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13 insights from the front lines of human rights activism

This article is part of an editorial partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights.

Human rights as well as democratic values and institutions are under attack in many countries around the world. This makes it more important than ever that international funders and allies effectively back frontline human rights defenders. How can we do this better?

We at The Fund for Global Human Rights have spent more than fifteen years of helping activists to protect and expand civic space for activism, and to promote the participation of communities in decisions that affect them. Here’s what we have learned.

1. Local issues require local solutions

Grassroots activists are the people best placed to solve the problems facing their communities. As international funders and allies, it is much more effective to invest in community-driven social change than impose an agenda.

2. Mass movements demonstrate the power in numbers

Investing in mass movements strengthens collective resilience in the face of closing civic space and government crackdown on independent civil society. In India, for example, human rights activists continue to work in one of the most restrictive environments for activism, as the government suffocates dissent and independent human rights work. But even under siege, Indian grassroots groups with large memberships are achieving real change.

3. Embracing new forms of activism is key to reaching wider audiences

Many see human rights as primarily the purview of lawyers and legislatures. Collaboration with people outside conventional non-governmental organisations, however, allows activists to reach new audiences. In the Philippines, for example, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ has killed thousands, artist Carlo Gabuco, is reaching new audiences and changing mindsets through an exhibit highlighting the inhumanity of Duterte’s brutal campaign. Funders can support artists and creatives who are finding innovative new ways to promote human rights and influence public opinion.

4. Investing in emerging voices and new organisations pays off

Donors are often reluctant to invest in unproven activists and organisations. But taking smart risks on seed funding is crucial to expanding our community. Alfred Brownell is now an internationally recognised defender of indigenous environmental rights in Liberia. His organisation, Green Advocates, got its start in 2003 when the Fund awarded him a seed grant of just $10,000. Brownell’s success is a testament to the power of local leaders – and the importance of supporting them both early and over the long term.

5. International allies must support the holistic security of frontline human rights defenders…

Human rights activists often face physical, digital and psychological threats. When those threats come, donors must be ready to help keep them safe. After Pierre-Clever Mbonimpa, a pillar of Burundi’s human rights community, was shot in an attempted assassination, a network of international allies leapt into action to evacuate him from danger and provide the critical medical care he required. The display of solidarity that saved his life is an inspiring lesson in how the human rights community should respond to crises.

6. …including defenders’ overall well-being

Activists need and deserve support to prioritise self-care. Funders must enable those working on the front lines to get the physical and psychological support they need to combat stress, anxiety and other burdens of human rights work. Genuine self-care is a precondition for a sustainable movement.

7. Cross-border collaboration is essential to creating common solutions

Funders must help create links and foster collaboration between groups tackling common challenges in different countries. Coming together from remote corners of a region can be a logistical challenge for frontline activists, but real change is possible when they do. For example, with support from the Fund, children’s rights defenders in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have formed a regional alliance to combat child trafficking. It shows how cross-border collaboration among local human rights groups can lead to successes in advocacy and activism.

8. Flexible, long-term funding allows grassroots groups to spend wisely

The relationship between a funder and a grantee must be based on trust, and flexible funding is one of the best ways to demonstrate it. Four female activists have explained the vital need for funding and support that allows grassroots activists to respond to realities on the ground.

9. Sharing learning strengthens everyone’s work

As frontline activists experiment with strategies and tactics, they’re constantly learning what works and what doesn’t. Yet they rarely have the time and resources to share these lessons beyond their own organisation. International funders can facilitate exchanges and foster a culture that invests in shared learning. For example, in North Africa, women activists fighting for gender equality are starting to see signs of progress. When we brought together groups from Tunisia and Morocco to swap strategies and trade tactics, activists from both countries came away inspired by new ideas – and so did we.

10. New alliances are an important way forward for human rights

As more governments turn hostile and embrace populist authoritarianism, we need to rethink who our allies are. The human rights community must continue to hold big business accountable for fuelling rights violations, but some corporate leaders are waking up to the benefits of promoting and defending human rights. Rather than reject them outright, we should find new ways to work together and influence their efforts.

11. There’s more to measuring impact than meets the eye

As funders of grassroots activism, we’re constantly trying to measure the effectiveness of our efforts and investments. It can be hard to see the real effects of human rights work, but we’ve learned a few ways to make sure our money is making a difference. It’s not always just about big numbers or major victories – learning to see the bigger picture is just as important.

12. Building public support for human rights means changing the way we work, not just what we say

Anyone who has worked at a non-governmental organisation knows that advocates love jargon. But that’s only part of the reason we’re having so much trouble cutting through the noise and getting our message across. Populist authoritarians are winning the battle for hearts and minds with divisive, xenophobic rhetoric that dehumanises vulnerable people and vilifies defenders. To change the narrative around human rights, we need to refocus on forging genuine connections with the communities we serve.

13. Intersectionality is a must for strong movements

When different communities come together, it makes their work of addressing human rights abuses more visible and gives them the power of collective action too. In Morocco, advocacy groups made up of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa felt isolated from the local human rights community. With support from the Fund, migrants’ groups and local allies, including legal support groups and women’s rights activists, have worked as partners together and achieved remarkable results. Human rights work depends on this kind of collaborative advocacy, and we should support activists in their efforts to build intersectional movements.

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