Many of our donors and peers have been asking for the WITNESS take on the report, “Human Rights and International Justice: Opportunities and Challenges at an Inflection Point,” commissioned by The Atlantic Philanthropies and written by Jonathan Fanton and Zachary Katznelson.  So I recently put aside some long overdue time to read it and was left wondering why I waited so long.  Even now, six months in (and notwithstanding shifting directions at Atlantic), this report should be required reading for anyone in human rights, and particularly those of us raising the funds to keep our work going.

The report is impressive in its scope – the result of 138 interviews with key human rights funders and practitioners (including our own Sam Gregory). It outlines a number of trends profoundly impacting the human rights funding landscape and is on mark with what we are anecdotally experiencing, and adapting to, as a human rights organization. Below, I comment on a few of the report’s observations from my point of view as the Associate Director of Foundations at WITNESS. I hope this analysis inspires others to keep the conversation going.

I’m including selected quotes from the report that relate specifically to our work.  A full programmatic analysis of the current environment and our own recommendations to technology companies, funders, policymakers and civil society can be found in our own report, “Cameras Everywhere: Current Challenges And Opportunities At The Intersection of Human Rights, Video and Technology.”

The Power of Images

The human rights field needs to accelerate its use of visual images both to identify abuses occurring in remote places and to increase the power of their advocacy…There needs to be a broad-based movement, amplified by intelligent use of technology, that makes rights relevant to people’s daily lives and brings home to those in power the political consequences of failing to respect rights at home or enforce treaties abroad… We believe human rights organizations must become more sophisticated in using media and technology to reach new and larger audiences. The field is too remote from the lives of ordinary people and…more progress could be made if it were more of a mass movement

Flickr At WITNESS we know firsthand how powerful images can amplify grassroots campaigns. For two decades we have promoted the use of video as a tool for human rights, and fully agree that the field needs to embrace the use of visual media on a major scale. While video will never replace traditional methods of advocacy, often it can accelerate campaigns and serve as a tipping point to success (some examples can be seen here).  We also believe that visual images are the key to making human rights more populist and inclusive.  Thanks to advances in communications technologies, the definition of the human rights activist is expanding, with the traditional activist, the professional journalist and the citizen or “accidental” witness all shooting, editing and sharing human rights video content.  Think Arab Spring.

It is this groundswell of new activism that offers such potential to build a mass movement for human rights.  But we believe the report could have gone further to also include these new entrants to the field – not just traditional activists and NGOs.  If, as the authors suggest, the field is too remote from the lives of ordinary people, we need to find ways to make human rights more emotionally accessible through images and stories. Any witness with a camera or smartphone can now become a human rights defender. And all these new documentarians desperately need the infrastructure, the skills, the trusted support networks – and the funding – to see a broad-based movement emerge.

Investing in Technology

[We recommend] that a technology audit be undertaken for the human rights field and that significant investment be made in upgrading technology of all kinds. This is likely to include basic office and website projects among local NGOs, creative use of video and SMS to capture and transmit information in real time, infrastructure to support NGO networks, sophisticated use of digital media to reach a mass audience, and security measures to protect data and make its collection and storage anonymous where necessary…We recommend the creation of a task force on uses of visual material, including an exploration of misuses and need for verification…

We are seeing enormous demand for video within the broader human rights movement, yet the vast majority of activists are not using it strategically or effectively. The reasons lie partly with technological access.  While the digital divide is shrinking there still remain large segments of the global population without adequate Internet access or video-enabled mobile devices. Those who do have access often lack the capacity or the know-how to use these tools safely and effectively in a human rights context.

WITNESS is playing a small role in addressing the skills gap through new tools designed to disseminate our training resources on a global level. They include an online multilingual Toolkit for anyone to develop a video advocacy campaign from scratch and an editorial blog strand devoted to sharing best practices and nurturing the growing media-for-change community. We created these tools to scale our reach and impact in the most effective and least resource-intensive way.

But without sufficient technology infrastructure to close the digital divide, there will still be communities – perhaps even those that need us the most – who remain out of reach. The broad-based need for access, capacity and skills cannot be solely addressed by the handful of human rights groups devoted to these issues. They require significant investment and collaboration on the part of foundations, companies and individuals who see the value of fully integrating a media and technology strategy into human rights.  We also need to go beyond technology investments in NGOs to include support for citizen journalists and others who are generating human rights media.

Technology is, of course, not limited to hardware and Internet accessibility. There also needs to be investment in innovative software solutions. The authors note that we need to defend the security of human rights activists and their data and find ways to protect anonymity online. We couldn’t agree more, and WITNESS is collaborating with The Guardian Project to create new apps that strengthen these same priorities. For instance, our new ObscuraCam app protects the identity of those filming and being filmed by obscuring faces and anonymizing data.  And our  InformaCam app enhances the integrity of footage by providing means of verification for use in evidentiary and international justice settings.

These types of partnerships need to extend to technology companies which, like it or not, are now key players in the human rights landscape. It is the role of human rights groups to demonstrate to these companies the value of incorporating a rights-centered approach into their platforms to protect privacy and freedom of expression. WITNESS is currently engaging with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other companies to develop such relationships.

As the human rights community navigates these new territories, we would all greatly benefit from an overarching cohesion and strategy. We strongly support the authors’ recommendation to create a task force on uses of visual material and suggest that it include a wide array of stakeholders in the human rights field, including citizen journalists and other non-traditional actors. Our peers bring expertise to bear in how these tools could work, and our hope is that our own projects will inspire new collaborations among human rights groups, software developers and technology companies around these critical issues.

More Cooperation Among Human Rights Networks

Building a strong network of local NGOs and some international NGOs based in the Global South is central to the promotion and understanding of norms as universal, not Western constructs…Only through more cooperation among NGOs and with sectors outside human rights will true progress be made…The donors’ role is in understanding and helping to coordinate the ecosystem of NGOs working on an issue or in a place [and making] investments…in creating regional and thematic networks of NGOs…The field will have greater force if there are more networks that allow for coordination on more issues and focus countries.

With the proliferation of NGOs and scarcity of resources worldwide, the authors argue that there is more impact to be found within a regional and thematic networked model and in collaborative initiatives that go beyond the scope of traditional human rights.  We believe that this approach also extends to the use of media and technology in advocacy.  The field clearly needs to invest more in these tools, but it must at the same time promote solutions that engage stakeholders across technology, media and human rights before technology-enabled activism can emerge as a central human rights strategy.

At WITNESS, our own analysis of the human rights landscape in 2010 prompted us to shift our focus very much in line with the authors’ recommendations. In addition to developing new partnerships with developers and tools for activists, we are also adopting a more network-centric campaign model around specific themes.  This new approach has attracted some amazing new funders with a commitment to net-centric advocacy, including the Adessium Foundation, Nduna Foundation, NoVo Foundation and Oxfam Novib.  Their support is making it possible for NGOs working on similar issues in different regions to achieve a much broader impact.  But to fully leverage the potential of these campaigns, more funders need to see the investment in technology and tools like video as an integrated part of the advocacy work, rather than as a separate “communications” or “infrastructure” investment.

The report also suggests that there is need for more civil society groups in the Global South to develop an international reach.  While it is encouraging to see Human Rights Watch, with Soros funding, opening up more regional offices around the world, in our experience grassroots organizations lack the reach to amplify their issues on a global scale. WITNESS has always served as an intermediary to bridge this divide, seeking to better connect local groups with global audiences – and we hope a more networked movement will expand this reach.

It would be interesting, for instance, if we could take the experiences of our partners working on forced evictions in Mexico and Brazil and share them virally so others working on these issues elsewhere could learn from them and add to the body of expertise. This facilitating role is one that international or regional NGOs can fulfill by serving as a useful node in these networks. Perhaps a secondary benefit to these budding networks will be their ability to attract their own international funding. It is this sharing of learnings from the grassroots through media and technology, and the opportunities it brings, that most excites us on the funding front.

More Interdisciplinary Networking

Efforts [should] be made to link NGOs in adjacent fields, e.g., humanitarian aid and human rights or conservation and human rights…Some major foundations that do not have a formal human rights program make significant contributions to the field…Individual donors represent a critical growth area for the field.

We agree that a cross-sectoral approach is the best course of action given limited funding for traditional advocacy coupled with an expanding definition of human rights.  Yet when we launch these types of projects, getting funders on board can sometimes be a challenge.  We have seen this with our new networked campaigns around gender-based violence and forced evictions – each of which spans several regions and involves multiple stakeholders – as well as with our campaign around the human rights implications of climate change, which bridges two distinct sectors.  It is not due to a lack of interest or good will on the part of funders (often quite the contrary) but rather a reflection of how foundations are traditionally organized along thematic or geographic lines.

Within the foundation world, the authors suggest looking more toward funders who do not traditionally support human rights – in our case technology funders, of course, but also, say, environmental or health care funders.  We do this, and while an integrated approach across sectors is the right answer for foundations, in practice we do experience intra-departmental shuffling (at times in a well-coordinated way) even when funding does happen in the end.

It all boils down to divisions of expertise. Does a traditional GBV funder have the understanding and interest to mobilize funding for the tools extension of this work?  Does a funder interested in ICT have the depth of human rights knowledge needed to invest in long-term advocacy?  For some funders the answer is yes, but for many others the gap is too big, as our work blurs the boundary between traditional advocacy and cutting-edge media.  They ask, are we a human rights organization using technology and new media, or a media organization focusing on human rights?  Answer: we are a human rights organization that supports the use of media and technology in strategic advocacy.

From our perspective, another approach could be for the human rights (or climate or health care) funder to partner with the technology funder and demand collaborative solutions from grantees that integrate these approaches.  This would help bridge the expertise gap though admittedly make the funding relationship more complex. The authors also make the argument that human rights groups should be entirely less dependent on foundations and raise more from individual donors. In theory we also agree, and at WITNESS we are successfully growing an individual giving program. But shifting from a foundation-dominant portfolio to a more diverse donor base is not without its challenges.

With individual giving, as within the foundation world, you tend to deal with very informed, educated, smart people, and while the return on investment can be huge, the number of funders with an interest in human rights is – as noted in the report – limited.  Because of WITNESS’ roots in technology, and perhaps because of our affiliation with our co-founder, the musician and tech visionary Peter Gabriel, we tend to attract (among others) individuals who are interested in investing in technology for change.

However, some technology funders shy away from human rights, as it is less “transactional” in nature than, say, supporting a site for microfinance. Although we have a history of measuring our results more quantitatively through a Performance Evaluation Dashboard, it can be difficult to gauge long-term, systemic impact in metrical terms only.  If you marry grassroots human rights work, with its inherent volatility and long-term horizon, with a more business-centered model, it can be a tricky balance. Nevertheless, there are many WITNESS champions who comfortably merge both approaches and are inspiration for the way forward.  Our Board member Joichi Ito comes to mind – as do our program officers at the Ford Foundation and HIVOS on the institutional side.

Sometimes it’s us grant-seekers who need to break out of our own silos and better articulate the fluidity among our programs. In the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, we were supported by the Ford Foundation to respond to an urgent opportunity to equip and train activists working on the frontlines of democracy movements.  If we look at that same work through a gender lens, rather than a geographic lens, we are empowering women activists to use technology and social media and to play a greater role in political life – yet for that work we have not approached women’s rights funders.

Taken further, perhaps technology funders would also be attracted to their methodology – the online tools that these women are using to advocate for themselves – and join the space currently occupied by more traditional human rights funders. So the question becomes, how do we shift our messaging so that funders with a specific mandate see the opportunities inherent in the work we’re doing across different issues, regions and sectors?

More Cooperation Among Leading Donors

We would like to see a group of leading donors in the human rights and justice fields— OSI, Oak, Wellspring, MacArthur, Humanity United, Hivos, Oxfam Novib, Sida, Ford, Atlantic, Skoll, and AJWS among them—meet to discuss the future.

At the end of report, the authors propose a convening of major human rights funders (many of them our own) to discuss next steps. Ideally we’d like to see the voices of civil society present at that forum as well. What opportunities may there be for those of us at the grassroots to lend our firsthand perspectives to this dialogue? How can we in turn continue to learn, as we have here, from the bird’s eye view that funders command of broader trends in the human rights landscape?

After emerging from the deep dive of this insightful report, it’s easy to imagine the authors’ vision of a future with networks of strong NGOs throughout the world.  At WITNESS, we see these and other citizen networks fully equipped with video and technology to harness the visual revolution for the greater good.

For those of us who have expertise in building these networks and deploying new tools among them, we deeply believe that this is the way forward. Yet faced with the authors’ bottom line conclusion – that the needs and opportunities vastly outpace trends in giving – we can only hope that new and creative funding streams emerge to help fulfill this potential.

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