We continue to offer you an inside glimpse of the new WPF book, Advocacy In Conflict: Critical perspectives on transnational activism, with an excerpt from Chapter 2 by Alex de Waal. The volume was edited by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Teisha Taneja, and Keren Yohanne (London: Zed Books, 2015). The editorial team emerged out if the World Peace Foundation student seminar competition in 2013.

De Waal’s chapter, “Genealogies of Transnational Activism” provides a critical overview of the human rights movement:

The ideational and practical space for such advocacy is defined by the three approaches mentioned above: personal salvation or fulfillment; preserving social order and power relations; and collective action for transforming society in pursuit of a more just order.

An identifiably modern form of each of the three elements emerged in the late eighteenth century. Subsequently, the centres of gravity of these different forms of social action have shifted. Today’s transnational advocacy was shaped by the anti-colonial and civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century: movements that shared important precepts but also diverged on key principles. During the 1970s this evolved into a dominant model of adversarial advocacy headed by Western human rights organizations. In the 1990s, these models changed again with the post-Cold War atrocities in former Yugoslavia and sub-Saharan Africa and calls for intervention, and yet again with the war on terror and a parallel liberal anti-genocide interventionism. In parallel to the shift from ‘old’ social movements at national level that sought to organize governmental power for the benefit of broader constituencies, to ‘new’ ones concerned with freedom from such governmental intrusions (Kaldor 2003), we can see an evolution from movements for national self-determination from imperial rule, to anti-atrocity campaigning that extends intrusive forms of global governance into former colonies. Western governments – notably the Obama administration – have found mechanisms for managing today’s transnational advocacy lobbies. In part, they co-opt the advocates, and in part they make sufficient superficial adjustments to what the advocates demand to give a plausible illusion of influence.

Ambassador [Samantha] Power put the Obama administration’s approach cogently, speaking to Invisible Children: ‘what matters to us in government is our partnership with you. We need your voices and energy. We need your ideas and your sense of mission. We need your activism and your action. And since the most sustainable and effective policies are those with public support, your activism enables us to do more’ (Power 2013, emphasis added). What she generously credits the Kony2012 video with achieving was already in fact determined as policy by the White House and the Pentagon. By contrast, Vali Nasr, who served in Richard Holbrooke’s team, and witnessed the marginalization of diplomatic strategy in the Obama administration, has a different perspective. He writes:

In the cocoon of our public debate, Obama gets high marks on foreign policy. That is because his policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic choices but to satisfy public opinion – he has done more of the things that people want and fewer of the things that we have to do that may be unpopular. (Nasr 2013: 12)

Power’s passion may be genuine, but her government’s strategy boils down to co-opting the campaigners as voters. The concern of this chapter is what this episode tells us about the state of European and American transnational activism.


Insider policy advocacy The shift from wider social movement to specialist NGOs is replete with friction (Kaldor 2003; De Waal 2003; Tarrow 2011; Lang 2013). As Tarrow observes, many NGO advocates ‘come from social movement backgrounds and continue to think of themselves as movement activists, even as they lobby in the corridors of power or offer services to underprivileged groups’ (2011: 242). They bring coordination, power to amplify messages, and resources – in short, institutionalization and professionalization. But the relation- ship is fraught because hierarchies of power emerge. Charli Carpenter has analysed how members of the North American and European professional activist community choose human rights issues for advocacy. She observes that ‘my research shows that … a human security network exists as an empirical fact’ (2014: 5) and goes on to detail the links between issues, how those issues are framed, the ‘gatekeepers’ who ‘vet’ issues, funders, and the ‘advocacy superpowers’ that determine which issues become the focus for organized policy lobbying.

This network extends into government. Here we can observe the feedback loop between the former social movement activist who has become a broker between policy-makers in government, and his or her erstwhile comrades who are still active in a social movement. Sabine Lang (2013: 8) describes how, as more venues for institutional advocacy open up, it ‘might lead to NGOs becoming experts in institutional advocacy and lobbying at the expense of generating broader public debates’, and how, in turn, governments utilize NGOs as ‘proxy publics’, substitutes for broader consultation that are ‘just one phone call away’. The former activist becomes an insider lobbyist, seeking specific policy changes, and persuading activists to adjust their demands to what can be achieved within the policy process. Insiders in government – both executive and legislature – quickly learn to use this brokerage process their own advantage. To be effective, the specialist NGO must become literate in the substance and process of policy, and focused on the dual tasks of developing expert analysis and critique that is useful for the policy-maker, and identifying the maximally effective methods of exerting leverage in pursuit of these incremental policy goals. Its public language must be in two dialects: messages sufficiently simple and moralized to maintain a public constituency, but sufficiently coded for real intent to be clear to policy-makers. The lobbyist must balance effective leverage – enough pressure to be salient – while not overstepping the bounds of decorum to embarrass the policy-maker. In this tri- angle, professional expertise and institutional power win out: the agenda, issues and methods are set between the lobbyist and the policy-maker. The original activists in a social movement are either co-opted or marginalized.

These power relations are amplified in the case of a poor social movement using a vernacular in a Southern country, and a better- funded lobbying NGO in a Western capital. The Western NGO has enormous freedom of action. This begins with its selection of the issue and its choice of partner or client organization, a process that automatically relegates causes that fit less well with the institutional, political and fund-raising priorities of the sponsor. The issue in question is thus either the winner of the competition for attention in a competitive buyer’s market of causes (see Bob 2006) or one crafted by a local NGO precisely so as to gain the best chance of adoption in this market, following the example set by the Biafrans more than forty years ago. This power relationship continues such that the Western organization’s definition of the issue, preference for method, and relationship with its own government become the dominant set of factors in the circuit. The consequence is that the Southern NGO is principally a client of the Western lobby NGO, its funds and profile dependent on its foreign sponsor, or is left without profile and support.

[End excerpt]

The book is available here.

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