Breaking Down Silos and Forming Partnerships:
A Model for NGOs to Work Together to Further Human Rights and Social Justice
By Sandra Timmermann, Ed.D., Global NGO Executive Committee and
UN Representative, International Federation on Ageing
“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” It might be said that this quotation, attributed to Helen Keller, author, disability rights advocate and political activist, is a good motto for NGOs that wish to further the cause of social justice and human rights. Working by themselves, they often struggle to get their issues in the forefront. But if they can find common ground with other NGOs, form partnerships and support each other, much more can be accomplished.
Because NGOs are so busy advocating for their own issues, they don’t always take the time to meet with other NGOs, explain what they are doing and explore the areas where they share common values and goals. To get the attention of the Member States at the United Nations and the global community at large, there is strength in numbers. One way to begin the work of forming partnerships is to convene meetings of a few NGOs that have overlapping and synergistic issues and begin the exploration together to find common ground and support each other.
Coming Together to Form Partnerships: A Model
The NGO Committee on Ageing/NY (CoA) did just that. It convened a meeting of ten NGO Committees in New York representing different areas—migration, women, indigenous peoples, education, human rights, social development and others. The Conference of NGOs (CoNGO) was represented as well. Knowing that working in silos can be difficult and isn’t always the most effective, the goal of the meeting was to discuss how collaboration can enable NGOs to support each other’s goals in an effort to influence policy. The anticipated long-term outcome was to demonstrate to Member States that their deliberations and decisions would have broad impact across many sectors, and not just limited to one specific group of rights-holders.
The organizers of the meeting outlined the meeting’s purpose:
- To better understand goals and specific key issues of concern for each NGO Committee
- To share strategy and tactics that can be used to ensure that the views from different segments of civil society are included
- To decide how best to support each other, on the premise that backing from different groups would lend extra weight to concerns of NGO Committees
- To decide on specific actions that can be immediately taken by NGO Committees, particularly in supporting proposed changes in legislation/policies/ programs.
Frances Zainoeddin, United Nations Representative, International Federation on Ageing, and Vice-Chair of the NGO Committee on Ageing, pointed out that with increasing attacks on human rights defenders at the national levels, “it is our responsibility to find ways to ensure that the voices of civil society are heard, especially at a time when civic space at the United Nations is not as readily available as in the past.” “The ultimate goal”, she added, “is to demonstrate to UN Member States that their deliberations and decisions would have broad impact on the lives of everyone, and not just limited to one or two specific group of rights holders.”
Finding Common Ground
As it turns out, it is not that difficult to find common ground. As an example, those advocating for the rights of women will find allies with those advocating for the rights of older women, since older women like women in younger age groups are victims of abuse and neglect. And those advocating for rights for migrants can join together with the NGOs representing groups such as indigenous peoples who are forced to migrate due to climate change, human rights violations and other reasons. As another example, broad access to literacy education is critical so that people of all genders, ages, ethnicities and geographic locations can engage in their communities as full participants.
Convening a group of NGOs enables them to converse about the policies they are advocating for, what they are doing to affect change and in the process, find out where there might be synergies. The agenda for this particular meeting offered opportunities for each NGO Committee to provide an overview of its work, which intergovernmental bodies it monitors, the relationships it has with different UN entities and their concerns about adequate participation in intergovernmental deliberations. The representatives present were also asked to share their most important goal. For example, the NGO Committee on Education, Learning and Literacy is focused on inclusion of education on global citizenship, bearing in mind Article 26 on the right to education of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The NGO Committee on Ageing’s major goal is securing a decision by UN Member States to start drafting an international convention to protect the rights of older persons and increased participation by NGOs at the next meeting of the Open-ended Working on Group on Ageing, which takes place 29 March-1 April 2021.
Working Toward a Collaborative Future
The exciting part of a convening like this is the generation of ideas for potential collaboration, the opportunities for actions that can be taken, and thoughts about the best way to engage with UN Member States. Many suggestions came out of this meeting. They included breakfast meetings prior to intergovernmental deliberations, organizing joint events and partnering with other NGO Committees on specific issues, for example, incorporating language that is inclusive and respectful when referring to specific communities and age groups (such as “older persons” instead of “elderly”, or “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people”). Of particular importance was having other NGO Committees, or their member organizations, sign on to letters identifying specific areas of concern (e.g, ratification of ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work) and to written statements that they submit to intergovernmental bodies. Many other ideas were generated, from sharing information about the positions of the Member States they interact with to keeping each other informed about national and regional activities.
A Partnership Model for NGOs Around the World
NGOs have their own advocacy initiatives, of course, and the need to continue on that path is clear. Partnering with other NGOs is also a strategy that should be added to the arsenal. There are so many NGOs fighting for human rights and social justice for their particular sectors of society. There is power in numbers if we join together. Sometimes many voices are better than one voice to call attention to a need, to show broad support across sectors and to get results. The model is simple. Identify a few like-minded NGOs in your country and call them together to share information, find common ground and identify ways to support each other in our quest to make a better world. In doing this, we will have greater impact on our communities, our nations and our global society.