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Evaluating human rights campaigns: talking to “the enemy”

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Framing the targets of human rights campaigns as “the enemy” does a disservice to all involved, and can prevent some important conversations. A contribution to the openGlobalRights campaign on evaluation and human rights.

Zaira Drammis
16 December 2015

I have worked in monitoring and evaluation in large organizations for more than 15 years, and the question my colleagues always asked was: “Is it possible to talk to the enemy?” By enemy, they meant the targets of campaigns against human rights violations: police forces, armies, and politicians suspected of physical or political violence.

It's a good question—one that goes to the core of monitoring and evaluation work. On one hand, speaking with these groups helps us understand our targets more, and evaluate whether our campaigns are having any impact. But on the other hand, my colleagues believed that this was an impossible task. Would these people talk to us? Could their information be trusted? Might consulting with abusers expose campaigners to reputational risk? Would it also offer them the chance to learn about us, and to weaken our campaigns?

Not only is it possible to talk with the targets of campaigns, it also makes good sense to do so. My experience, however, suggests that framing these people as “the enemy” from the start can do a disservice to all sides. Not only is it possible to talk with the targets of campaigns, it also makes good sense to do so. I will not claim this is feasible in all instances: there is a calculation of risk versus benefit that must take place, which depends on the context, issue, and whether the evaluation takes place after the campaign. It is not wise, for example, to approach government officials in charge of highly repressive regimes, or where talking with them could jeopardize campaign actions. But in the many instances when talking to the enemy is feasible, it offers a unique chance to challenge our own assumptions of how and why change happens. It also gives important insights about how to influence our targets in the future.  

Consider this first example. In 2007 I was part of a small team investigating the contribution of my organization to new initiatives that aimed to reduce domestic violence in a country in the Balkans. Our task was clear: we intended to approach four different chiefs of police in different parts of the country to ask them whether they were aware that they had been the targets of our campaigns. In order to obtain interviews, we followed all the necessary protocols, such as sending them official letters in advance signed by a senior person in our organization. In the letters we explained that we aimed to start a conversation that would allow us to learn for future actions. Eventually, all four chief of police granted us interviews.  When we started the meetings, we handed over a one-page document, translated into the local language, explaining that we were there to learn about our actions, and mentioning the name of an independent individual to whom the interviewees could complain if they believed we did not behave properly.

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Shutterstock/Gajus (All rights reserved)

Speaking with, "The enemy," can help us understand them better. Perhaps more importantly, it also helps us see the limitations of our own assumptions.


All four police chiefs reacted similarly. At first, they were visibly not happy to see us: their body language was tense, possibly because they feared being scrutinized. But at the same time, they were bewildered by the fact that we were giving them a chance to tell us what to do better, and even to complain if they didn’t like our questions. But after about ten minutes, the police officers started to produce candid answers to our questions. We learned that they knew about our reports and some told us that friendly tactics sometimes work better than oppositional ones. We also learned that our campaign activities had not been as effective as we thought—for example, we had asked our members to write letters, but these letters had not reached the chiefs at all. Overall, however, we had influenced the police forces positively. But this success was arguably attributable to the work of a single staff member establishing a good relationship with the national chief of police. Happily, this woman was also a citizen of this country, and corresponded regularly with the police chief by phone, letters, and email with the aim of raising awareness. This communication turned out to be key in challenging our assumptions about how change happens. We had expected activists’ letters to be the main influence; instead, in this case personal connections mattered more.

On another occasion, our small evaluation team travelled to a country in Eastern Europe to assess a project campaigning on the right to education of Roma children. In this case, the campaign had a local champion: the mayor of a small town on the border with Ukraine who had openly supported our anti-discrimination campaign. The mayor facilitated our visit and asked a large number of government officials to talk to us. Some officials did not want to talk to us—two arranged appointments and then failed to turn up. But one official from the ministry of education did turn up. She led us to a meeting room where we were surrounded by piles of boxes full of postcards from our activists from different parts of the world. ‘They are about 20,000” she said, clearly hostile. “Who gives you the right to ask people to send us these postcards?” Awkwardly, we explained how our organization was funded and organized. But after twenty minutes, the conversation changed. We asked about her work, where she was from, and what she felt about the Romas. The dialogue became warmer, and we left with the impression that we had talked with a committed public servant who was caught between doing her job, but also uneasy about her tasks. The key issue, though, was that during that interview we were the ones held to account. In a bizarre way, I was pleased with this feedback. Our organization aimed to hold other actors to account, and this interaction with the public servant made me feel that we too could embrace accountability and face difficult questions ourselves.

In both cases, we left the country with a greater understanding of how local authorities work. We realized our theory of change should not represent the police as a permanent barrier to progress. We also realized that it was important to consider how our organization was portrayed.

The implications are that effective monitoring and evaluation require constant assessment of impacts—but we also must re-evaluate our own underlying assumptions and theories of change. Clearly, police forces, armies or members of militias can be the sources of political authority that can undertake human rights abuses. But targeting these groups as the “enemy”—or the locus of power that needs to be changed—can sometimes keep these groups as the enemy, rather than seeing how they can reflect, rather than create, damaging policies. Speaking with these groups can help us understand them better. Perhaps more importantly, it also helps us see the limitations of our own assumptions.

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