Coming to Terms with Uncertainty — Experimenting with Creating Webs of Safety and Care


Mary Jane N. Real, Co-Lead, Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific

A person & a child tend to a green, flowery field. Three patterned cloths on a line billow in the wind as the sun shines.
This blog post speaks about how tools that we developed for our ‘Enabling Defenders’ programme took a life of its own when activists and networks devised varied uses for it, rooted in their own specific contexts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent us careening into the unknown. We face it with much anxiety and dread because what is not known or not certain drives us beyond the limits of our comfort zones. Many of us long for a return to ‘normalcy’, a continuation of the past as we know it, rather than take advantage of this break from the past, and recast new futures.

This encounter with uncertainty lies at the heart of our social experiment to create more sustainable forms of protection and support for women and non-binary activists in Asia and the Pacific. In times of compounding crises due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising authoritarianism in many countries, we realised that defenders are struggling to cope. So, to help them proactively set up their own systems of protection and support, we mobilised resources and began co-creating with them a model of systemic change for their safety and care.

The building of webs, an emergent learning experiment

Through our ‘Enabling Defenders’ programme, we co-created with grassroots community activists a model for Webs of Safety and Care. We worked on the assumption that if activists were to be supported through a step-by-step process to activate diverse forms of support to counter the multiple insecurities they face, then they will have to be not solely reliant on emergency grants. How do we do this? We accompany them to identify their needs comprehensively, and collectively analyse and prioritise how to meet these needs with support from other collaborators, too. We provide them platforms to come together to ideate at, and together, we explore how addressing gaps in their capacities can help them respond more holistically to their emerging needs.

In 2018, we began experimenting by developing a needs assessment (NA) tool. It is a series of questionnaires that unpack in detail the different aspects of a defender community’s needs: security and well-being; legal and political protection; economic security and viability; cultural and social support; and health and well-being pre-during-post crisis periods.

A circle showing four colourful, patterned patches and human figures. The central circle’s headline says ‘Safety and Care’.

Applying Emergent Learning (EL) in our practice has taught us that “in a complex and changing environment, solutions are, truly, only hypotheses that represent our current best thinking” at problem-solving. Untangling each knot in our programmatic journey took time, but adhering to EL practices helped us to overcome our need to predict answers and outcomes at the outset. By necessity, we learned to hone our skills to listen and observe, and respond from what is unfolding, or being resolved in the process transpiring before us.

From constructing the programme to pilot-testing

Almost a year into contouring our programme, we tested our NA tool with women from a community of urban poor and informal settlers, a labour union on strike, and a network supporting a healthcare worker jailed on false charges. Working on their feedback, we revised the tool, and they translated it into their language for better understanding. Then we began piloting the model with defender communities: a community of urban poor women at a national level, and a trans network at the regional level.

At these workshops, defenders found space and time to identify their needs, and then they brought their members together to collectively construct their webs of safety and care with our support. However, as we pilot-tested these processes with these two networks, we were surprised that the NA tool and workshops bore different results from our intended outcomes. The networks found varied uses of the tool than what we designed it for!

Adapting our tools for consciousness-raising

The breakthrough was when the activists felt safe and confident to explain where they were getting stuck:

“We could not progress through the series of NA questionnaires. We kept getting stuck because while the members could name the various risks they encounter, they could not identify all their needs as activists,” said a leader of a Nepal network. “It became apparent that we have become too accepting of the risk, we regarded it as part of our everyday life. We have learned to adapt or cope to the point that we cannot even articulate our needs.”

“In much the same way that the fish don’t talk about the water!”, another participant observed.

To address this impasse, the network leader and facilitators then modified the questionnaires to raise awareness among their members: that as activists, they have specific needs different from those of the communities they serve; that as activists, they have inherent rights that they can claim to ensure that their needs are met.

Rather than simply relying on the NA tool and workshops to surface their needs, the network leaders and members, through their use of the questionnaires, realised the extent to which they had normalised risk, resulting in effacing their needs as activists. The tool took a life of its own, beyond our intended purpose. It brought us into the realm of the unknown, where the outcome was far from what we expected, but more nuanced and meaningful for the communities that engaged with them. And there is nothing wrong with this!

Our tools as a reflection guide for movement-building

For another network, the NA tool and workshops became an exploration of the different stages of movement-building, and an introspection on where their trans movement is currently situated. During the NA tool workshops, we expected them to accede to designing a regional web of safety and care for their network members in Asia and the Pacific.

Instead, as the participants got familiar with the tool, they realised that many members were more invested at organising locally than regionally. “It’s not that such webs of safety and care is not needed. It’s just that at this stage of our movement-building, we are focused on mobilising support within our local communities. We want to grow our ranks among the grassroots.”

And thus, our NA tool became a reflection guide for the participants to assess existing movement-building strategies for the network. As a result, they chose not to pursue creating a regional model, but to prioritise their local efforts at grassroots organising. Yet again, not our anticipated outcome from this engagement, but we realised this was the most critical support that the network required at this juncture. As emergent learning has taught us, “it is more liberating not to overthink and determine outcomes, rather to be open to surprises!”

Sense-making and embracing the unknown

Writer and social practitioner, Allan Kaplan identifies groups, organisations, and communities as “social organisms”, living entities on a life journey. So for any intervention initiated by social practitioners like us, there are many interweaving processes to be aware of, three of which are primary: “the organism’s process, the practitioner’s own process unfolding, and the interaction between these — the intervention — which is itself a process. The practitioner is responsible for maintaining awareness and centredness in all.”

Rather than assuage our anxieties of the unknown by pre-empting the future, our past experiences, including the unexpected results of our recent experiment with the webs of safety and care, have taught us that over-planning and remaining rigid on our intended outcomes are often detrimental to the success of our experiments. Instead, as Kaplan instructs, what worked was keeping our senses wide open, staying aware, and centred. We stay on our toes and remain open to how situations develop, and be prepared to adapt and begin anew.

We took to heart Kaplan’s perspective: “We cannot impose our will on organisations and communities and hope that this will enable them to flower, to become more whole. We cannot mould them to our desires. But we can see into their depths, discern the underlying forces which move them, and thus enable the system to take the next step in its own path of development.”


(Specific grantee details, identity, and locations are being withheld to protect their confidentiality. However, the stories they shared are universal, and UAF A&P is disseminating them so that their voices are amplified and can add to a larger body of information and experiences that we can learn from and/or replicate.)



Urgent Action Fund, Asia & Pacific

We support and accompany women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders and activists taking bold risks in Asia and the Pacific.