Amnesty International growing globally – but at what price?

In recent years Amnesty International (AI) has made a decision to move ‘closer to the ground’ to develop its campaigning and reporting capacity from in the ‘global south’.

There are some very good reasons for doing this. The Amnesty International ICM (International Council Meeting – the highest decision making body with AI) blog talks about what they are doing in Sierra Leone:

“In Sierra Leone, Amnesty has developed the concept of an ‘Amnesty Village.’ Amnesty International works with villages, in particular the local elders to discuss the concept of human rights. Staff attend village meetings on a regular basis to have conversations and share stories. As a result a shared community human rights conscience has been developed…Although concepts such as ‘Amnesty Village’ remain in their infancy, these early results are exciting” 

Exciting indeed, but it comes at a cost. To fund this exciting expansion, national sections has been asked to increase the amount they give to the IS (The International Secretariat). For Amnesty International UK (AIUK) this means increasing their contribution from 30% of assessable income up to 40%. This figure goes along side a goal of increasing total income by 35% between 2011-2016.

At a time of global austerity this is ambitious to say the least. Amnesty International does not take general funding from governments so they rely on the likes of you and me reaching into our pockets. Something that as the recession lingers we are less inclined to do. Their ‘Strategic Direction 2011-2016’ document makes reference to this challenge stating:

economic times are difficult and our income in 2009 and 2010 has been flat

This sombre analysis was reiterated by the Chair of the board of AIUK who wrote to members at the beginning of June saying,

“Those who attended our most recent Annual General Meeting will recall that our Treasurer, Brian Landers, provided a sober assessment of our finances. Thanks to our supporters, AIUK’s income has been stable since the onset of the economic crisis. Indeed, it has grown slightly. However, this growth is insufficient to meet our increasing obligations”

It would appear though, that AI’s finances have turned from bad to worse. The UK section has been forced to look for savings to ensure that they can meet their commitments to the international movement. After much hand wringing this has come in the forms of cuts to staff positions.

This didn’t go down too well with the unions. Kate Allen the UK Director wrote to members saying,

“I am writing to let you know that regrettably I have received notification from Unite that union members have voted in support of industrial action at AIUK and that a one day strike will take place on 12th September”

UNITE – the union who represents the workers at AIUK said,

“There has been an on-going dialogue between management and the union since the announcement of proposed redundancies…  From the start the union expressed serious concerns about the processes of restructuring the organisation, and the impact this will have on the organisation’s work…The restructuring and redundancy situation at AIUK is not due to financial crisis but it is due to the decision to increase our contributions to the IS”

They continued,

“Management have refused to discuss the time scales or amount of the increased assessment to the IS as part of negotiation, even though this is the cause of the proposed redundancies. The union made every effort to avoid a dispute, but management’s refusal to discuss the increased assessment has made this difficult. After exhausting internal avoidance-of-dispute processes, we were unfortunately left with no option but to ballot union members for strike action. This is the first time in over 20 years that the union has decided to take this step. The ballot took place in August, and 82.5% of union members voted in support of industrial action. No union member at AIUK has taken this decision lightly”

Kate Allen however clearly states that the contribution to the IS is something “we cannot and wouldn’t want to change”. She said,

We entirely respect the right of our staff to take strike action but regret that they feel the need to do so, particularly as the action is over how much money Amnesty International UK should contribute to increasing human rights work in the global South”

It looks like UNITE and the senior management team (SMT) at AIUK are locked in a dispute. A dispute that the SMT insists is characterised by continued open discussions and UNITE insists is characterised by a refusal to discuss key issues.

As a result on the 12th September AIUK’s staff will strike for the first time in 20 years.


You can donate to Amnesty International – every little helps!



Filed under Economics, Human rights

5 responses to “Amnesty International growing globally – but at what price?

  1. Gilbert Hall

    Thank you for a very interesting article. The Sierra Leone work you mention is a fascinating example. It sounds like a sort of secular missionary activity. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or not and I’m not interested in donating to it.

    I’ve been more important to AIUK as a donor than as a volunteer and have given significant amounts to AIUK in the past. My regular information about what AI is doing is limited to the Amnesty magazine I get as a member, as I don’t feel like spending a lot of time finding out what’s going on. Amnesty magazine tells me very little and were I to base my world view on it, I might think that the USA is the main violator of human rights in the world and that not so much bad happens in Russia, China, India or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    It’s completely opaque to me what AI actually does nowadays. It may be that, from the inside, every new area of work is seen to have a perfect logic and everything is exhaustively discussed to ensure that the right decisions are taken. To me, on the outside, AI seems an increasingly baffling mix of things I like, things I’m not interested in and things that I believe positively misleading or misguided. Consequently I don’t give AI any money these days (beyond my membership fee). I couldn’t begin to guess whether it’s an efficient organisation, which is an added concern for a donor.

    It seems that human rights groups in general suffer from a complete lack of self control in extending their mandate. Human Rights Watch is a bit similar to AI. Reprieve, which seemed to be a well defined anti-death penalty charity, joined the anti Guantanamo Bay bandwagon (aren’t there many worse prisons in the world?), works on imprisonment without trial, drone strikes and various other things.


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  5. Jill Smith

    Good article. The shame is that Amnesty UK and other sections are being obliged to rush into increasing payments to the International Secretariat. Senior management are hastily making staff and programme cuts without due analysis of real effectiveness. Sudden so-called ‘consultation’ is happening at break-neck speed within AIUK, but the clearly desired result (cuts of £2.5 million in AIUK’s work by January 2013) makes the ‘consultation’ somewhat meaningless and certainly the opposite of transparent. There is huge risk of long-term damage to Amnesty’s work globally (so much of which is invaluable), as the staff most likely to be kept on are those whose work programmes bring in money. And all those for a goal of ‘moving closer to the ground’ – a term so emotive that nobody dares to challenge it or analyse what it actually means. The IS senior management, for example, recently let slip (via a leaked email) that they have projected payments of over £18 million in 2013 to cover redundancies and redeployment of staff – so much for AIUK’s increased payments being used for ‘moving closer to the ground’! Instead, it looks like AIUK staff are being made redundant to pay for IS staff redundancies. A carefully planned and executed transition programme towards ‘moving closer to the ground’, ensuring that vital work and good practice continue, would probably take at least two years – but in the life span of Amnesty, surely it would be worth it?


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