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 https://communication4health.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/advocacy-versus-activism-what-is-the-difference/
World Vision Canada. (2012). What is advocacy? Retrieved from http://www.worldvision.ca/Education-and-Justice/advocacy-in-action/Pages/what-is-advocacy.aspx
Apparently ‘activism’ is a ‘dirty word’ based on how people think about activists and how activists are depicted in the media (UBC, 2010; Cucow, 2011). And who knew? I certainly didn’t … and I’ve been calling myself a human rights activist for years.
To get a sense of the differences, I googled ‘activism’ and ‘advocacy’ on Google Images to see what kind of imagery is associated with each term. Below are two photos that may demonstrate the way that people may think about both change agents.
Whereas in the majority of photos, advocacy is displayed as a process of dialogue, friendly exchange or negotiation, activism is depicted as a more radical process, involving direct action such as protesting. In many images, activists are depicted as violent.
So what is the main difference and how can that difference help us understand our role as ‘change makers’ in public health?
Advocacy and activism are tools to create some sort of social and political change. Advocacy is often thought of as “an act of publicly representing an individual, organization, or idea” and used as an umbrella term for many intervention tactics such as “speaking, writing or acting in favour of a participate issue or cause, policy or group of people.” (Cucow, 2011; PHAC, 2010). This can include lobbying which the Public Health Agency of Canada prefers to distinguish from advocacy in terms of public health interventions because lobbying is conducted “by a special interest group [that] may or may not be in the public interest” (2010).
According to DoSomething.org, actress Angelina Jolie is an example of an advocate who uses her fame to advocate for refugees in her position as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador (UNHCR) (no date).
Activism, on the other hand, often has a less favorable reputation even though by definition, it can be viewed as a form of advocacy. Activism is described as “a policy of taking direct action to achieve a political or social goal” (Zeitz, 2008). The term implies a direct action or intervention such as a protest in favour of change. According to blogger Shane Cucow, activism can be seen as part of the advocacy process or the action(s) that advocates take, such as organize a deliberate and direct protest, to increase awareness and attempt to influence the political process (2011).
According to DoSomething.org, Rosa Parks is an example of an activist. Parks was a civil rights activist in the United States that challenged racial segregation and is known for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a public bus (no date).
Advocacy is often seen as working “within the system” whereas activism is seen as working “outside the system” to generate change (UBC, 2010). The implications of this understanding are discussed in length between two professors; Dr. R. Deibert and Dr. J. Kennelly in a panel at the University of British Columbia titled “Advocate or Activist: What is the best way to effect change?” (podcast available here). Dr. Kennelly discusses her ethnographic research with activists across Canada describing how activists “often feel left out of public discourse, and/or feel that they don’t always fit in” to the political and/or social process (UBC, 2010).
Is it possible that people that call themselves ‘activists’ have given up on working ‘within the system’ and feel like more ‘radical’ actions is necessary to bring about true and transformative change? If ‘advocating’ for a healthier society does not produce results, as public health change makers, when do we become ‘activists’ that work ‘outside the system’? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working ‘within the system’ or ‘outside the system’?
Both terms are not without a few drawbacks. Both concepts remove the importance of collective action in bringing about change. It is important to question our role as advocates if we are ‘speaking on behalf of a community, group or individual’ and how being a spokesperson affects collective action and the agency of the individuals to whom we are representing. The same applies to activism. Most importantly, both terms undermine the importance of recognizing the long and often difficult road to change that requires collective action from many individuals, communities and organizations that may work both “inside” and “outside” the system.
On the subject of advocacy and communication, I am co-leading an educational delegation to Honduras in March 2013 to draw awareness to the Canadian and U.S. role in the small, Central American country. Dr. Corbett asked me to post the details of the trip.
Photo caption: A human rights delegation protests with the Honduran social movement outside of largest U.S. military base “Palmerola” in Central America denouncing North American intervention in Honduras and militarization. June 28, 2011, Comayagua, Honduras.
EDUCATIONAL DELEGATION TO HONDURAS: March 16-23
DESCRIPTION: Since the June 28, 2009 military coup against the government of President Zelaya, Rights Action – along with other North American organizations – has been working hard to support the courageous Honduran people’s pro-democracy movement.
Despite serious, on-going repression being committed by the regime, the Honduran people – men and women, young and old, teachers, indigenous people, LGBT people, campesino (small farmers), business owners, students – continue to organize and work peacefully for human rights and justice, for a return to democracy and the rule of law, and for a just and fair society and country.
One impediment to the return of democracy is that the governments of Canada and the United States along with North American investors and companies (mining, tourism, bananas, maquiladora sweat-shops, African palm and sugar cane, etc.) are doing business with, empowering and ‘legitimizing’ the illegitimate regime.
During this educational delegation, participants will learn about: Honduran and Central American history; the context that led to the 2009 military coup; the role of Canadian and American governments and companies in legitimizing and benefiting from the military coup; and about the courage and spirit of Honduras’ peaceful pro-democracy movement.
THE PLAN: Fly into the Toncontin airport in the city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Saturday, March 16. Delegates will depart from Tegucigalpa on Saturday, March 23. Participants will be met at the airport.
Over the course of 6 full days in Honduras, participants will meet with Hondurans and some North Americans involved in the pro-democracy struggle and working for human rights and the environment. The group will travel (by rented van) to and spend nights in rural communities seeking justice for environmental and health harms caused by North American mining companies; to the north coast and visit indigenous Garifuna communities resisting forced eviction from their ancestral lands to make way for global tourism businesses and the production of African palm and sugar cane ‘for export’; meet with people working for the rights of sweat-shop (maquiladora) workers; and more. Closer to the actual dates, Rights Action will set out a detailed 6-day itinerary.
TYPE OF PARTICIPANT: This trip is for people from all walks of life (students, professors and educators, media, foundations, etc.) who are concerned about: global exploitation and poverty; military interventions and repression; the global “development” model and environmental destruction; and, about courageous people and their courageous work and struggles for community-controlled development, protection of the environment, human rights and justice, and for democracy.
Grahame Russell: is a non-practising lawyer, adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Colombia, author, and, since 1995, co-director of Rights Action. Rights Action funds community-controlled development, environmental defense and human rights projects in Guatemala and Honduras, as well as Chiapas, El Salvador and Oaxaca; and carries out education and activism work in the USA and Canada related to global human rights, environmental and development issues.
Karen Spring: A Canadian human rights and anti-mining activist that has worked in Honduras since 2008. She moved to Tegucigalpa to live and work with Rights Action shortly after the military coup from July 2009 to August 2011. Before Honduras, Karen lived in Guatemala for 1.5 years doing human rights accompaniment and working with grassroots struggles that Rights Action continues to support. Karen now travels back and forth between Honduras-Vancouver while she complete a Masters in Public Health at Simon Fraser University.
COST: $750 – This covers: 7 nights of hotel; 3 meals a day for 6 days (on some days, there will only be 2 meals covered); transportation in-country; trip organization, guiding, translation; honorariums for some people and communities we meet with, etc. Participants pay for their own travel to and from Honduras.
RISK: Grahame and Karen will have discussions with interested persons about the possible risks involved with this delegation before people decide to join or not. Since 1995, with Rights Action, Grahame has planned and led over 50 such delegations to Honduras, Guatemala, Chiapas and Oaxaca, and never had any serious problems.
For more information, contact Grahame Russell, email@example.com