Perspectives November 9, 2023
Collective Action and Local Leadership: Lessons from Human Rights Advocacy in East Africa
By banding together in working groups, human rights activists and organizations can greatly increase both their efficacy and their resilience in the face of repression.
Only 9 out of 54 African countries are rated Free, according to the 2023 Freedom in the World report. In many of the less free settings, human rights defenders (HRDs) face severe restrictions on their ability to operate, either as individual activists or as members of civil society organizations (CSOs).
Over the past several years, Freedom House has helped to establish working groups that facilitate collective action among HRDs in East Africa, ensuring that they have the resilience and mutual support necessary to continue their advocacy on key human rights issues—despite state regulations intended to curtail their activities.
These efforts have yielded a number of important lessons about working-group formation that could be useful to human rights and democracy activists elsewhere in the world.
The benefits of solidarity
Working groups of CSOs and other HRDs are crucial for the success of advocacy initiatives because they provide a foundation for broader collective action and change within a community.
They reduce isolation and enable information sharing, coordination, and mobilization around specific human rights issues, often giving voice to marginalized groups and highlighting concerns that might otherwise go unnoticed. By connecting individuals who share a common cause, working groups also strengthen engagement with policymakers, increase collective security, and foster a sense of solidarity that drives meaningful progress toward human rights goals at the grassroots level.
Indeed, in a Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) survey of Freedom House’s working groups in Tanzania, 58 percent of respondents ranked “networking and learning from other CSOs” and 43 percent ranked “advocating more effectively by advocating alongside other CSOs” as first or second among the benefits of working groups. As one working group member explained, “We’re able to work on more sensitive issues and explore ideas together. When we approach the government with a team of 20 organizations, the government pays attention because we represent the demands of the people, not just the demands of an organization.”
For more than five years, Freedom House has been using the working group model to support collective action in countries such as Tanzania and Uganda. These working groups have addressed topics including women’s rights, children’s rights, media freedom, and HRD protection.
Local leadership has been critical to the success of these working groups, ensuring that coordinated advocacy campaigns are rooted in the needs of the community. A Freedom House–supported working group in Zanzibar successfully collaborated with government entities to improve CSO registration processes, after local CSOs had struggled to reregister because of problems with online registration platforms and a lack of awareness of the process. In Uganda, a working group focused on child justice provided legal aid to nearly 3,000 children over three years.
Local leadership has also facilitated the identification of needs among working group members themselves, leading to tailored peer mentorship and training on essential advocacy skills and tools. In Tanzania, for instance, the working groups have assessed the capacity gaps of their members, prompting trainings on topics such as digital security and alternative media.
Effective working groups require strong conveners who can bring together diverse stakeholders, promote collaboration, and drive collective action. In selecting conveners, Freedom House has emphasized nurturing local leadership while also leveraging the resources of established entities. This approach ensures that the working group benefits both from the expertise and influence of high-capacity conveners and from the long-term sustainability associated with the development of leaders from within a community or region. In effect, the strategy allows advocacy-focused working groups to effectively address the needs of the present, even as they invest in their capacity to advance human rights initiatives in the future.
A range of possible formats
Through its work in the region, Freedom House has identified four primary types of working group conveners. Although each has its own advantages, some types of conveners promote locally led collective action more than others:
- Option 1: Large International or Multinational Organizations
International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), typically larger entities with a global presence, can start work quickly because they are familiar with international donor funding. However, INGOs acting as conveners lack local ownership potential. Freedom House has avoided serving as the convener in most of its programs, but this may be a good option for shorter-term working groups that require immediate action, or in environments where leading a working group is unsafe for local organizations.
- Option 2: Umbrella Organizations
In some contexts, umbrella organizations, or member-based organizations that serve to promote the interests of participating groups, may be a good choice for convening working groups. Umbrella organizations already have substantial convening expertise, making it comparatively easy for them to form a working group. This may be a sustainable, local option for projects on shorter time horizons. However, choosing to have an umbrella organization act as the convener limits opportunities for fostering alternative local leadership. Furthermore, umbrella organizations may have a strong interest in prioritizing their own members over other working group participants.
- Option 3: Established Local Organizations
Established local organizations often have the expertise, contacts, and reputation to effectively convene a working group, as well as the ability to manage donor funds for activities in a transparent and compliant manner. They can be helpful mentors for newer organizations, given their localized experience. However, depending on the funds involved, established CSOs may have larger competing interests that divert their attention away from convening the working group. In some settings, established local CSOs could also have a divisive reputation in the human rights community—for example as part of a rift between established and nascent organizations—that may limit working group membership.
- Option 4: Nascent Groups
Placing recently established or emerging organizations in the role of convener provides an opportunity to build up the nascent group’s leadership. Such organizations often have the ability to focus primarily on the working group and its activities rather than being spread across a larger portfolio of projects. Working with nascent groups can signal to local stakeholders that there is fresh momentum and a willingness to experiment with new perspectives and activities.
However, nascent groups may lack the internal structures to receive and manage funding in a donor-compliant way, and the need to establish those capacities in advance may delay implementation. Placing a nascent group in the convener role may also diminish participation by established groups that are reluctant to relinquish leadership roles to less prestigious organizations.
Freedom House prioritizes engagement with nascent organizations, and when a working group has such an organization in a leadership role, we provide it with tailored support and mentorship.
Each convener option above presents its own benefits and challenges, which should be carefully weighed alongside the context in which the working group will operate. Regardless of the final decision on the convener type, working groups should always seek to cultivate local leadership in other ways, for instance by allowing local HRDs to drive advocacy planning processes.
Ultimately, locally led collective action through the use of working groups ensures that both HRDs and the communities they serve are able to advocate effectively and advance their interests, strengthening the civic practices and institutions that undergird a healthy democracy.
To learn more about Freedom House’s work in Africa, please visit our programs page. The authors thank Daniel Lema, as well as the Freedom House Africa and Latin America teams, for providing their insights on the working group formation process.