The Together Project: Lessons for collective action in the face of chilling effects on civil society

This blog post was written by Vicky Tongue, Programme Manager, International Civil Society Centre

This week Scanning the Horizon futures community, a platform for civil society organizations (CSOs), heard from InterAction‘s Together Project, an inspiring example of collaboration by U.S.-based CSOs to counter the ‘chilling’ effects of restrictive government regulations limiting their ability to operate. They achieved this through a combination of solidarity on principle with other NGOs, diverse but targeted and resilient advocacy in different policy and legislative spaces, engaging with ‘champions who can’, and not using simplistic messaging. Five key lessons emerged for our work in 2019 to further explore how CSOs can best work together to respond to current social divides and political agendas linked to nationalist self-interest.

The Together Project started in 2017 out of the need to address issues of discrimination from the financial sector, such as frozen bank accounts and transfers to local partners, and support members vulnerable to direct attacks in the media or public sphere, or indirect impacts of U.S. anti-terrorism/money laundering laws, regulations, or policies restricting their ability to function. This was largely due to their religious faith and/or countries in which they support partners or programmes.

Princess Bazley-Bethea, manager of Together Project, took us through some key activities and advocacy carried out to date. The key emerging lessons are:

  1. ‘Find friends who can speak on your behalf, vocalise your good work and elevate your story’

A large and diverse coalition of support has mobilised through solidarity with the potential exponential effect and implications of/for tomorrow, beyond the specific organisations affected. Behind the formal coalition of five organisations directly experiencing banking access challenges, there is a large informal support network of more than 75 organisations, of other faiths and none, and with leverage and ‘voice’ with different audiences. Many flooded congressional offices with messages in support of one charity against which a disapproving think tank was trying to ‘evidence’ links to supposed terrorist activity.

  1. ‘Say who you are, don’t spend time and waste energy saying who you’re not’

There is still a role for strong empirical data even in these ‘post-truth’ times of poor evidential standards. If you focus too much on challenging allegations, you are just elevating the arguments of those who are trying to discredit you. Line up your audits and your allies! Use mechanisms and associations to show you are transparent and holding yourself to account, through public records and associations with a recognised CSO platform like InterAction. Be stoic in the face of information requests, even when ridiculous – due diligence requests for the shoe sizes of your Board members, we kid you not!

  1. Convince others to recognise their roles and responsibilities and share risk

Take advantage of relationships with unlikely allies and unfamiliar champions. Despite the risks and small NGO clientele, the banks were compelled by the reputational benefits (‘the bank saving lives’ in emergencies), and with the many Americans who donate to philanthropy. Standard Chartered Bank even attended en masse a day-long Academy to be educated on the issues. Pro bono legal sector collaboration also helped with education, connections, research and briefings.

  1. Counter disinformation with strong human stories

Prepare to defend yourself against spurious evidence and ‘experts’ mobilised against you. One mainstream media publication alleged links between a U.S. NGO operating in Palestine and terrorism – based on common names and information from social media profiles – to argue for tighter government control of their funding. Debunk such inaccuracies – InterAction’s disinformation toolkit is a great resource– and go directly to the source and insist on both removal and retraction. Counteract on social media and connect it to the bigger picture. Tell powerful stories about the negative impacts of the restrictions, such as the lives lost over the winter in Afghanistan because of delays in the transfer of funds for fuel and other vital supplies. Ensure all staff reinforce aligned, affirming, and objective messaging in all their communications, including personal tweets.

  1. Stress interconnectedness

Encourage your allies to promote your true story, use smart collaboration with media outlets who can communicate the issues to the public in a balanced and accessible way, especially if you don’t have the capacity for mass public engagement yourself. Invest significant time on outreach and education with political representatives, and elevate the conversation internationally, highlighting the interconnectedness of the issues and the broader ramifications of how they play out in different parts of the world. InterAction made the wider links to constraints on civic space at multi-stakeholder dialogues within the UN and World Bank.

In summary, it’s clear that working Together today is more necessary than ever in the current political climate, because we never know how things will develop tomorrow.

Listen to the full webinar 


This blog was originally published at icscentre.org