NGOs: Here's how to prep for — and respond to — office raids

On September 20, Arthur Larok found security forces surrounding his office. The ActionAid Uganda country director watched as they interrogated employees, searched through files, and seized their technology and program materials. Less than a month later, their accounts were frozen.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Around the world, tactics like these, tighter regulations, and arrests of leaders are being used to crack down on civil space.

“We were prepared,” Larok says. But other organizations may not be, should they face a similar situation.

Last week, Devex Associate Editor Elizabeth Dickinson sat down with Larok, who provided practical guidance on how to prepare for the possibility — and manage the fallout — of an office raid. Their conversation built upon Larok’s op-ed on the same topic, published last month.

Larok stressed that it’s important for civil society organizations to be aware of the context in which they operate.

“When you are dealing with the question of power,” he noted, “you have to be prepared for any eventuality.”

Here’s his advice.

1. Prepare your staff with trainings

Being proactive and holding staff trainings will help employees mentally prepare for the possibility of a raid. It is also the time to explicitly discuss procedures and contingency plans. Be sure employees know everything — from where to report tips about office raids to what information they should and should not share with security forces. Staff should also be well-versed in your operations. You will want them to be on the same page if they are interviewed separately.

2. Strengthen your IT systems

Make sure your sensitive information is password-protected. Hire professionals to ensure your systems can’t be hacked and be vigilant about any attempts that may occur. One way to do this is to implement procedures to protect against viruses sent via email. For instance, Larok receives emails via a stage process— they go to other individuals in ActionAid, then to Larok once vetted.

Back up all your information on encrypted platforms. That way, if technology is seized, you do not lose all of your assets. For ActionAid Uganda, this happens automatically on an hourly basis.

ActionAid Uganda leads a scenario building exercise. Photo by: ActionAid Uganda

3. Keep your daily operations as transparent as possible

Have information about your finances and operations readily available. If you are able to produce documents such as workplans, annual reports, and reports to the board easily, the investigation will move quicker. Transparency also counters propaganda against your organization. Finally, it can reduce the need for moles — as the information may be found on your website or other easily accessible source.

4. Mobilize your legal counsel quickly — and make sure they’re politically aware

You need lawyers who are well-versed in both the law and the politics of the area. It’s best to go beyond normal legal preparation: make sure your organization is connected to a network of lawyers that can both provide immediate assistance and help cover the broad spectrum of legal frameworks that are related to NGO operations.

Choose lawyers who are widely respected and get them to the site quickly. Their presence alone can make the situation better. “The moment our lawyers were called and they entered the premises, I think the security forces calmed down and bit, and it was a lot more civil.”

5. Leverage NGO networks

Solidarity is important within the civil space. At the global level, organizations advocated for the government to unfreeze ActionAid’s accounts via social media and by calling the Ugandan embassies in their countries. These actions led to important — and high-level — dialogues for ActionAid. This strategy is particularly effective with leaders who are concerned about global perceptions. At the local level, other NGOs brought ActionAid employees food when the staff was not allowed to leave.

You can watch the full “Civil Space in Peril: Responding to Raids” webinar above. Read our series Civil Space in Peril series to examine the global trend of a shrinking civil space and go behind the scenes to understand why and how NGOs are being singled out.

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About the author

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    Sumedha Deshmukh

    Sumedha Deshmukh is an Associate Content Producer at Devex. She supports the News Team by crafting online events such as Facebook Lives, webinars, and Twitter chats. Prior to her time at Devex, she received her master’s of public policy from the University of Virginia and worked in federal consulting.