May Miller-Dawkins
Publication Date
July 1, 2017

"The most significant and consistent theme of this research is that trust, respect, and collaboration make the most difference in terms of what activists and outside actors can achieve together."

This report was initiated by Rhize, with support from the Atlantic Council and the Open Society Foundations, to better understand the role actors - non-governmental organisations (NGOs), networks, governments, and institutions from outside of the country where a social movement is taking place - can play in supporting local activism around the world. Through an exploration of the experiences of activists in 10 countries, it examines the impact of past support as well as what activists want from their international supporters and collaborators. In particular, the partners sought to understand how activists experienced support from outsiders in countries where civic rights - to speak, assemble, organise, and receive financial and other support from overseas - are restricted. The ultimate aim is to provide insight into practices that can be adopted across civil society to ensure more effective support to nonviolent movements at the forefront of securing inclusive, participatory democracies.

For the sake of the study, activists were defined as those active in social movements, community organising, blogging, legal activism, investigative journalism, and forms of civil resistance that are nonviolent. In total, 1,107 activists from 10 countries - Colombia, Egypt, India, Kenya, Russia, Sudan, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, and Venezuela - participated in a survey, with quantitative and qualitative questions. The countries were selected with reference to Freedom House rankings on civil and political rights, press freedom, and internet freedom to provide a balance of countries on a spectrum of closed, semi-closed, and transitioning civil society space. The participating activists work on a breadth of issues and experience a diversity of constraints, but they all share a deep commitment to organising their community and advocating for justice and democracy. The research centred on three key questions: What type of support do activists receive? Which types of support are helpful or harmful? What types of support do activists really want?

The findings in this report highlight some consistent themes around how philanthropists, foundations, foreign governments, and other donors should think about supporting and enabling grassroots activists, organisations, networks, and social movements - namely:

  • Activists face increased repression, though the specific realities of repression differ country by country. The biggest crackdowns activists cited were around safety, free speech, and access to information.
  • Organisations and individuals receive different types of support, with external actors favouring short-term projects and more experienced individuals.
  • Among activists, experiences of support vary. The key differentiating factors that impacted experiences of support centred around whether activists felt that their power and autonomy was respected by outside actors. Meanwhile, the factors that most negatively impacted experiences of support were when external organisations "did not know enough about our context", "imposed their own agenda", and/or only provided short-term support.
  • External actors has clear strengths, and weaknesses, when it comes to supporting activists. Activists often cited that external organisations overemphasised digital security as opposed to their physical security, thereby overlooking the ways in which activists are vulnerable.
  • Activists want closer collaboration, security support, amnesty or safe passage, and media coverage. For example, a key positive contribution by outside actors highlighted by respondents was their ability to provide access to decision-makers and greater visibility to their causes. Media coverage was seen as enabling stronger influence and drawing more allies or supporters to the cause. The flip side of this type of support appeared in negative stories in which work by local actors was appropriated by outsiders or stories in which outsiders prioritised their own reputations over the needs of the movement. Overall, activists emphasised that they most wanted to gain the skills and resources necessary to sustain their work long term; trainings in community organising and nonviolence were consistently mentioned positively in stories of respondents' most significant positive experience of individual support.

Based on the data and analysis shared in the report, Rhize developed recommendations for how external actors can collaborate with local activists and organisations to develop effective strategies for movements that may have a deep and sustained impact:

  1. Redefine relationships between outside actors and activists in order to create relationships where the knowledge and agency of activists is respected.
  2. Improve approaches to safety and security.
  3. Prioritise training, collaboration, and connection among and between activist networks so as to create space for activists to learn and grow with others. Activists expressed a desire for accompaniment and mentoring over formalised leadership and fellowship programmes, for instance. In other words, the manner and form of learning matters: Activists don't want an agenda or content imposed on them from the outside.
  4. Tailor collaboration and support with activists' needs at the centre; build customisable and flexible support based on open and honest conversations with activists.

To help ensure that these recommendations are put into practice, Rhize developed Adopting a Movement Mindset, a virtual course designed to help civil society better support grassroots movements to sustain action and momentum.


Rhize website, February 12 2018.