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Campaigning for Human Rights

September 29, 2017

Cosette Creamer

Cosette Creamer
Professor Cosette Creamer

Faculty and graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts, including Political Science Professor Cosette Creamer and Political Science PhD candidate Florencia Montal, are part of a team investigating a grand challenge: what makes human rights campaigns effective? Creamer and Montal were joined in this investigation by an interdisciplinary group of faculty and graduate students with backgrounds in sociology, Spanish and Portuguese, human rights, and the humanities.

In fall 2016, Creamer (along with University of Minnesota sociology professor and department chair Elizabeth Doyle) applied for a Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Research and Innovation Grant. These grants are overseen by the Institute of International Education (IEE) in partnership with the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG Center) at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The grant award was used to support a collaborative and interdisciplinary working group of five graduate students at UMN along with Creamer and Boyle.

Starting with the Questions

The group’s goal was to produce a multidisciplinary overview, assessment, and synthesis of the empirical research related to a number of questions on human rights awareness campaigns. These included:

  • What are the consequences of human rights awareness campaigns?
  • What makes a human rights awareness campaign successful?
  • Why do many campaigns fail?
  • What are the unintended negative consequences of both successful and failed campaigns?

Florencia Montal--team leader for the project-- travelled with the group twice to Washington DC to present preliminary and final findings. During the first workshop with USAID staff members, groups were asked to design an awareness campaign on female genital cutting, following which participants discussed how to implement the campaign design guidelines suggested within the review.

The second trip led to two different workshops. The team first presented their findings before a consortium of organizations from the human rights field, including Freedom House and the American Bar Association, among others. The second presentation was before USAID staff and officers from both their field and Washington DC offices. Creamer says these presentations are already beginning to influence projects involving other university faculty and USAID.

According to Creamer, “Some of the review’s findings seemed apparent, including the need for campaign designers to conduct formative research that examines the social context and tests campaign images and messages.” 

“Pre-testing,” says PhD candidate Amy Hill, “in particular, can be utilized by campaigns during multiple stages in order to test rough concepts, such as phrases, or entire campaign prototypes.”

A Caution about Oversimplifying

Other findings were less obvious. “Studies on awareness campaigns consistently found that novel, personal, and narrative-based messaging frames are incredibly effective,” Creamer says. “In contrast, other studies have found that when a campaign oversimplifies an issue or relies on bold, straightforward messages to maximize impact, this can lead to misunderstandings and a loss of campaign credibility.” The working group also identified an unintended consequence of rights campaigns that Creamer found “most striking.” Campaigns can sometimes “generate dissonance” among the target audience by raising awareness around a problem without providing any suggestions or institutional resources for solving it.

Montal believes the group’s research and presentation will help USAID design programs in the democracy, human rights, and governance sector. The working group was able to get USAID access to a whole body of literature from distinct disciplines like public communications, marketing, and political campaigning that was not originally available to the funders and implementers in the human rights community. The project also helps USAID “understand that a campaign is not just a campaign,” according to Montal. “While human rights awareness campaigns are not carried out in controlled environments and every potential outcome cannot be anticipated, designers can do certain things to maximize information about the potential effects their interventions might have.” 

This is just one example of researchers across the College of Liberal Arts coming together to tackle big questions around human rights leading to incredibly fruitful results. The work done by the Human Rights Awareness Campaign Working Group will be critical in developing and implementing the human rights campaigns of the future.