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Advocacy: the new power of civil society

With a two-day course that took place at the GCSP at the beginning of March, participants had the opportunity to become more familiar with the vast world of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society activities and their advocacy strategies.

“Advocacy” has become a fashionable term since the end of the Cold War. It refers directly to civil society organisations engaging with governments in order to push one, or several, local or global issues on governments. NGOs have mushroomed throughout the world, in particular in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR. The general enthusiasm for democratisation has seen an increase in NGO registrations and activities all over the world. A country like Russia, for instance, counted, at a certain point, more than 250 000 NGOs.

The importance of advocacy is directly linked to the irruption in public life of civil society as it expresses itself essentially, but not exclusively through NGOs. It would be wrong to believe that the concept of civil society as we know it today has been the same throughout the centuries. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle posed the concept of Koinonia Politikê, translated as “civil society”, but with an insistence on the root “polis”, the city, seen as the highest form of human organisation, above the “oikos” (household) and the “ethnê” (populace). In Latin thinking, the “societas civilis” was understood mainly as the state in opposition to the divine (St. Augustin) or in opposition to the “état de nature” by the classics. With Hegel’s “bürgerliche Gesellschaft”, civil society is seen as a form of organisation between individuals above the family, but lower than the state. Today, the insistence is on the word “civil”, in opposition to the state. By contrast, totalitarianism knows no distinction between civil society and the state: all human organisations are under the direction of the state, even private life and affection can be directed from by the state.  For Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel, civil society is “a society in which citizens participate - in many parallel, mutually complementary ways - in public life, in the administration of public goods and in public decisions”.

It would be wrong to believe that the concept of civil society as we know it today has been the same throughout the centuries.

Advocacy is the natural goal of civil society organisations. People have an issue they care for, they gather around it, create an organisation for its defence or promotion. They then try to influence legislation on the issue or promote compliance with existing rules, laws or conventions. The London-based NGO “Girls not Brides”, which fights worldwide against the practice of marrying girls before they turn 18, describes advocacy as a “process to influence people with power to bring about a change in policy and/or practice”. To achieve their goals, NGOs usually go through three primary channels: the legislator, the judiciary and the public at large.

To achieve their goals, NGOs usually go through three primary channels: the legislator, the judiciary and the public at large.

Defenders of a rare Alpine plant, for instance, would first get the legislators of all countries where that plant grows to declare it protected by law. Then they would organise media campaign to inform and raise public awareness about the necessity to stop destroying that plant. The judiciary is used as a tougher way of advocating for causes that have less or no chances to get a favourable consideration in parliaments. That is the path that LGBT organisations had to choose 30 years ago to have their rights respected before they could hope to see parliaments passing laws in favour of sexual minorities.

Some people would then argue that NGOs involved in advocacy are no different than lobbying agencies. Is it possible, after all, to draw a clear line between these two activities? Some distinctions are obvious:

  • A person involved in advocacy pushes for an issue in which there is no direct economic interest for her/himself. On the other hand, a person involved in lobbying advocates for a set of legislation, or government actions, which, if adopted, will have a direct economic or political benefit for himself, her enterprise, her client, or her government.
  • Lobbying is exclusively a description of a campaigner’s interaction with government officials, whether from executive or legislative branch, usually carried out through private meetings. Advocacy, however, is a broader term which also includes media, outreach to other policy experts, and interaction with the general public.
  • Lobbying will often be highly focused on one specific technical question or a particular law that needs to be passed or changed. Advocacy though will often be about a broader theme, such as homelessness, human rights or healthcare.

One participant in the course noted that states, through their diplomatic services, often do both lobbying and advocacy in defence of either their interests or the wider issues they stand for. Switzerland, in its efforts to promote International Humanitarian Law, or Canada, which campaigned to ban anti-personnel landmines, are excellent examples of two governments that have picked up the fight of civil society organisations (Henry Dunant’s defence of war victims for Switzerland and the anti-landmine campaign for Canada). Both countries made the respective issues one of their foreign policy priorities and turned them into international conventions. Having a government picking up and fighting for an issue raised by civil society is probably the highest success an NGO can dream of.

Having a government picking up and fighting for an issue raised by civil society is probably the highest success an NGO can dream of.

The GCSP course provided participants with concrete methods on how to build an efficient advocacy strategy and how to use and not misuse social media. Several speakers went into concrete details on their successes, doubts, dilemmas and failures. A consensus emerged among the speakers that advocacy for civil society activists has become more difficult in the last five years as the world witnesses a general backlash against the very idea of democratisation as a positive development. Some governments are now questioning not only the UN Charter but the construction of all UN conventions and international law on which the post-World War II order was built. Political parties in seasoned democracies are calling for isolation and the sovereignty of nations over international conventions. Doing advocacy in this context requires more courage and dedication than in the past. But advocacy may also never have been as necessary as it is today.

 

by Alain Délétroz, Executive-in-Residence at GCSP