Advocacy: Just another buzzword?

I recently came across this spoof video by Trevor Noah simulating UNICEF campaigns and asking viewers to adopt recession hit American families for $480 a day. Watch video below:

Though hilarious and quite clever in its critique of our overindulgent consumerism riddled culture today, I couldn’t help but think of the original video that this was based on.  A quick search resulted in hundreds of videos not only from UNICEF but other charitable organizations asking viewers (who are mainly residents in developed countries) to adopt families or send money to the ‘needy’ in poor developing countries, which were often in Africa, Asia and South America. Appealing to these future benefactors’ guilt and empathy, these videos made grand promises ranging from economic independence for the sponsored families to better education and health for them. The common message being that those in the West needed to act (quite often by donating money) to bring change for the better in other parts of the world.

While there is ample literature critiquing the efficacy and sustainability of humanitarian efforts (I found Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo an especially interesting read), I was more interested in the use of terms such as ‘changing lives’ (Develop Africa), ‘advocating for Africa’s children’ and ‘empowering the African people’ (Advocate for Africa’s Children) all suggesting that donations, both monetary and in kind were all part if not the key agent behind advocating for change. This got me thinking about the meaning of advocacy. Was this truly advocacy? If so, how beneficial was this kind of advocacy? My colleague, Karen Spring (2013) wrote a wonderful blog post looking at the difference between advocates and activists and how the latter had somehow become a ‘dirty word’. How long before the term ‘advocacy’ became similarly tarnished?

World Vision Canada (2012) defines advocacy as “taking action by speaking out against injustice and the abuse of rights, with and on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. It aims to influence decision makers and to challenge policies that cause inequality and suffering”. However, as indicated by most of the videos and websites mentioned above that claimed to be advocating for change were doing so only on behalf of the oppressed and NOT with them. And I think this is key! Collaborating with the people who want change and will be most impacted by it is crucial for successful and sustainable change. True, there are times when the oppressed won’t necessarily have the platform to express their opinions or advocate for their rights and may require others to do so on their behalf. However, even then those in position of power cannot advocate for change in isolation. Inclusion of those impacted by it and partnerships with them is important to ultimately empower them. Additionally, it is essential that the difference between humanitarianism and advocacy be clear. While not mutually exclusive, they don’t mean the same thing. And unrestricted use of the term advocacy can ultimately tarnish its essence and sanctity, making it just another buzzword.



Spring, K. (2013, February 22). Advocacy versus activism: What is the difference? [Web log post] Retrieved from

World Vision Canada. (2012).  What is advocacy? Retrieved from

Dhaarna Tangri


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One response to “Advocacy: Just another buzzword?”

  1. zarc42 says :

    Thank you Dhaarna, for so succinctly putting into words a nagging gut feeling that has made me uncomfortable about those kind of ‘advocacy’ campaigns for years. I think that there is a fine line between advocating ‘with’ people and ‘on behalf of’ people as you pointed out, and it is definitely a tricky grey area, especially when you are trying to appeal to donors WITHOUT using including the poor in an unethical way (i.e. by taking advantage of their distress to evoke feelings of empathy and guilt in the viewer).

    – Sarah T

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