Human rights actors find themselves in uncertain times. Some analysts posit skeptical claims about the “endtimes” of human rights and others note a sense of “crisis” in the field. Illiberal democracies and populist governments are on the rise in an increasingly multipolar world and are contributing to the closing of civil society spaces. Furthermore, longer-term shifts in geopolitics, technology and ecology are creating both new challenges and opportunities for human rights.
Given the rapid pace of these concurrent changes, it has become increasingly difficult for practitioners to orient themselves in the field and anticipate future trajectories. Those who have not embraced the “endtimes” perspective oftentimes find themselves on the defensive.
We at JustLabs believe that rather than confronting a crisis, human rights practice is undergoing a moment of transition. Transitions represent moments of creativity, innovation and opportunities.
However, the movement has not been fast or effective enough in seizing these opportunities. Despite the urgent need to expand the movement’s toolbox and constituencies in order to address the aforementioned existential challenges, many human rights organizations have chosen to double down on traditional strategies.
Five Systemic Challenges of the human rights field
JustLabs develops and disseminates solutions to five pervasive problems in the field:
Fragmentation and lack of collaboration and learning across the field
While collaboration has become a pervasive mode of operation in other circles (from journalism to scientific research), in the human rights field conventional funding and institutional models continue to encourage competition instead of collaboration. The result is sub-optimal use of scarce resources, duplication of efforts and waste of precious opportunities for greater collective impact.
Strategic stagnation and limited innovation
As in any well-established professional field, human rights actors have become attached to the traditional strategies that have allowed them to win key victories over the last five decades. They have thus been slow in responding to new challenges, and oftentimes lack the tools and incentives to profoundly innovate in order to remain impactful and relevant.
Slowness and focus on the short term
Over the last few decades, prominent human rights organizations have focused on space (as in the effort to decentralize their operations across the globe). However, they and other actors in the field have yet to adjust their vision and use of time in responding to the above-mentioned challenges and societal change in general, all of which now occur with exponentially higher velocity and thus demand urgency. Moreover, while some of the existential threats to human rights stem from long-term, structural transformations (e.g., the erosion of democracy, decline in institutional trust, the trend towards rising inequality, and the warming of the planet), our vision continues to focus on short term, two- to five-year funding and operational cycles. Given that the targets of human rights campaigns (from authoritarian governments to fossil fuel and social media corporations) tend to have much well-studied, longer-term horizons, this is a strategic disadvantage that keeps human rights actors constantly on the defensive.
Narrow membership and audiences
The success of anti-rights, populist authoritarian movements and governments in gaining the support of large sectors of the population has made visible some of the limitations of the human rights field. Conventional human rights organizations and narratives—with their reliance on specialized language and their larger membership in the global North—have failed to engage with and appeal to large sectors of the population, including the young and the “persuadable middle” sectors in increasingly polarized societies.
As the number and interdependence of human rights issues and actors have increased, the field and the problems it tackles have become highly complex. Addressing complex problems in general, and wicked problems in particular, requires a systems view of the field, willingness to streamline them and openness to creating simple solutions to them. Given that these predispositions are not common in the human rights community, unmanaged complexity stands in the way of greater collective impact.
Our response to
Studies on successful systemic change in other fields suggest that a systems view of complex problems and interventions require a new type of actor, that is, field catalysts that provide common goods to the whole field, such as freely available knowledge, collaboration platforms, and the prototyping and dissemination of innovations. While catalyst organizations are well-established in other fields (from public health to education), they are rare in the human rights arena.
JustLabs was established to serve as a catalyst for accelerating change and deepening collective impact in human rights and other social justice fields.
JustLabs’ systems view of the field translates into five core characteristics of our work, which are meant to be mirror images of the limitations of today’s human rights work:
JustLabs is radically collaborative in three ways. First, instead of competing with or replicating the efforts of existing human rights actors (advocacy NGOs, funders, academic research centers, and so on), we operate as an intermediate organization that catalyzes collaborations across the field. Second, all our work is carried out in collaboration with other human rights actors. Third, the outcomes of our projects are public goods for the field, meant to be widely disseminated and freely available.
2. Experimentation and learning
To counter fragmentation and strategic stagnation, our projects incubate innovative solutions to human rights challenges and share them with the field at large.
3. Thinking long-term; galvanizing movements into action in the short term
We encourage a long-term view of the challenge at hand, while accelerating solutions in the short term. Thus, we combine methods such as foresight/futures thinking (which encourages a long-term vision), on the one hand, and design thinking (which encourages rapid design, testing and improvement of solutions). We thus help the movement anticipate trends and move early and decisively to shape the contours of those trends.
4. Bridging gaps and expanding the field
By design, JustLabs’ structure and composition seeks to bridge several gaps. Our staff and associates come from a wide range of disciplines and professions. A majority of our staff and associates are from the global South. We work not only with human rights organizations and issues, but also with other organizations and movements, so as to help bridge the gap with other social justice fields. And we prioritize projects that seek to expand human rights membership and audiences.
5. Simple responses to complex challenges
Complex problems are best tackled through simple solutions, as other catalyst organizations have demonstrated. This is also why JustLabs’ icon is a paperclip: it symbolizes a simple, inexpensive solution to a daily practical difficulty (how to bind papers together). Simple solutions are also more likely to be successfully disseminated across the field and be accessible to broader constituencies and audiences.