Internationalizing human rights organizations – why, how, and at what cost?

The openGlobalRights editors introduce this week's debate.

James Ron Archana Pandya
19 January 2015

Human rights organizations, networks and movements are expanding, broadening, and “internationalizing.” Groups based in the global north are trying to sink southern roots, while groups based in the south are working to become more cross regional and global. Donors, such as Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, are enthusiastically supporting these changes. Why, how, and at what cost? - openGlobalRights launches its newest debate this week on internationalizing human rights organizations. 

We begin the debate with a week of signature pieces from leading commentators worldwide. Today, the Ford Foundation’s Louis Bickford argues that international rights groups are moving “closer to the ground,” domestic groups are reaching out internationally, and that the two are “converging towards the middle.” In contrast, Wanja Muguongo, of the East African rights group UHAI EASHRI, says that without major resource transfers from northern donors to southern NGOs, internationalization will not work. The problem of funding human rights groups, of course, is something our authors have been debating since last year. 

On Tuesday, Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty describes his group’s ongoing efforts to decentralize their London headquarters to offices in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In contrast, Sarah Stroup, author of Borders Among Activists, argues that this move risks weakening the ability of Amnesty, and other global groups, to access wealthy donors and powerful governments, and may even undermine the diversity of global human rights strategies. 

On Wednesday, César Rodríguez-Garavito, of the Colombian rights group DeJusticia, along with Charli Carpenter, author of “Lost” Causes, explore different ways of promoting human rights internationalization. César elaborates multiple strategies, including what he calls the “multiple boomerang,” while Charli advocates cultivating new “network hubs” and helping global south-based activists gain better access to northern centres of influence.

Muriel Asseraf of the Brazilian rights group Conectas writes on Thursday about her group’s struggles to balance their interest in domestic and international change, while Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch describes her group’s collaborations with local organizations in Russia.

We end the week with pieces by Stanley Ibe, a prominent Nigerian rights advocate, and by Wendy Wong, author of Internal Affairs. Stanley questions the wisdom of internationalization, worrying about the loss of local initiative, while Wendy wonders whether the “localization” of Amnesty International and others will undermine their efficacy.

In the months to follow, we expect to publish many articles, from commentators worldwide, that agree, disagree, and extend these arguments in multiple directions.


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