This interview was initially published on CIVICUS website on 15 September 2021.
CIVICUS speaks with Edwin Rekosh, co-founder and managing partner of Rights CoLab, about the effects on civil society of the emergence of digital infrastructures and the importance of innovation and digital rights. Rights CoLab is a multinational collaborative organization that seeks to develop bold strategies to advance human rights across the fields of civil society, technology, business and finance.
What does Rights CoLab do?
Rights CoLab generates experimental and collaborative strategies to address current challenges to human rights from a systemic perspective. In particular, we investigate and facilitate new ways of organizing civic engagement and leveraging markets to bring about transformational change.
We see opportunity to support civic engagement by building on trends outside the traditional philanthropic space. For example, we are interested in organizational models coming out of social enterprise, where there may be commercial revenue to sustain operations. We are also interested in the use of technology to reduce costs and achieve civil society goals without a formal organizational structure, through running a website or an app for instance. In addition, we are exploring generational change in the way younger people view their careers, with increasing numbers of young people seeking a work life that blends non-profit and for-profit career goals. We believe it’s imperative to develop more effective ways to collaborate, especially across borders, professional perspectives and fields of expertise.
Among the challenges we seek to address is a resurgence of authoritarianism and populist politics, which has reinforced an emphasis on national sovereignty and the demonization of local civil society organizations (CSOs) as perceived agents of antagonistic foreign values and interests. We also seek to address shifting geopolitical realities that are undermining the human rights infrastructure built in the last half century as well as the long-term legacies of colonial power dynamics. And we aim to develop new approaches to reining in the negative human rights impact of increasing corporate power, particularly in ways that have been aggravated by the pandemic.
What was the inspiration behind the foundation of Rights CoLab?
The decision to establish Rights CoLab was premised on the understanding that the human rights field has reached a mature stage, filled with challenges that raise questions about structures and practices that have become conventional, but may no longer be optimal or sufficient.
I was a human rights lawyer who had transitioned from legal practice in a large law firm to working for a human rights organization in Washington, DC. The experience I had managing a project in Romania in the early 1990s completely transformed how I viewed human rights and my role as an American lawyer. I started working hand in hand with locally based CSOs, playing a key role as a behind-the-scenes supporter and connector of civil society, linking CSOs to each other and to resources, and supporting the implementation of other solidarity-based strategies.
Soon after, I founded and then served as president of PILnet, a global network for public interest and private sector lawyers within the civil society space. Around the time I decided to leave that role, I was becoming focused on the closing space for civil society that I saw happening around me, particularly affecting work we were doing in Russia and China. I wound up reconnecting with Paul Rissman and Joanne Bauer, the two other co-founders of Rights CoLab, and we began comparing notes about our respective concerns and ideas about the future of human rights. The three of us set up Rights CoLab as a way to continue the conversation, looking at current challenges in human rights from three very different perspectives. We wanted to create a space where we could continue that dialogue and bring in others to foster experimentation with new approaches.
How much has the civil society arena changed in recent years due to the emergence of digital infrastructures?
It has changed dramatically. One key consequence of the emergent digital infrastructure is that the public sphere has expanded in myriad ways. The role of the media is less constrained by borders and there is much less intermediation through editorial control. That represents both opportunity and threat for human rights. Individuals and groups can influence public discourse with fewer barriers to entry, but on the other hand, the public sphere is no longer regulated by governments in predictable ways, which erodes traditional means of accountability and makes it difficult to ensure a fair playing field for the marketplace of ideas. Digital technology also allows for solidarity across borders in ways that are much less constrained by some of the practical limitations of the past. In short, although new threats to human rights stem from the emergence of digital infrastructures, digital tools also offer opportunity.
How crucial are digital rights and infrastructures to the work of civil society?
In a lot of ways, digital rights are secondary to the structures, practices and values of civil society. Civil society is inherently derived from respect for human dignity, the creative spirit of human endeavor and the politics of solidarity. The modes in which people organize with each other in order to engage with the world around them depends primarily on socially oriented values, skills and practices. Digital technology can only provide tools, which do not inherently possess any of those characteristics. In that sense, digital technology is neither necessary to civil society organizing, nor is it sufficient. Nevertheless, digital technologies can enhance civil society organizing, both by exploiting some of the new opportunities inherent in the emerging digital infrastructure as well as by assuring the digital rights we need in order to avoid negative human rights consequences from the emergent digital infrastructure.
We are making efforts to identify civil society approaches that can help address these issues. One example is Chequeado, an Argentine non-profit media outlet that is dedicated to verification of public discourse, countering disinformation and promoting access to information in Latin American societies. Chequeado, which exists as a tech platform and app, was able to adapt rapidly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing a fact-checker dashboard to dispel misinformation on the origins, transmission and treatment of COVID-19 and combat misinformation that leads to ethnic discrimination and growing mistrust in science. Therefore, while understanding the potential uses of digital technology is essential, so is keeping the focus on elements that have little to do with technology per se, such as values, solidarity and principle-based norms and institutions.
How does Rights CoLab promote innovation in civil society?
We pursue civil society innovation in several dimensions: how civil society groups organize themselves, including their basic structures and revenue models; how they use technology; and changes needed by the international civil society ecosystem to mitigate the negative effects of counter-productive power dynamics that stem from colonialism.
For the first two dimensions, we have partnered with other resource hubs to co-create a geo-located map of case studies illustrating innovation in organizational forms and revenue models. We have developed a typology for this growing database of examples that emphasizes alternatives to the traditional model for locally based civil society groups – in other words, alternatives to cross-border charitable funding. With our partners, we are also developing training methodologies and communication strategies that aim to facilitate further experimentation and wider adoption of alternative models for structuring and financing civil society activities.
Our effort to improve the international civil society ecosystem relies on a systems-change project that we have launched under the name RINGO (Reimagining the International NGO). A key focus of the RINGO project is the intermediation between the large international CSOs and more local civic spaces. The hypothesis is that international CSOs can be a barrier or an enabler to a stronger local civil society, and the way it’s organized now – with dominant roles concentrated in the global north and west – needs a rethink.
RINGO involves a Social Lab with 50 participants representing a wide range of sizes and types of CSOs, coming from a diversity of geographies. Over the course of a two-year process, the Social Lab will generate prototypes that can be tried out with the intention of radically transforming the sector and how we organize civil society at the global level. We hope to extract valuable lessons from the prototypes that can be replicated or reformulated and scaled. There are already many good practices, but there are also systemic dysfunctionalities that remain unaddressed. So we are looking for new, more transformational practices, processes and structures. While we don’t seek utopia, we do seek systemic change. Hence the inquiry process with the Social Lab is vital as we dig deep into the root issues that paralyze the system, moving beyond palliative, superficially appealing practices.