by Hardy MerrimanSeptember 11, 2018
What makes civil resistance movements effective?
If funders and human rights organizations can identify key factors that answer this question, then their efforts can be oriented towards supporting the development and growth of those factors.
We can then evaluate movement success from two angles: by focusing on the role of conditions (i.e. a movement’s social/political/economic environment) and by focusing on the role of skills and choice (i.e. a movement’s strategy, tactics, level of organization and competence).
The conventional wisdom is that conditions are the primary reason why movements succeed or fail. Yet quantitative research supports the view that conditions are not the sole—or necessarily even the primary—determinants of movement outcomes, and qualitative studies and activist testimony lend credibility to the view that skills and strategic choice matter a great deal.1, 2 Consider this: In virtually every past case of successful civil resistance, skills and wise strategy helped to transform or overcome challenging conditions (including sometimes brutal opponents), which tells us something about the importance of a movement’s choices in influencing its outcome. At the outset, every movement attempting to overcome oppression appears to be up against tough odds, and while some fail in the face of adversity, others succeed in spite of it.
Accordingly, the premise of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) is that activists' and organizers' strategic and tactical choices have a major impact on movement outcomes. We develop educational infrastructure so that practitioners worldwide can improve their skills and decisionmaking. As a private operating foundation, we run our own programs and also provide grants, which allows us significant flexibility in how we work.
Before going into further specifics, I want to note that supporting educational infrastructure is just one category of external support to movements. Other funders and organizations offer a variety of forms of assistance, including legal support, material support for movement organizations, lobbying, gathering data and documenting human rights abuses, heightening exposure and media coverage of movements, organizing unarmed protective accompaniment, and building international solidarity networks. Each of these other forms of support has its own potential benefits, pitfalls, risks, and best practices, and I encourage others to share their experiences and reflections about them.3
But returning to support for educational infrastructure, there is a great deal that can be written about this topic, and it’s an area in which I think more funders and organizations should become involved. In short, this category of support responds to a significant need, is versatile and widely applicable to different contexts, can be carried out in low-risk ways (which makes it a good entry point for other funders who are interested in movement support), and can be highly impactful.
There are many ways to support the development of educational infrastructure. Here are some examples of work that ICNC does either through our own programming, in conjunction with partners, or through grantmaking:
• Underwriting new research in order to build a body of practical, relevant knowledge that can be applied by activists and their allies
• Developing educational resources (i.e. films, books, articles, online)
• Translating research and educational resources into different languages
• Convening educational programs and workshops around the world
• Setting up and leading online courses on civil resistance
• Providing grants to activists and organizers to lead educational efforts (i.e. workshops, trainings, manuals, films) in their communities
• Connecting activists from different parts of the world so they can support each other and provide peer-to-peer learning and mentoring
How do we carry out these activities? Much depends on the particular program. Some initiatives, such as supporting new research, developing new educational resources, supporting translations, and creating online courses are not targeted to any one particular movement, and thus are a form of indirect support. The goal of these initiatives is to create opportunity and an enabling environment for activists and organizers to learn more deeply about civil resistance. When done conscientiously, such efforts often have relatively low risk, although the effort and know-how associated with doing them properly can be high.4
Other initiatives, such as in-person educational workshops and providing grants to activist-educators around the world, are more direct forms of support and often require more customization and careful consideration of possible risks.
Of course as any responsible funder or NGO staffperson knows, even seemingly innocuous initiatives can have the potential to distort or do harm. Thus, some may feel hesitant about the idea of supporting “educational” initiatives for movements. After all, organizers on the ground understand their situation far better than outsiders can. Furthermore, the concept of “education” as something coming from abroad has at times been used in the service of colonial control and exploitation. Lastly, what about the principle of “do no harm”—even if our intentions at educational support are benign, don’t we run the risk of offering information that is counterproductive or damaging?
To address these concerns, here is a model that guides ICNC's efforts. Our view is that in order to organize nonviolent civil resistance and achieve change, people benefit from two kinds of knowledge:
1. Deep knowledge of one’s particular context, including one's society, local issues, and social, political, and economic circumstances.
2. General knowledge of how to struggle, including best practices about how to organize movements, strategize and wage civil resistance, as well as access to relevant case studies and research findings.
Regarding the first kind of knowledge, we defer to local partners on these matters. They know their local context and particular issues better than we ever could.
Regarding the second kind of knowledge, we feel we have a lot to offer, so long as we do so within certain parameters. Three of our most important guidelines in this area are:
1. Responding to requests from activists and organizers.
We work with a number of different constituencies (i.e. scholars, activists and organizers, people in the policy community), but in our programs for activists and organizers, we engage only when we’re invited by people who we’re confident represent the grassroots. We invest in getting to know groups well before working with them and aim to be responsive to stated local needs.
2. Not giving advice or telling others what we think they should do.
We provide general knowledge, case studies, research findings, planning exercises, and educational programs but it’s for activists on the ground to decide if or how they want to apply this knowledge. We have a firm rule that we do not advise or advocate for particular courses of action.
3. Grounding the information we share in social science research or the insights and experiences of other activists around the world.
Whenever possible, we try to draw on empirical research and/or the reflections of practitioners. Sometimes we will also share untested hypotheses, but we attempt to label them as such so that activists understand the difference. The last thing we want to do is inspire people to take ill-considered risks, so we try hard to separate empirical findings from opinion.
We rely on testimonials, stories, and participant evaluations in educational convenings and workshops, and also look at demand for our programs year-over-year. We’ve found that in general qualitative evaluation of our work with practitioners is most helpful in discerning the success and impact of our programs. Some programs also lend themselves well to quantitative analysis and these numbers are very valuable in understanding whether we've met our goals. A learning edge for us is continuing to incorporate more quantitative measures into our work, especially to try to discern longer-term impacts. We would love to find ways to do this, and welcome thoughts and recommendations on doing so.
If your organization or foundation is interested in supporting the development of educational infrastructure for activists and organizers, we’d be happy to hear your thoughts and share more of our lessons learned and practices. For too long, activists have gone under-supported in this area. One-week workshops or single handbooks on changemaking are important and (when done skillfully) merit support, and at the same time they should be part of a much more broader investment in educational infrastructure. On the upside, this means there are many possible points of engagement—supporting research, developing educational resources, supporting convenings (or fully functioning movement schools) and other activities—depending on your organization’s strengths.
I hope this series has inspired readers to consider this issue in a new light. Starting the conversation is a first step. What would the impact be if activists had more systematic learning and skill-building opportunities? I firmly believe that more efforts in this direction would shift the playing field and advance human rights, freedom, and justice in countries around the world.
This post was updated on January 11, 2019.
 In their 2011 award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works [which is based on research supported by ICNC], scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan examined the impact of several different conditions (including regime type, regime power, and regime use of repression) in impacting the emergence and outcomes of nonviolent campaigns fighting for maximalist goals (i.e. change of government, self-determination, or expulsion of a foreign occupier). They found that regime type and regime power (a composite of several economic, demographic, and military factors) did not have a major impact on movement emergence and success. They further found that use of violent repression by a regime against a nonviolent movement reduced the movement's chance of success by 35 percent, which is significant, but far from being the sole determinant of movement success or failure. They conclude:
“The evidence suggests that civil resistance is often successful regardless of environmental conditions that many people associate with the failure of nonviolent campaigns.”
A 2008 study by Eleanor Marchant and Arch Puddington also examined the impact of regime type, regime concentration of power, level of economic development, and societal fractionalization on movement outcomes and also found that most of these factors were not significant in influencing movement outcomes (except for concentration of power, in which more concentrated regimes were more susceptible to popular nonviolent challenges, and vice-versa). Their overall conclusion is that:
“… neither the political nor environmental factors examined in the study had a statistically significant impact on the success or failures of civil resistance movements.”
 Numerous scholars and practitioners over decades have identified various choice- and skill-based factors that are significant to movements. For a list of six key factors that my colleague Peter Ackerman and I argue increase their probability of success, see "The Checklist to End Tyranny".
There are also many records of activist testimony about the importance of skills and strategy. For a single source that draws on activist testimony, case research, and personal experience to make the case for the importance of education and training in movements, see: "Education and Training in Nonviolent Resistance" by Nadine Bloch.
 To this end, ICNC is supporting the development of a new dataset as well as quantitative research on the role of various kinds of external support on civil resistance movements between 2000-2014. See more information here.
In addition, to see a synopsis of considerations for a variety for forms of foreign support to movements, see: "Aid to Civil Society: A Movement Mindset" by Maria J. Stephan, Sadaf Lakhani, and Nadia Naviwala.
 For those doing similar work or interested in getting involved, we would be happy to talk further about our grantmaking to activists, support for educational convenings, translations, research, online courses, and new educational resources or any of our other programs.
This post is part III in our
Civil Resistance and Human Rights Funding Series.
Hardy Merriman is President of ICNC. He has worked in the field of civil resistance for nearly 15 years, presenting at workshops for activists and organizers around the world; speaking widely with academics, journalists, and members of international organizations; and developing resources for practitioners and scholars.Read More