem. But any campaign to achieve progressive change will only ring true if it models that change, by redistributing power and voice to those who currently have less of it.
Protection and voice – there’s a tension between the right of children to participate, and have a voice, and their right to be protected (by adults). The Syria conflict began with the torture and murder of a teenage boy who campaigned against the government. There are plenty of bad examples of children being exploited in campaigning movements, and exposed to personal risk, such as the recent sexual abuse scandal involving youth campaigning networks at the UN Organisations that support child-led campaigns need to provide political cover, stay the course, and ensure robust safeguarding systems where their staff are working with children.
Campaigning space in programmes – operational INGOs like Save the Children that run programmes around the world have the potential to engage many more young people through their programmes, than through their traditional campaign activities, with the added advantage that many of those young people are directly affected by the issues of the campaign. Community level engagement on issues like FGM, child marriage, and disability, which require deep social shifts, is often a critical complement to campaigns for legislative and policy change, and helps to foster a culture of rights and accountability at the local level.
The question for INGOs is less and less how we create campaigning waves, and more how we ride them. A growing demographic youth bulge in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East; a global expansion in secondary education; technological change; and rapid urbanisation all mean that child- and youth-led campaigning movements are likely to grow in diversity and influence. This is a campaigning future that should excite anyone who cares about economic, social and environmental justice.
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!