Lucia Nader has been a political scientist, researcher and activist in the area of human rights for almost two decades. She was a member of the Conectas Direitos Humanos team for 13 years, four of them as executive director. Since 2015, she has been working on “Solid Organizations in a Liquid World” and on the importance of caring for the human aspect of fundamental rights, first as an Open Society Foundations Fellow and currently as a scholar in residence at New York University .
In this chat with iCS, Lucia, who is Board member of the Instituto Clima e Sociedade, describes her trajectory and talks about the fascinating relationship between philanthropy, human rights and climate change, reinforcing the importance of the three aspects for fair and prosperous societies.
Check out the full interview below.
Lucia, tell us about your journey before you reached the position you occupy today, as a scholar in residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University (NYU)?
My education background is in political science and I have been working in the area of human rights for about 20 years. I worked at Conectas Direitos Humanos for 13 years (four of them as executive director) and left at the end of 2014, when I was awarded an Open Society Foundations grant to study what I call “Solid Organizations in a Liquid World”, that is, how civil society organizations adapt to today’s world. This work lasted a year and a half and today I am a scholar in residence at NYU, where I conduct research on human rights and global justice. My current project is related to the Open Society grant and focuses on the rediscovery of the human dimension in fundamental rights and democracy. I seek to understand how we can achieve a more humane experience on three levels: from the point of view of individual activism, to achieve a more sustainable activism with regard to mental, physical and emotional health and digital security, as well as wellbeing; in the scope of the organizations, based on the standpoint that organizations are living organisms composed of real individuals, focusing on the theory of change, planning and agility in the methods of action; and, on the third level, how can we have a more humane relationship between organizations/activists and society.
Considering your current research, in part inspired by the conclusions of the “Solid Organizations in a Liquid World” project, what levels of influence exist between one and the other?
The project that I pursued under the Open Society grant stems from the experience I had with Conectas on how to build civil society entities that are solid, professional, vibrant and strong, while, at the same time, being able to adapt to the different changes taking place in the world, from technology to a new kind of engagement – which does not necessarily occur through NGO activism, but can also occur through engagement via decentralized protests and actions, without an institutional filter. Even the relationship with the state is different now from what it was a few decades ago.
Some of the conclusions of my research, which are directly related to iCS: The philanthropy model matters a lot, and it is fundamental that the funder relies on the organization to which it contributes resources. It is also essential that the organization has adequate planning, agility and attention enough to “surf the waves as they appear”, as one of the interviewees told me. Often civil society entities are very focused on generating the wave, when there are several occasions when seizing the opportunity is the best course of action. Of course, it is imperative to keep your long-term vision and to focus on results without falling hostage to public opinion. Ana Toni (iCS Executive Director) herself told me when I interviewed her for my research: “being a solid organization does not mean being hermetic. It means being strong enough to keep one’s bearings, but porous enough to seize the opportunities as they appear”. The link with my current research is that I interviewed 116 people during this year and a half with Open Society and I realized that I was too absorbed with the organizations and the changes taking place in the world, while there was a small, fundamental piece of the puzzle – the people – that I had not been paying enough attention to.
Looking more closely at this perspective of solid organizations in a liquid world, where does iCS fits in the current scenario?
iCS is a much needed and welcome initiative in Brazil and worldwide. In the last decades there have been a series of climate-related conferences, all of them very important. But now we need to move toward reaching the goals and standards of behavior applicable to states, the private sector and to society as a whole, which were outlined during such conferences, and go beyond. iCS specifically tries to contribute to this and has a combination of three factors that I consider fundamental. It is not a traditional philanthropic institute. It is engaged in grant making, promoting and supporting civil society, academia and government organizations, but also in mobilizing and trying to engage new players in the discussion on climate change and fair and prosperous development, in addition to connecting partners and persuading other players to engage in philanthropy. I consider this tripod very important, and iCS performs it very well.
There is a very close relationship between climate and human rights. In a recent conversation with iCS, Ana Yang, chair of the Climate e Sociedade board, stated that talking about climate without mentioning climate is perhaps the best route since this deals with a development model of fundamental rights. How do you see this relationship?
I think that’s a fundamental point. Communication on climate change and action in this area, the whole theme, in short, is usually very technical. The same is true in the area of human rights. If the discussion remains in a technical bubble, not only does it fail to bring new players onboard, but it actually scares players away. iCS greatly values technical knowledge in the production of knowledge and data, which is essential. The other side of the coin is: how can we spread the values and the issue of climate change beyond the community that understands the matter in a technical and profound way? If there is any matter in the world that affects everyone, this matter is precisely climate change. There can be no choice as to whether or not engagement should exist, this is a cross-cutting point to any other matter dealt with anywhere in the planet.
I think our challenge is to produce technical data, talk about Climate with capital C, and disseminate this information and solutions to those who do not have theoretical and technical knowledge in this area, a group in which I am included. The dream, as Ana Yang mentioned, is that we will one day realize that we are talking about climate all the time. It means talking about building fair and prosperous societies. iCS plays a key role in contributing to this debate, providing philanthropic support, and promoting discussion and networking.
The latest GIFE Census demonstrated that, in Brazil, most of the philanthropic resources are used by the same grant-making companies, which go on to pursue projects in the area. How do you analyze this model?
The philanthropy sector in Brazil still has a long way to go. For example, GIFE and other players have been trying to steer the debate about what kind of philanthropy we want to have in the country. As you said very well, today a large portion of the philanthropy resources are granted and executed by the company itself, either by a company that creates its own institution or one that operates only within the community it operates in. This is relevant, of course, but far from sufficient. It is important that philanthropy takes place in the context of a diverse and strong civil society. Nobody has the perfect recipe for the social, climate and political issues that we have to deal with. Therefore, it is essential that there be independent, autonomous players with diverse strategies to face the various challenges. And this only happens with an independent and strong civil society. To be independent means receiving resources from philanthropy, but with autonomy to define one’s own objectives, to choose one’s way of acting and one’s strategies. A plurality of organizations, distinct, strong, relying on different strategies and coordinating at key moments is fundamental for us to have a strong democracy. This is healthy. It is healthy that there is coordination between organizations at specific times, but also that they have different agendas. Only with high-quality philanthropy and top investment in autonomous organizations will we have that.
There is no democracy that can be strengthened without an organized civil society – and an organized civil society is characterized by many different types of players, from traditional NGOs to small and large collective groups, neighborhood organizations, alternative communication vehicles, among others. iCS believes that the strengthening of Brazilian civil society necessarily involves the investment of financial resources in organizations and the generation of the necessary connections and debates.
In late 2017, there was a meeting of the iCS board. What can you tell us about this two-day meeting from the point of view of the institute perspectives for 2018 and for philanthropy in Brazil in general?
2018 will be a year of challenges in Brazil and in other countries. This and the next few years will be very important for the consolidation of iCS as a new player in the field of philanthropy and mobilization in Brazil. During that time, iCS will need to understand how to work with such relevant subjects by asserting its mission and areas of action, which is a difficult balance to strike, since it requires participation in the political life of the country without over-politicizing the debates and keeping a non-partisan standing.
This is an election year, and we talked a lot about this issue during the board meeting: it is very likely that the climate issue will not be high on the agenda of the presidential candidates. But the electoral environment is an opportunity to address the issue with the broad definition that it corresponds to one side of the coin of a fair and prosperous society. This is a challenging year for philanthropy in general, where civil society will have to put out many fires and still pursue its goals. And climate change and its relationship with social justice and democracy must increasingly be among the goals that we seek to achieve.