In a dimly lit hotel lobby on the Tunisian coast, I sat down to interview Yousef. Intelligent, determined and carrying himself with a kind of quiet intensity, Yousef is a man who could hold the attention of any audience. A human rights defender and lawyer in his home country, he had a long story to tell.

Coming of age in the midst of the largest civil society movement in modern times, the ‘Arab Spring’, he and his colleagues had already changed the world. In the years since, he became a lawyer who remains committed to his civil society and human rights defender roots. We met at the Innovation Laboratory of the Innovation for Change’s Middle East and Northern Africa Hub supported by Counterpart International and CIVICUS.

Innovation for Change is a global network of people and organizations who want to connect, partner and learn together to overcome barriers to closing civic space and restrictions to basic freedoms of assembly, association and speech. It is a community-led network inspired by ideas, methods, and technologies from across sectors, to create solutions and spark collective action that drive positive social change.

With six growing and connected regional hubs, in both physical and online spaces, across Africa, Central East and South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa, Innovation for Change participants exchange ideas and share their successes and failures to spark collective action and incubate social change.

This was just the kind of network that Yousef was looking for…

Networks for Civic Space and Human Rights in the Middle East & Northern Africa

“With these men and women, I can share my story, my expertise and my desire for democracy, human rights and social change in the Middle East and Northern Africa. It’s not always easy in this region. Being a human rights defender here means you need a supportive network. Without this network, I’m not sure we would be safe and I fear that almost nothing would change,” he explained.

Due to security concerns, we cannot show any images of participants at Innovation Lab in Tunisia

Due to security concerns, we cannot show any images of participants at The Innovation Lab in Tunisia

Innovation for Change arose at an important time for international civil society, particularly in the Middle East and Northern Africa. In spite of the tremendous potential that was embedded in the ‘Arab Spring’, civic space in the region has not expanded. In fact, according to the CIVICUS Monitor and IFEX, six countries in the MENA region have closed civic space, six more are obstructing citizen voices and six more are repressed governments – 18 out of 23 countries where citizens are routinely punished for expressing their voices. Sometimes with prison time, sometimes worse.

Throughout the Innovation Lab, these realities were demonstrated by the stories of Yousef, Amal, Mahmoud and our other civil society partners in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  And it is because of them, that we cannot share the real names of participants or tell their full stories. However, as Yousef noted, “The power of this network is that now we can stand together as one in the same civic space free of hostility and persecution. Now, the world is watching. And that just might mean that a peaceful future is not beyond our reach.”

As the activists spoke and laid out their visions, it was fascinating to see their intense passions and commitments to global good and social change. Many of these young men and women have already developed unique tools and platforms that extend beyond borders and languages. Brought together by Innovation for Change, they are now connected, sharing ideas and looking ahead – together. And while the event was based in Tunisia, the vision of Innovation for Change was also present in the representatives of Latin America who came to support their MENA Hub counterparts.

As world renowned Yemeni human rights activist and Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman once said, We are now struggling for a world which is based on peace, which is based on love, which is based on justice, which is based on accountability, based on human rights.”

The hundreds of civil society leaders in Innovation for Change hubs around the world are doing just that.