University of Denver

Struggles from Below:

Literature Review on Human Rights Struggles by Domestic Actors

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Principal Investigators:

In 2016, USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance launched its Learning Agenda—a set of research questions designed to address the issues that confront staff in USAID field offices working on the intersection of development and democracy, human rights, and governance. This literature review—produced by a multidisciplinary team of graduate students and professors—synthesizes scholarship from diverse research traditions on the following Learning Agenda question:

  • What do we know about the role of citizens, social movements, and other domestic civic actors (as opposed to transnational actors or government officials) in advocating for particular human rights outcomes in their country? And what can we learn from the successes and failures of their activities?
  • Much of the research on this topic has focused on North America and Europe, but do any of these findings have the potential to translate to other country contexts? Are there particular contextual or tactical variables in these country contexts that make it less likely that domestic civic actors can have an impact?
  • Are there some kinds of rights that are easier to fight for than others?

Key findings include:

  • Context matters: democratic political systems allow grassroots human rights activists more opportunities and greater likelihood of success; extreme poverty makes grassroots mobilization harder.
  • Rhetorical framing matters a lot, and is tricky: local activists can be more successful by framing their work as a human rights struggle and by positioning that struggle within broader international conceptualizations of human rights, as captured in founding international human rights documents. However, activists must take equal care to translate these concepts into frames that resonate locally and are culturally appropriate.
  • Connections matter: activists are more successful if they build connections with each other—within a particular rights movement and across rights movements, within a country and across countries—and if they build connections to political and economic elites and to a broad constituency base. These vertical, horizontal, and transnational ties can be supported simply by bringing activists together, but also depend on framing, since framing is crucial to how activists see themselves and their peers, how they engage their base, and how they target elites.
  • Organizational structure matters, but there is not an ideal type of organization that consistently is more successful in advocating for improved human rights; rather, organizational type, formality, and complexity depends on the right being fought for, the goals of the rights movement, and contextual factors such as regime type or level of repression.
  • Tactics matter: activists must use tactics that are appropriate to their rights fight and to their context, and often use many different tactics at different times. However, confrontational and disruptive tactics—such as protests or boycotts—are often more effective.

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DFG Project Description

Through the USAID-funded Democracy Fellows and Grants (DFG) program, IIE brings research, innovation, and expertise to support USAID’s development work in the sector of democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG). Through the Democracy Fellows component, IIE manages experts in niche DRG disciplines who are embedded within USAID bureaus and offices to provide direct support to USAID’s work in their technical specialties. Through the Research and Innovation Grants component, IIE manages the production and publication of research—including the reports featured here as part of IIE’s democracy research series—that brings new learning, evidence, and knowledge to USAID to influence decisions about program design in the DRG sector.