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Promoting “Social and Behavior Change” in the Philippine Human Rights Sector

July 26, 2023

By Katherine Gutlay

Andrei Venal is a human rights worker, but he has been called many other things: “We are called terrorists. Dissenters without cause. Rabble-rousers. When we are tagged like that, it actually destroys our strategies to make people care, because people don’t like us anymore.”

Andrei Venal scrolls through their organization’s online platforms.

Andrei is the strategic communications director of the artist-activist organization DAKILA–Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism. During his 15 years in the human rights sector, he has found it increasingly difficult to engage Filipinos in the democratic processes that affect their lives—from simple things like signing up for a newsletter to joining a protest to being part of an advocacy campaign. “Ten years ago, human rights communications [needed] to be ‘attractive’ enough to gather people, because at that time, apathy was your first enemy.” Now, he says, the problem is no longer apathy, but fear.

Striving to Survive

This fear is not unfounded.

Despite robust laws and institutions for protecting human rights, and a vibrant and active civil society, the past few years have witnessed an erosion of public support for human rights in the Philippines. In a commissioned study, Campaigns, Conspiracies, Capacities in the Philippines Human Rights Sector: Toward Digital Resilience and Worker Wellness, human rights workers shared what they’re up against: massive disinformation and fake news, rampant conspiracy theories, targeted harassment, and misogynistic attacks against women activists.

New technology paved the way for these attacks. Targeted campaigns, both offline and online, amplify narratives that portray human rights as an obstacle to peace, order, and the swift delivery of justice. Defenders must continually fend off intimidation tactics that have made their work challenging, if not outright dangerous.

Already on their back foot, defenders must work doubly hard to offer counternarratives and mount campaigns to convince Filipinos to support human rights. Behind the scenes, human rights defenders like Andrei who are focused on communications feel the mental, emotional, and financial toll of a job that requires them to be “always on,” but often receive little support from organizations, donors, and allies.

For some, these challenging times are an opportunity to try new approaches.

Changing Ways

“Awareness is not enough,” says Louie Crismo, cochair and secretary general of Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND). “The younger generation has to do something.”

Crismo himself will be the first to admit that engaging the younger generations is difficult. He heads an organization that was established 38 years ago. Their arsenal of tactics and tools may have been effective in the 80s and 90s, but they are no longer viable in the online spaces where younger Filipinos now get their information. It doesn’t help that FIND has no dedicated communications team.

This predicament is not unique to FIND. Many grassroots organizations do not have the resources to hire full-time communications staff, hampering their public messaging. Communications workers are commonly hired on limited contracts. Populist leaders have been quick to take advantage to distort stories and rewrite human rights narratives, pushing the voices of defenders to the sidelines.

In the report Human Rights in Survival Mode: Rebuilding Trust and Supporting Digital Workers in the Philippines, authors Jonathan Corpus Ong, Jeremy Tintiangko, and Rossine Fallorina highlight a lack of investment in communications infrastructure and professional communications personnel in the human rights sector. Organizations have mostly confined their work to providing services to victims and lobbying for policy change, missing opportunities to use strategic communications to promote new ideas and influence behavior more broadly.

FIND’s campaign and lobby officer, Cecille Baello, has been with the organization for just eight months. She’s aware of the limitations facing FIND when it comes to advocacy. “In our organization, we always talk about initiating actions among our membership and even among the general public,” she says. “But really pointing out what kind of behavior we want to get out of a certain demographic? We haven’t tried that yet.”

Transforming Behaviors

FIND is a grassroots partner in The Asia Foundation’s Initiative for Advancing Community Transformation—I-ACT for short—a project that helps Philippine civil society organizations (CSOs) apply the principles of Social and Behavior Change (SBC) to human rights advocacy. SBC focuses on how organizations like FIND can persuade their target audiences to take concrete actions like donating, volunteering, joining protests, and signing petitions. SBC encourages organizations to understand the environment and the audience so that campaigns and messaging can be designed to lower barriers to positive behaviors.

SBC has been used for many years in public health to encourage concrete behaviors like washing hands, being tested for HIV, or getting vaccinated. Public health programs have used tailored messaging to make it as easy as possible for specific groups or individuals to adopt the desired behaviors. Will the same tactics work in promoting human rights?

Launched in 2019 with funding from USAID, I-ACT is the first program of its scale to apply SBC techniques in the Philippine human rights sector. I-ACT researches and identifies the social factors that discourage or encourage support for human rights, rigorously tests and experiments with messaging to inspire the desired actions, then builds a campaign based on these insights. Succinctly put, this is I-ACT’s SBC approach: diagnosis, prototyping, and scale-up, three phases that provide enough leeway to catch problems and spot opportunities early on. I-ACT works with civil society organizations and human rights defenders, many of them already strategically positioned in their communities, to improve their advocacy using SBC.

“This kind of concept is very new,” says FIND’s Cecille Baello, “but it’s something that we saw as very necessary in human rights organizations, civil society organizations, [and] cause-oriented organizations.”

Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) joins other I-ACT partners for an SBC workshop identifying their project’s target behaviors.

In June 2023, FIND and I-ACT began their SBC journey to recruit a younger, Gen-Z audience to help put an end to forced disappearances. Utilizing tailored content, FIND plans to spread the stories of the disappeared online. But, as Louie Crismo points out, awareness-raising is not enough. Eventually, FIND must integrate clear calls to action into their campaigns, actions like sharing information, attending events, and signing pledges of support for a national law protecting human rights defenders.

As FIND builds its methodology, it will involve target audiences at every step. What do young people know about forced disappearances and human rights issues? What types of social media content are they drawn to? What messages are effective in getting them to volunteer or sign petitions? The key lies in specificity.

“If you really recognize what kind of behavior you want the participants to [perform], that’s it. Everything will follow,” says Baello.

SBC Now in Action

Like FIND, the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), the Philippine branch of Friends of the Earth, is experimenting with something new.

“The brave plan is to dive into TikTok to identify influencers, young people [who] may be receptive to the cause,” LRC executive director Mai Taqueban says. “We thought of really trying out unfamiliar waters.”

As part of I-ACT’s first batch of CSO partners, who started their SBC projects in October 2022 and have completed their diagnosis and prototyping phases, LRC is preparing to scale-up what they’ve found to be the most effective types of TikTok videos from influencers promoting indigenous rights. Lessons from LRC’s campaign will become part of I-ACT’s growing library of knowledge resources, so that other civil society and human rights organizations interested in expanding their community of volunteer content creators can follow LRC’s steps and adapt as needed.

Now in the fourth of a planned five years, I-ACT and its many partners—academics, activists, and experts in communications and behavior—have produced a trove of research findings on Filipinos’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding human rights, as well as program prototypes that show how SBC can help civil society organizations achieve their campaign plans and advocacy objectives—resources it is now sharing with the broader development community.

I-ACT’s Micheline Rama discusses SBC approaches with human rights communications workers in June 2023. FIND’s Louie Crismo sits in front (in white).

In addition to sharing SBC resources, I-ACT helps partner organizations like FIND and LRC to obtain seed funding, build dedicated communications teams, and make the most of their limited resources by choosing the most effective tools.

I-ACT plans to offer this multilevel support to more than 100 collaborating CSOs. Both FIND and LRC are among the 33 partner organizations designing and testing campaigns to crowdsource content, recruit volunteers, and increase the effectiveness of calls to action such as signature-gathering campaigns. By starting with these small but specific initiatives, civil society organizations can begin to focus on behaviors that will ripple into the public sphere and create more positive attitudes towards human rights.

While human rights defenders must still confront a daunting social landscape, the fear factor is yielding to a new spirit of courage. I-ACT continues to support partners to try untested waters. “We want to debunk the adage that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks,” says LRC’s Mai Taqueban, “so this is an opportunity for us to learn new tricks.”

Read I-ACT’s quick-start guide, Eight Factors to Consider in Mobilizing Support for Human Rights.

I-ACT is made possible by the generous support of USAID.

Katherine Gutlay is the communications officer for The Asia Foundation’s Initiative for Advancing Community Transformation. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Philippines

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