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.
“What is the identity of my country and who are we as a people?” is a question that has shaped America’s unique idealism across generations of immigrants. It is also a question that can be used to stoke fear and division. Racism and nativism reside close to the heart of the wave of populist-nationalism that the United States is currently confronting. While all these trends, in addition to the related sentiment of isolationism, have a long history in both US politics and in official government policy, we have rarely faced them all in combination, wielded by a President and his allies. An initiative we call The Together Project, has been at the heart of InterAction’s response to these forces that try to divide people. It draws on and reinforces our community’s solidarity to advance a more compassionate and diverse form of American identity.
America’s current wave of populist-nationalism is rooted in racial resentment and a history of grievances that is endemic to US society. As our country becomes more and more multi-ethnic and diverse, a subset of the country’s dominant majority has not seen themselves reflected in America’s emerging identity and progress. Systematic economic inequality has also led to high levels of frustration, particularly in rural areas, that feed resentment and amplify a nationalist narrative among citizens who previously had a sense of power. They now blame others, immigrants or people who do not look like them, for their economic circumstances. Populist narratives have drawn on this racial anxiety and economic frustration by promising a return to a past – remodelling it as an idealised ‘- when their supporters felt more culturally, if not economically, dominant. A past where America First was the norm. President Trump has amplified these feelings through what many see as public racism.
Internationally-focused NGOs and our supporters belong to a segment of society that view the constant changing and growth of American identity with optimism. , seeing participation by different groups in a changing society as something that makes us all stronger. We believe that different elements have contributed over generations to a shared narrative that reinforces our values and collective, yet diverse, identity. Unfortunately, the division between an open and inclusive country, and building walls and promoting exclusion, often splits down political lines. As a result, there’s not much space for nuance in the public conversation.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, InterAction hosted our annual CEO Retreat, and – during an exercise that emphasizes honest reflection among our community – a Muslim-American leader shared their fear for themselves, their organization, and their family in the face of growing public racism. A Jewish-American colleague found common ground in sharing their emotions over having lost their grandparents during the Holocaust. The idea that we all have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with vulnerable colleagues gained immediate traction. The conversation evolved towards a shared understanding that those of us in the room, as civil society leaders, had a responsibility to look out for each other and foster a better dialogue in our country. The blend of personal backgrounds, shared values and experiences across different cultural and faith identities further inspired launching the Together Project in 2017.
Whilst the initial leadership for the Together Project came from our Muslim faith-based member NGOs, it could only become a community-wide initiative due to trust among individuals and organizations across the sector, tapping into a shared safe space at InterAction. Trust and creation of safe spaces for dialogue are essential not just at the micro-, programmatic level, but also at the macro-level for society at large. These two dynamics create opportunity for agreements on how to strategically combat populist-nationalism, while not resorting to a simple adversarial or victimhood narrative, either of which can alienate potential allies. Adversarial or victimhood narratives can often feed the very social divisions wielded by populist demagogues through emphasizing division and differences, as opposed to a sense of shared, values and identity.
For the United States to ultimately overcome this current populist-nationalism wave, and its associated racism, nativism, and isolationism, it will be essential to create a shared national narrative. We need an agenda of common action, mutual benefit, and agreement on values. These principles may be as simple as being kind to our neighbors and believing the dignity of all people, whether in this country or overseas. The moment we exclude someone, we tear a country from its pursuit of an ideal future, and start focusing on destruction as opposed to positive change and an inclusive future for everyone. These ideal values cut across faith and political beliefs but are found in the overlapping spheres of our civil society, which can bridge the current, dualistic fight over power in political institutions.
The Together Project is one example of how civil society can come together to preserve space for all by ensuring that no one person or institution is removed from our country’s identity.
Yes, it is often essential to loudly pushback against injustice, but any effort should not be at the cost of pushing someone else out of your country’s future. Otherwise, they will fall back on the politics and an identity of division and fear.
What is the “value added” of being a coalition?
How do we best support targeted organizations during a disinformation attack?
What techniques can we use to move the needle on constricting regulations due to operating principles or religious faith?
These guiding questions are examples of conversations that led to launching the Together Project in the US in 2017, and are ongoing ‘North Stars’ to navigate dialogue and decision-making with our coalition, as our initiative continues to develop.
Successful coalitions depend on the ability of representatives from independent organizations to work almost as if they belonged to the same company. InterAction values coalition work and is committed to be a platform for alliances to foster. As the oldest and largest coalition of U.S.-based, international NGOs, InterAction draws on our – nearly 200 – organizational member and partner community to think and act collectively, while serving the world’s poor and vulnerable. Through the Together Project, InterAction has designed a model of collaborative thought leadership and brings NGOs together in service to a stronger, more inclusive civil society voice and posture within the United States.
Behind the core Together Project Coalition of five founding organizations (American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), Helping Hand for Relief & Development, Islamic Relief USA, United Mission for Relief and Development (UMR) and Zakat Foundation of America), there is a large support network of more than 75 organizations, of various faiths and none, and with leverage and ‘voice’ to influential audiences. The Together Project’s Interfaith Connections builds upon the effective on-the-ground partnerships of both non-secular and secular InterAction members to strategically engage in supportive solidarity across a variety of issues at home in the United States. The exponential effect of displaying a united front when organizations are attacked is often beyond coming to the aid of a specific organization but lends to a deepening of the public morale and posture for the entire sector domestically and aboard.
For this kind of collaboration to occur, the Together Project has established an agreed commonmission, goals, outcome, scope, agenda and work plan to strategically guide our activities. This, in turn, has created a clear understanding of the initiative’s joint priorities, while providing autonomy for each partner’s organizational structure, policies and procedures, and culture and norms. The coalition is better able to operate, make decisions, allocate resources, share information, and expand our alliance further, such as our affiliation with the Charity & Security Network to address several comparable issues together as partners. Likewise, the Together Project joined the World Bank Stakeholder Dialogue on De-risking to elevate the impact of the issue on our coalition members. A strong foundation and commitment to solidarity within the Together Project has positioned the initiative to engage as both a participant and a leader with other like-minded coalitions and alliances.
The keys to an effective coalition of this nature are mutual trust and respect for each other’s strengths. Organizations may be asked to compromise or defer to a partner’s judgment in decision-making to move towards the greater common goal. The vulnerability felt in these sometimes direct and challenging moments is a healthy part of becoming an alliance dependent on one other to succeed together. Sharing on the answers to earlier guiding questions helps the Together Project remain focused on our principles
Essentially, solidarity is vital to the Together Project. The driving force behind the initiative is the word “together” and a core belief that no one organization should have to fight disinformation and discrimination fueled by populist-nationalism alone. Countering the effects of restrictive, discriminatory government regulations that are viewed as vital to national security and defending against disinformation campaigns are not easy topics to broach in the current political climate. Fortunately, organizations do not have to quietly confront these issues alone. For those that do not have the capacity to address these difficult issues, the coalition offers a foundation to stand on and participate in through working groups, activities, and events at a level that best meets their ability. Likewise, for organizations that believe these issues do not affect their operations or are not current priorities, the Together Project highlights the interconnectedness of the work and the broader ramifications of how various aspects play out in different parts of the world. The backing of InterAction members and stakeholders across the sector helps to amplify the voice of the Together Project to advocate for change.