Outside perspectives: Halving Global Violence learning from successful agents of change


On June 15 and 16, 2021, Pathfinders (in collaboration with Wilton Park and with the generous support of the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC)) hosted the first meeting of the Halving Global Violence Task Force. As the initiative’s political and strategic steering group, the Task Force is led by four UN member states at ministerial-level (Co-Chairs from Costa Rica, South Africa, Switzerland and Liberia), with 15 members from diverse UN agencies (SGSR VAC, WHO, UNDP) and heads of civil society organizations (Igarapé Institute, ACCORD, Small Arms Survey, BRAC, End Violence Against Children). Moreover, ten Expert Advisors serve as its policy and research ‘brain trust’. In addition, the Task Force boasts representation from highly-visible youth leaders and two initiatives, Peace in Our Cities (with the Mayor of Palmira, Colombia) and GENSAC, which ensure cross-fertilization with the arenas of urban violence and city leadership, and small arms control and gender equality, respectively.

In addition to the energy of its members, last summer’s Wilton Park HGV Task Force discussions (full report here) benefitted from a burst of inspiration ‘from the outside’, as leaders of impactful international movements shared their insights.

Focusing on lessons-learned and case studies that could benefit the HGV efforts, renowned civil society leaders shared necessary building-blocks and ingredients for success for an effective global mobilization, tips on how to achieve cooperation, and suggestions on how to successfully mobilize international pressure.

Each leader had important recommendations for human security initiatives and the building of new international movements (such as HGV). We’re sharing those insights here:

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

  • Ensure diverse stakeholders shaping the movement’s aims and strategy, including civil society, governments, academics, and international organizations.
  • Craft the mobilizing message in a way that it is ambitious yet achievable, iterative, and inclusive of other existing partners. At times, one can ‘hijack’ other agendas by demanding that they “talk about your issue.”
  • The aim of the initiative needs to be narrow enough not to be overwhelmed by dozens of different priorities and perspectives, it must also be concrete and achievable.
  • It is important that said aim cannot be blocked by one entity, institution or country, and cannot be dependent on specific actors, but rather it must be open and able to adapt if circumstances change.
  • Even if seeking long-term, complex solutions, the basic message to the public needs to be fairly simple and understandable as, “something that somehow leads to the improvement of something,” in order to ensure enough popular mobilization to put pressure on governments.
  • Primacy of civil society actors in mobilizing people, media attention, social media hype in order to create political pressure. This needs to be through storytelling that makes people believe problem can be fixed.
  • Within civil society, the huge spectrum of actors — from para-diplomats to radical activists — must be rallied and engaged, allowing for all to focus on their areas of strength and interest, keeping their own identities while they come together for the top-line aim.
  • Rather than scaring people, noting how terrible certain realities are, showcase momentum, victories, and a notion that things are progressing, as these positive messages galvanize, engage, and empower the public, giving them a needed sense of agency.
Photo: Friends of Europe

David McNair, Executive Director, Global Policy, One Campaign

  • Stick to values no one can disagree with;
  • Have evidence no one can dispute; and
  • Build a diverse coalition which cannot be ignored by decision-makers.
  • Following these three overarching principles, the biggest enemy is complacency, so we need to build momentum, identify (and sometimes ‘manufacture’) urgent moments, building a sense of jeopardy.
  • Use the media, celebrities, different forms of communication to get your message across, but most importantly, first have robust policy, ensure the evidence is strong and has been tested with people who might disagree.
  • Credibly illustrate that your problem needs to be solved, and that you have the solution.
  • Localize the message: what’s the impact of the global problem on the local community, and how can they help solve it?
  • Importance of being perceived as reasonable and realistic, but also partner with progressive activists that can bring the urgency, shifting the Overton Window, as feasible.
Photo: Thorkild Tylleskar

Mahesh Mahalingam, Director, Communications and Global Advocacy, UNAIDS

  • Reminded of the power established institutions (such as the UN Security Council) have to elevate the prominence of an issue, while urging not to forget engaging with communities who organize and march in the streets for a cause.
  • Indeed, the history of response to AIDS might have been different had it not first affected gay men in North America 40 years ago, as it spurred in that community an activism — starting with basic picketing against stigma — before bureaucrats, the UN or foundations made it a global issue.
  • Both the success and failure of the AIDS response: bringing services (drugs, condoms, educational films, needles) but unable to change the external environment that facilitates transmission, particularly given the taboo nature of HIV’s association with sex and drug use.
  • HIV made it into the Security Council in 2000 by being presented as a security issue, a turning point in terms of political engagement that the campaign systematically leveraged going forward.
  • Importance of showing ambition and pushing countries to adopt bold targets through community organizations.
  • Importance of using data and science that is seen as valid and credible, but also taking risks with data and integrating it into ways of communicating that are accessible.
  • Need for a clear framework for action.
  • Look long and hard at your failures as a movement, the barriers to success (including complacency), and learn from them to go forward stronger and towards issues/aspects you have not yet been able to tackle.

For more on the discussions of the Halving Global Violence Task Force, read our full Wilton Park meeting report here.