Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m at Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.
Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the people and ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights work around the world.
Later in this episode,
- Why China’s ban on foreign funding for its nonprofit sector might have a silver lining
- And in our Coda, a poem by Emily Dickinson, that’s giving comfort in Afghanistan
But before that, my regular check-in with my colleague, Chris Stone. This podcast is part of a project to build more resilient organizations and movements and more robust solidarity among those fighting for rights. And Chris and I work together on it. I called him on the day a new administration was being sworn in in Washington, DC, so I wished him happy Inauguration Day.
Part One: Conversation
Chris Stone: Why thank you, Akwe. It’s very nice to know that wherever you are in the world, you don’t have to hear the radio announcer begin the newscast with the latest outrage from Donald Trump. It’s a good day for the whole world.
AA: Amen to that. And in fact, it’s a great lead–in to the topic that I wanted to put on the table today, which is leadership. I’ve been reflecting since I did an interview with one of the prominent activists in the Hong Kong democracy movement on this question of what it means to be a leaderless movement. We’ve seen now, I think, for a good 10 years, many examples of movements that profess to be leaderless; they say that they don’t want to have a strong leadership at the top, they like their sort of prehensile ability to respond in the moment and to give agency to those leading the struggle, as it were, at the grass roots. And I just wondered, are these movements really leaderless? Is that a good word to use?
CS: No. And there’s so many examples of these organizations and I think you’re right to think about the last 10 years since the Occupy movement, the Arab spring, since those two events roughly 10 years ago, I think we’ve seen a new generation of these leaderless movements. As you were saying, it‘s not that there aren’t acts of leadership in them, but that they have worked very hard to build routines, build rituals, build ways of reaching decisions and taking action that don’t require them to put one or two or three or four people in charge of the whole thing.
AA: So what are the advantages of being structured without central coordination and direction?
CS: Well, you know, Akwe, I’m doing a lot of work with colleagues in Nigeria right now who have been working on reform there, starting with the #endSARS movement. And when they talk about the importance of leaderless movements, they are talking about distrust. They’re trying to protect their movements from what happens to people when they become leaders. What they talked to me about is the distrust of leaders in general in Nigeria, political leaders, corporate leaders, even social change leaders.
AA: So a lack of trust in giving power to people to organize and command the movement, but not a lack of trust in the movement itself because – we saw this in Hong Kong. We’ve seen it in many of these movements – a particular part of a demonstration or a particular, uh, group within the movement can make a decision on its own to take an action or move forward and be innovative and be creative. And they’re trusted to do that, so there’s a kind of horizontal trust.
CS: Absolutely. And I think whether the motive to stay leaderless is a distrust of the leaders or the motive is protection of the movement from the disruption that can be caused when the movement becomes dependent on a leader for decisions, and the state or some other opponent can then move against that leader and really damage the movement. So it can be a protective impulse, it can be a distrustful or a cautionary impulse, but it does bring both advantages and disadvantages, as you’re saying, I think that’s right.
AA: So maybe we should just look at the disadvantages a bit then, what are they losing, these so-called leaderless movements, by not having a central coordination?
CS: Well, I think what, what you hear from people in, in these movements sometimes is that they’re losing the ability to negotiate when they gain an advantage, when they put the state or the police agency or corporation on the defensive, how do they consolidate that victory? How do they hold the ground they’ve won? That usually requires some kind of agreement or negotiation with another source of power. And it’s sometimes hard to throw together the representatives of a movement when they have been deeply steeped in a leaderless tradition and leaderless decision-making. I think the other thing they sometimes lose is the ability to act quickly, to act decisively with strength.
AA: One of the spaces where I think that there’s been a huge amount of thinking about this is the feminist movement. And in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this whole leaderless idea really starts in the feminist movement long before Occupy. I think these questions of who gets to decide and how you trust each other to make good decisions were front and center. What comes to mind right now is this latest victory in Argentina where the reproductive rights movement has successfully negotiated a victory securing the right to abortion. And that has come out of a very powerful, but very decentralized feminist movement. So there are stories of success associated with this model of organizing.
CS: Absolutely. And I think I love that example from Argentina and indeed from many feminist struggles over the years. I think one thing they remind me of is not trying to reduce this to a single structural decision, that many of these movements are multi-layered. And there are leaderless movements that contain within them many smaller, or sometimes very temporary organizations that may have a few people making key decisions and then dissolve when that particular part of the struggle is over, and those same people come back at different formations playing different roles. So I think understanding the multilayered nature of a lot of these recent movements, can help us see, uh, how you get the best of both worlds – get the advantages of avoiding the single, sometimes ego-driven leader and still getting the ability to move quickly, hold ground, take decisions.
AA: Great. Well, this is a topic. I think that we’re going to revisit many times in this podcast, because our project, Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, is very focused on how you build effective solidarity. And these questions of trust within movements, trust between movements, are absolutely germane to the project of building robust solidarity.
AA: Okay, Chris, thanks so much.
CS: Thank you.
Part two: Interview
AA: In recent years, governments around the world, hostile to civil society and human rights activism have used a tool in formerly known as the anti–NGO law to curtail their activities. Amnesty international reported in 2019, that at least 50 countries had introduced or were preparing to pass such laws. These vary in content and approach, but a large proportion have at their core restrictions on receipt of foreign funds, since a large proportion of the world’s human rights work is supported by governments or private foundations in Western democracies, turning off that tap is a highly effective way to silence critics and campaigners in 2016, China passed two laws, the “Charity law” covering domestic civil society and a “foreign NGO” law that in combination starved domestic groups of the funds they depended on to operate. Researcher Shawn Shieh wanted to get a sense of how badly they’d been impacted. So he interviewed 10 Chinese civil society groups and what he found came as a bit of a surprise. I spoke to him on the line to Guangzhou.
AA: So welcome Shawn.
SS: Thank you for having me.
AA: So, you knew that the Chinese environment had seen a major restriction on foreign funding, and you knew that a lot of civil society, organizations, rights organizations had been dependent on foreign funding. What did they tell you about what they were doing? Could you give us some examples of what you learned about how they were trying to fill in the financial gap?
SS: Sure. I mean, you know, some of these organizations, they had already been experimenting with things. You know, one of the good things about China is that there has been kind of an emerging funding ecosystem that’s become much more diversified and much more so than other Asian countries. For example, in China, there’s been a real growth in government funding – outsourcing services, you know, government contracting for nonprofit services. That’s really scaled up in a big way. There’s been also the growth of a lot of Chinese foundations. A lot of those foundations are started by these wealthy individuals or companies because of China’s rapid growth. And some of these foundations are grant–making, they do give grants to, CSOs [civil society organisations]; most of them don’t, but anyway, it’s a start. And then you also have the emergence of these kinds of online giving platforms or online fundraising platforms that have been created by large companies like Tencent and Alibaba. So the tech companies have really come in and said, look, you know, we can provide this kind of platform for the CSOs. And so there are some very large online fundraising events that take place in China now. All this is part of the domestic ecosystem that doesn’t exist outside of China. I mean, you know, when I talked to people in Vietnam and Indonesia and Malaysia, they were like, no, nothing like that exists here. You know, it’s very difficult to do online fundraising. And I think they have to rely on global platforms like Global Giving. So I think all those things started to happen over the last decade and that made it, I think, a bit easier for Chinese CSOs to take advantage of that and say, oh, but you know, online fundraising, let’s try that because there’s not that many options.
AA: I guess I’m surprised to hear that an organization that’s fighting for rights and may be in danger of getting in trouble with the government could just apply to a few domestic foundations or could raise money on an online platform. Is this more productive environment that you’re describing for fundraising as accessible to rights–focused organizations?
SS: Yeah, no. I mean, that’s a good question. We have to be aware that none of this is easy for, especially for rights-based organizations. In China, the area where you can do the most, in a way, if you think of environmental work as rights-based, I mean, that’s the area where there’s the most room because the government has said environmental protection is important, they’ve made it a priority. And they’ve also allowed CSOs to file, what’s called public interest lawsuits, environmental lawsuits. So one of the CSOs that I interviewed, Friends of Nature, which is one of the oldest CSOs in China, has, actually been on the forefront of filing these public interest lawsuits. They were having a hard time finding people to support it. I mean, donors tend not to want to support lawsuits, they’re quite expensive – especially Chinese foundations. I mean, like you said, I mean, it’s, you know, Chinese foundations tend to want to fund more charitable initiatives, right? Things that are having to do with education or people with disabilities but maybe not rights-based work. So what they did is they started to do a major online funding campaign. And they said to individual donors, to the public, they said, will you be willing to fund these public interest lawsuits that we’re filing? And the public came through in a very big way. I mean, they were able to cultivate a large group of regular donors who would give money to Friends of Nature every month for the purpose of supporting these kinds of lawsuits. So, you know, that’s just one example, but there’s other examples, I think, you know, where the CSOs working in more sensitive spaces are still able to take advantage of this – again, it’s about how they present it, right? What they need the funding for. I think they just have to be careful about the language that they use, the framing that they use when they are seeking these resources, this kind of funding.
AA: And writing about a couple of those organizations, you chose not to use their names, or to give them a kind of false name. Was that because they feel more exposed in this situation?
SS: Yes. I mean, you know, so like one of them was an LGBT organization. LGBT rights is still quite sensitive – there’s an organization called Shanghai Pride – their event was canceled this year. What this LGBT organization does, like I said, is that they, the way they frame it, right? They’re talking about providing support to people in the LGBT community, but also, you know, support for their families as well. So if you, if you talk about it that way, it doesn’t seem like you’re talking so much about rights, but more about community support, if you will, or services, right? You’re offering services to that community. And that’s the kind of language that you tend to hear. And it tends to be more accepted in China.
AA: Did any of them try and figure out ways to make money that were really commercial – rather than taking advantage of these new sources, they actually set up a business model to make money as a company or through some kind of commercial activity that would, as it were be proof from political interference or constraint?
SS: Yeah. I mean, in Indonesia and in China, I saw examples of organizations that registered companies or started a social enterprise; so some of these companies were more traditional sort of consulting companies. I think in Indonesia, you had a CSO that was working on budget transparency, or on corruption. They decided to set up a company to train people in this area, or to set up an Academy to train a whole generation of new activists or students who could learn maybe how to do local budgeting, and the importance of budgeting, fairness in budgeting. And these people might end up going to work for the finance offices in the local government, for example. So for them, it was a way to kind of generate income, but it was also a way to, I think, advocate for the issues that they were, they were concerned about, right? Whether it was transparency in budgeting, whether it was about corruption, this was another way for them to get that message out, doing that on a fee-based system and so was able to generate income. Friends of Nature, did the same thing in China, they set up a nature school. They registered a company that actually became really successful, I mean, it’s open to parents and children to learn about the environment, but they also charge tuition. And some of the money that’s generated from that school also goes to support the CSO as well.
AA: I mean, I can see that the opportunity might be there if you can come up with the innovation, if you can come up with the idea, but generally people who lead human rights organizations and human rights campaigns are there because of their passion and their skill at advocacy, not necessarily their business acumen. So how, how viable is it for organizations of this kind to sort of suddenly start thinking about money-making enterprises?
SS: Well, I think, first of all, you know, I think it’s important – and a number of CSOs I interviewed emphasizes this – that it‘s important to be clear about what your mission is, right? So these are mission-driven organizations. For me, that was the interesting thing – how do you balance that? How do you stay true to your mission, but also be creative about finding other ways to, to diversify your sources of funding. It was a process of trial and error. I mean that it wasn’t like they would try something and it would just work. You know, sometimes things would not go the way they thought they would and they would have to try another path. I’m thinking about like, just to give an example, of this disability organization in China that I interviewed, they had this interesting model where they had been trying to train people with disabilities so that they could be employed. And they found that the training was not going as well as they had hoped. They weren’t also getting that much interest from the public, because they wanted the public also to see people with disabilities in a different way. Usually in China, people with disabilities, especially for example, blind people tend to work in massage parlors. They have these, you know, they have all these blind massage parlors all over the place in China. So they found that the blind trainees, they were really interested in coffee. They were interested in this whole thing about making coffee, something about it really appealed to them. So they said, well, what if we train blind people to become baristas, to make coffee, which is not easy because you know, all the possible hazards and things like that, but they did it. And they said they opened up a cafe where the people who were making the coffee would talk to the customers about the coffee and, you know, they, they got educated about what different kinds of coffee and the making of the coffee. And it became kind of a big hit. It attracted a lot of attention from the media, from other companies who were interested in this model. But then you have to think about, what’s the mission? I mean, the mission, I guess, is try to prepare people with disabilities for, to be integrated into society. You know, were they doing that? Or was this just some kind of like some kind of freak show – I mean, you’re just kind of putting these blind people on stage to do this kind of thing that is kind of strange. I mean, why, you know, why would you want to make them baristas? But I can say, I think what they found was that it did really get people in China, the Chinese, the public, to see people with disabilities in a different way.
AA: What I hear you saying is that there’s a high risk of diversion from the mission. If one is investing time, energy, money in retraining and playing to a particular target audience as a fundraising strategy, you are at least potentially putting your money-making activities in conflict with your mission.
SS: Yes, that’s right. You know, so there is always that risk, always that danger. In Indonesia, some of the CSOs that set up companies took pains to try to separate the company from the CSO to make sure that there was not too much overlap in the staffing between the two, that there was a conflict of interest policy and anti-corruption policies in place. So they were, they were aware of those risks and the perception that, hey, you know, why do you have a for-profit, but you’re a nonprofit? You know, one of the CSOs was the Indonesian Corruption Watch. So, you know, they were starting a company to provide trainings to companies; and yet maybe one of those, some of those companies were the very companies that they were monitoring, right? Isn’t there a conflict of interest there? So, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, they were very aware that these kinds of conflicts of interest could come up.
AA: Many times, with regard to foreign funding, the critique has been leveled at rights organizations that the very taking of the money from a foreign organization undermines their credibility. That if they can’t raise the money inside their own society to do the work that they think is important to do, it can’t be that important to that society; it must be important to the people who are giving them the money. Many rights organizations have sort of wriggled on that hook. So did any of them talk about that as a factor that had changed for them or improved for them?”
SS: I mean, the critique of the foreign donors is that you become beholden to those donors. You become beholden to their priorities. Their priorities may not always align with the priorities in your country. And I think this is becoming increasingly true of China, where China is trying to create a kind of a whole different, um, way of thinking about, you know, charitable or non-profit work. And also that when you’re taking money from foreign donors, you’re writing reports to them. In other words, the accountability is towards foreign donors and not so much towards your local beneficiaries. Governments have put in place draconian laws to restrict foreign funding. As somebody who thinks that access to funding should be open, that’s something that I certainly would disagree with, but I think that the laws that have been put in place to restrict foreign funding – in some ways, it’s been a good thing for CSOs for the sector itself, because it’s forced CSOs to pull out from this linear process of – “this is what my mission is, and these are the people I’m going to serve, and I’m going to write a proposal, I’m going to get funding from a foreign donor to support that work.” I think CSOs kind of got stuck in a box. This new era has kind of forced us to get out of the box and think about other ways of doing things, and some of the ways that I talked about – in China or Indonesia or Vietnam – pay more attention to that relationship they have with local beneficiaries, but also people who may want to take part in helping. I mean, so we’re talking about, for example, individual donors, individual donors who want to support their activities, whether it be, you know, public interest, lawsuits, environmental lawsuits, or whether it be helping people with disabilities, buying the products that they’re serving – you know, it creates a different relationship with local people. Because in doing that and trying to appeal to local people and trying to also get them to pay and support these activities, you have to cultivate a relationship with them. You have to start to communicate with them more. You know, the online funding stuff I talked about; Friends of Nature has to have a program in place where they are constantly communicating with these donors about, ‘what are we doing with your money?’ Right? ‘What progress are we seeing in terms of the lawsuits that you’re supporting?’ And I think that’s a good thing because it kind of has pulled us away from that ecosystem where I think the CSOs had always been so much more accountable to foreign donors rather than to local populations.
AA: I think many in the ‘Global South’ will hear you and say, “yeah, but that makes sense.” But I think the counter–argument, which we kind of hinted at, at the very beginning, is that if you are in a hard core rights battle or in a sector which is extremely controversial – has a lot of social stigma attached or that your government hates – then some of these new channels that you’re describing probably aren’t that open to you. And if the argument is: well, you need to be more accountable to your local population, but, what a pity, your local population isn’t interested, then foreign funding looks pretty good at that moment. And so I’m not sure whether people would feel quite comfortable with what sounds like a very rational, reasonable position that you just put, if they thought it meant that the sex worker, the trans activist was not going to be able to stay operational.
SS: Yeah. I mean, no, of course those kinds of people also need support. There are certain activities or certain organizations that local populations may not be willing to support either because they’re too sensitive or because local people don’t understand what they’re doing. But I think, you know, in terms of advocacy and I’m not just talking about advocacy to the UN or to, you know, the ILO and the international human rights framework, I’m talking about public advocacy, I’m talking about advocacy towards your own government, advocacy towards your public advocacy, towards the people. If you’re not making that connection with your people in the country that you’re working in, then maybe there’s another way to go about it, I mean, to make that connection. Because –I say this living in China where Chinese have very little knowledge of rights-based work. How do we educate that population about what we’re doing, and why what we’re doing is important? I think for a lot of Chinese, it’s very abstract stuff. You know, one thing like the disability organization, that’s training these blind baristas – they needed to find a way to start that conversation where people could empathize, you know, with more vulnerable populations – that maybe that empathy needs to come first, and then on top of that, start to build, talk about rights. But first of all, you know, you can’t talk about rights without first having that empathy. It’s hard. And I think, you know, we see that a lot in China and probably, in many other countries as well.
AA: Do you worry that by helping people to see that there’s a path, a domestic path which, with the compromises you’re describing, could be a path forward? do you worry that you might be in some way, inadvertently sanitizing the situation, giving a kind of sanguine view? When in fact there are people who are experiencing enormous amounts of harassment and detention, their families are also suffering. Do you worry that in some way, this narrative may divert people away from that reality?
SS: I think, yes, there’s always that risk and so I’m mindful of that tension, right? But I think what I wanted to do with this research was to start a conversation. And I don’t think, you know, from the point of view of CSOs that are trying to survive in these countries, that this is necessarily a good thing. I mean, yeah, to some extent, I think being under that tough situation, necessity is the mother of invention. You begin to get creative, right? When you’re put in a difficult situation, you see, you see some interesting experiments taking place. I think, yeah, we need to start the conversation about, you know, how can we incorporate this into the current ecosystem? Yeah, we still need foreign grants, we still need donors who can support rights-based work. I mean, those people will still be important. We need people to protect human rights defenders because I don’t think we’re going to get many people who will support that kind of work. You know, you need to preserve that part of the ecosystem, but also I think there are parts of the ecosystem that that can be changed for the better.
AA: Thank you very much.
SS: Yeah. Well, thank you for having me.
AA: Shawn Shieh leads a consultancy called Social Innovations Advisory, and we’ll post a link to his report on our podcast page, at strengthandsolidarity.org.
Part three: The Coda
AA: And now for the Coda, our concluding segment, where someone working in human rights shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. Every episode, we’ll be asking someone to tell us about a poem or a proverb or a quotation, or perhaps a piece of music that relates to their passion for rights and justice.
In our first episode, Afghanistan Human Rights Commission Chair Shaharzad Akbar said of daily life in her country, under a constant barrage of terrorist attacks, that, “when you leave in the morning, you don’t know if you’ll come back in the evening, every single day.” She wanted to be able to offer her commissioners and staff hope, yet she herself could not be confident of a better future ahead. Shaharzad reads a lot of poetry; so I wanted to know what gives her the inspiration to carry on in such tough circumstances. Her answer? Emily Dickinson’s, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
SA: I started reading Emily Dickinson when I was in Smith college, in the US, as a student. I knew about Sylvia Plath, and several other, you know, English language poets and writers, before going to the US, but Emily Dickinson I learned about there in Smith. So I think that’s the first time that I came across this poem.
Poetry is extremely important to me. It’s, it’s a thread that has run throughout my life. When I was very little, I think even before I could read, my father would read poetry to me. He loved Sufi poetry, he loved Persian poetry, and actually I really didn’t learn properly to read in school. The first time I learned to read was through a poetry book for children. And, so I was struggling with learning to read, and my father got me this poetry book for children, it was by an Iranian female poet, I don’t remember her name, unfortunately. But reading those poems, I learned how to read. And I got really into books and reading books. And now I, I continuously read poetry, I seek shelter in poetry really.
I also love Persian poetry. I feel blessed to be able to read Persian poetry and understand it, honestly, I think it’s one of the blessings of my life. There’s a female Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson as well, but she, she very rebellious, and some of her poetry was erotic which was very controversial at the time. In that sense she’s not like Emily Dickinson but I feel like their souls had something in common. So I also read her poetry when I need, you know, when I need a little support. Yes.
I really like Emily Dickinson and her poetry because it’s just a world of its own. Sometimes I read it as an escape from everything that’s going on around me, but this particular piece, I read it to remind me about the fact that there’s this deep source of hope inside all of us all the time.
AA: Shaharzad Akbar’s chosen poem was Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers.” And if you have a favorite item that relates to your own passion for rights and justice, and would like to share it with us, drop us a line at email@example.com and tell us what’s inspiring you.
AA: Okay, that’s all from this fourth episode of Strength and Solidarity. A quick heads up that our new website is up, and with it, our podcast page, where you can find transcripts and suggestions for further reading on the topics we’re covering. And we’d love your feedback. Wherever you access to us, you’ll find a link to tell us how we’re doing or make a suggestion, and please add us to your podcast library, give us a rating and join us again. Big thanks to our producer, Peter Coccoma, I’m Akwe Amosu – see you next time.