We launched Open Briefing 10 years ago. Our Big Idea at the time was to provide NGOs and concerned citizens with actionable intelligence and research so that they could make better decisions on advocacy and strategy in order to hold governments and militaries to account.
We recruited an international team of volunteer analysts, and secured a small grant from the Marmot Charitable Trust and start-up support from Outset Cornwall. Based in Penzance, in South West England, we were a remote-working and distributed team long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced this model on many. As a social enterprise, we mixed grants and earned income, and our first clients included the Oxford Research Group and Crisis Action. We undertook groundbreaking work on armed drones and remote warfare for the Remote Control Project that was widely covered by the international media. We shaped strategy and influenced policy. We paved the way for the rise of the citizen investigative journalist.
The small group of funders supporting our work grew to include the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation, the Network for Social Change, the Philamonic Trust, and, more recently, the Evan Cornish Foundation and the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.
Our team at that time was made up of former military, law enforcement, and intelligence officers, and we naturally began working more and more on security and risk for our NGO partners. Oak Foundation had the vision to understand the real value of this work, and provided our first substantial grant, to support the establishment of a safety and security programme within Open Briefing.
In 2016, we pivoted away from research and intelligence to focus on the safety and security of our NGO partners. We embraced and progressed the holistic security approach, and expanded our programmes to include digital security in 2017 and wellbeing and resilience in 2018. We built an international, multilingual team of protection specialists, risk managers, information security consultants, digital security trainers, and counsellors and psychologists – crucially, all with backgrounds in human rights movements or humanitarian action.
Our roster of clients grew to include well-known rights-based and humanitarian organisations, including Privacy International, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, and the Goldman Environmental Foundation, among many others.
The challenge was that only well-resourced organisations or those with international partners to sponsor the work could easily access our support. This changed in 2019, when we secured a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy to launch our funded support programme. Through unique, demand-driven projects, we provide rapid responses to immediate threats to civic actors and longer-term holistic security capacity building and mentoring to grassroots human rights and pro-democracy groups.
By standing with those targeted for their work, we empower them to remain in the struggle for accountability and human rights in their countries. We increasingly combine our protection work with building resilience among those that we support in order to help them bounce back following attacks and reprisals.
With a renewed NED grant in 2020 and ongoing core support from Oak Foundation, we have expanded this programme to include our Holistic Security Helpline and a series of online Safety and Resilience Clinics. The network of referral partners for our funded support programme now includes over a dozen funders, civil society networks, and protection organisations, including Scholars at Risk and the ACOS Alliance, for example. The scale of the demand for our unique support was thrown into stark relief when our annual budget for this year was committed within only four months.
The NED grants also included funding for a series of innovative resources ‘(Em)powered by Open Briefing’, which Ford Foundation further supported with a grant in mid-2020. Over the last year, we have launched and scaled half a dozen tools that help civic actors around the world strengthen their individual and collective safety and resilience. These include our popular Holistic Security Protocol for Human Rights Defenders – now available in 22 languages – and Frontline Policies, which we are relaunching shortly as a unique platform for civil society organisations to build, store, and share security, wellbeing, and safeguarding policy frameworks.
Today, we prevent and respond to serious attacks on civil society and civic space around the world and work to create the conditions in which they no longer happen. Last year, we responded to 127 calls for assistance across 46 countries and trained 350 human rights defenders during 40 security workshops. Many of our clients and beneficiaries are high profile and standing up to powerful actors, including governments, corporations, organised crime, and armed groups. You will have heard of them and their work, though frequently our support must remain confidential; our safety – and the safety of those that we support – depends on that discretion.
But you will likely never hear of most of our partners, though their work is the very heartbeat of civil society: human rights defenders in Afghanistan, Russia, and Uganda; pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, Hong Kong, and Venezuela; environmental defenders in Thailand, Ecuador, and Mexico; LGBTI activists in Sri Lanka, Namibia, and Mauritius; journalists in Haiti, Brazil, and Cuba; and humanitarians in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Yemen. Resourcing this work is challenging, and we urgently need to secure new funding if human rights defenders and other civic actors facing attacks and reprisals are able to continue relying on our unique and vital support.
For 10 years, we have stood together with those speaking truth to power. And we are just getting started.