Crisis Action makes a big noise using quiet citizen diplomacy

Crisis Action acts like a coach or talent scout for humanitarian and other citizen groups – but always behind the scenes.

Crisis Action
Crisis Action supported Amnesty International in organizing a global day of action on Egypt (here in London) in February 2011. The tiny nonprofit works behind the scenes to coordinate the efforts of nonprofit citizen groups.

Crisis Action likes to avoid the spotlight.

The nonprofit group considers the work it does to be like that of a football coach, an orchestra conductor, or a talent scout, says executive director Gemma Mortensen. Its job is to help the groups it works with – including some of the most well-known humanitarian aid organizations – be more effective by working together. Crisis Action works to "create a dream team" of experts and organizations to attack a particular problem, Ms. Mortensen says.

But, welcome or not, today Crisis Action is suddenly better known. Yesterday (Feb. 16) it was named by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one of 15 groups who will receive the 2012 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The awards, in amounts ranging from $350,000 to $2.5 million, recognize "extraordinary organizations [who] demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness" and whose "impact is altogether disproportionate to their size,” says MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. (Click here for a press release and a list of award winners.)

That's certainly the case with Crisis Action. Founded in 2004, it has a tiny budget of about $2 million a year and just over 20 employees situated in seven key locations around the world: Cairo; Nairobi, Kenya; New York; and Brussels, as well as in France, Germany, and Britain.

Crisis Action, together with its nongovernmental partners, has played an influential role in swaying the policies of governments on Sudan, Congo, Gaza, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, MacArthur says. "Among other achievements, Crisis Action has coordinated joint campaigns to: secure one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces for Darfur; bring those accountable for mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo to justice; secure the first ever UN Security Council Presidential Statement on Burma; and support hundreds of Arab NGOs to convince the Arab League to respond to mass violence against civilians in Libya and Syria," a statement from MacArthur says.

Crisis Action was founded in 2004 by Guy Hughes, a passionate mountain climber who died in an accident. He was motivated in part by the 1990s genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, says Mortensen in a phone interview from London, where she is based. Mr. Hughes saw there needed to be a way to "compel the world's most powerful decisionmakers to take action before it's too late," she says.

Crisis Action now exists, she says, "to create strategic coalitions, to influence government policy on conflict, and to ensure that there is a swift enough response from civil society – speaking with one voice – at times of crisis."

Recently Crisis Action's Cairo office, staffed by Egyptians, has worked "with hundreds of Arab organizations – I think it's 18 countries across the Middle East and North Africa" to help the Arab world speak with one voice against the violence in Syria, which then "can be represented to the League of Arab States, for example," she says.

Mortensen says she's "pretty confident" that Crisis Action has contributed to creating public sentiment in the Arab world that has caused the league to take some of its strongest actions ever, including condemning the violence in Syria, deciding to put targeted sanctions on the Syrian regime, and other measures.

Crisis Action's partners include "all the big human rights organizations," she says, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children, and Mercy Corps, as well as the International Crisis Group and other think tanks.

"Effective work for us is increasing the impact of all the organizations that we work with by enabling them to achieve even more together than they would alone," Mortensen says. "We need to stay behind the scenes because that is the way in which partners will genuinely see that we are in it for the benefit of the collective work, not to promote ourselves."

Though Crisis Action keeps a low profile, its work often has very public results. "Even though we're quiet, the products of our labor can be very loud," she says. "We coordinate collective action that can be quiet diplomacy behind the scenes [or] can be massive media campaigns across 15 different countries."

Her interview with the Monitor, one of a very few Crisis Action has ever given, she says, provides an opportunity to thank MacArthur for its award, which includes a gift of $750,000.

"The award comes at a really pivotal moment for the organization," Mortensen says. "It's almost as if we're passing through our adolescence into our maturity. It's recognizing that this brave experiment is really making a difference."

• For more information on Crisis Action and its MacArthur award, including a video, click here.

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