Thu. Dec 2nd, 2021

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission

WORLD: Measuring the impact of advocacy programmes

BY Basil Fernando

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The word advocacy is used for various purposes and in each case, there is a different connotation attached to it. Commercial advertisements advocate the buying of their products and the promotion of other commercially-related objectives; political parties use the ideas of advocacy very often to promote their parties with the view that the voters may select them when there are in an electoral contest; politicians who are pursuing modernisation policies would use the word advocacy to mean greater industrialisation and improvement of modern technology in their countries within a given period of time; a dictator like Adolf Hitler would use advocacy to promote his reasons for going to war and to create public support for their approach; and an authoritarian, totalitarian leader like Joseph Stalin would use advocacy to mean the brainwashing of the entire population not only for a political programme but to completely change social relations and to justify extreme forms of repression.

Thus, in each area of human activity, there is an element of advocacy, and more and more with communication-related changes, and especially with modern communication, it changes what is meant by the term advocacy with various other names and plays a central role in almost every activity.

In this short essay, we use advocacy to mean those efforts to promote understanding and to win support for matters relating to human dignity, equality before the law and respect for human rights. This unique use of the meaning of the term advocacy needs to be thoroughly grasped in attempting to evolve the methods pertaining to the various measures that are taken for such advocacy.

This general theme of the promotion of human dignity, the rule of law and human rights is broken down to separate aspects when people have to work at particular times, under particular historical circumstances and on particular types of changes that are needed to achieve the overall goal. Thus, each project to use the term that is usually used in modern funders jargon has a specificity.

In measuring a particular advocacy programme, the first issue that needs to be grasped is what is specific to this project. Some examples will be useful. Respect for equality before the law is a general objective. Winning equality for the coloured people in the US, particularly those who are called the black people is a specific issue. The promotion of women’s rights is a general issue. However, getting the right to education for the girl child in a particular society is a specific objective.

The prevention of torture is a general human rights objective. However, the prevention of the torture of political prisoners is a specific project. Preventing torture in normal criminal justice processes by the police is again a specific objective within the general framework. The promotion of the freedom of expression, association and assembly is a general objective. Dealing with persons who have been persecuted for the use of the freedom of expression within a given political regime is a specific objective. Similar examples can be given in various areas.

Distinguishing the specific and the general in terms of the actual work is at the core of effective advocacy. For example, the US Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression to everyone. However, for many centuries that ‘everyone’ only meant the white people of the US. If the advocacy is done to promote the freedom of expression of the black community who are now called African-Americans, that is an extremely unique historical task beset with extremely unique problems relating to repression, the law, police behaviour and above all relating to the attitude of the different communities. On that specific issue, a larger section of the white community would think in one way and the Afro American community would think and experience it in a different way.

By merely promoting the freedom of expression in the US, we cannot address the issue of the problem relating to the freedom of expression in the black community, and nowadays in other communities from other parts of the world who have since come to the US. If we cannot understand that specificity, we simply cannot understand the particular struggle of that particular people.

This brings us to the issue that every serious advocacy issue in terms of human dignity, equality before the law and human rights is very specific in nature. It is a historic task. The history of every country and every locality is unique and specific. What that means is that there are unique problems in particular societies and particular communities at particular times. The geographical, cultural, political and other sociological boundaries including the psychological factors of the human attitudes are all uniquely expressed within unique contexts.

This brings us to a very vital issue as to who is an outsider to a struggle and who is an insider to a struggle. Depending on whether one is an outsider or insider, one’s view will take a different shape.

Let us once again go back to the issue of the black people (African-Americans now) in the US. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who escaped after suffering during the early part of his life as a slave, brought into the movement against slavery the unique perspective of an insider. He was the product of the very problems that he was struggling against, The manner in which he articulated the problem could not be articulated by anyone else even if he/she was sympathetic to the cause because they did not have the existential experience of being a part of the problem as well as the existential experience of being a part of the struggle. Any advocacy programme that loses this distinction about the work of insiders and that of the outsiders, the latter who may be sympathetic or not, misses the point of an advocacy programme.

We may explain this insider-outsider perspective from another well known historical example, this time from South Asia. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was from an untouchable family which means people who were so completely discriminated that they were considered to be so contemptible that no kind of contact could be had with them. He grew up with all the experiences and the sufferings associated with untouchability as a schoolchild and even after being qualified with two doctorates from Europe and England. When a very sympathetic ruler gave him a position, none of his subordinates wanted to come close to him. Nobody was willing to rent him an apartment. He had to pretend to have a different name and be of a different caste in order to even get a place to stay. And of course, these are simply lists of such desperation that goes into thousands of things that he went through all his life.

He emerged as the leader of these people and he even changed the name of the untouchables to Dalit, meaning those who are engaged in a struggle. In all his contributions, both as a legislator, the secretary of the committee drafting the Constitution and the Law Minister and above all his organisational work and writings, he articulated the perspective of an insider giving guidance to his people as to how they could struggle to liberate themselves from their historical social imprisonment.

Mahatma Gandhi was also sympathetic towards the untouchables. He considered the existence of untouchability as one of the greatest sins of Indian civilisation. However, he was not able to provide the kind of vision and guidance to the Dalit population as Dr. Ambedkar did. Dr. Ambedkar is still the main inspiration of the Dalit movement in India and he has also influenced other movements like the black movement in the US. His was an insider’s vision, somebody who knew the problem from the existential point of view and was looking for an existential answer. Gandhi was a well-meaning good person who wished these others well and did whatever he could.

However, when it came to the Independence struggle, Gandhi was an insider. Gandhi was a part of the people who were subjugated under a colony. The British Empire dominated their lives. Their country belonged to the British crown. In that, his vision was to gain Independence from Britain at all costs. In that struggle, he was an insider. Colonialism was an existential problem for him and Independence was an existential solution to that problem.

The philosophical explanation of the insider-outsider perspective

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said something to the effect that if a person knows why he/she could do anything. Knowing why you do something is the most essential philosophical question that is associated with an advocacy programme.

The same idea was later rearticulated many times by Viktor Frankl, the former concentration camp survivor who wrote the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning and articulated the problem of the search for meaning, reducing it to knowing why. Martin Luther King Jr. in the US further elaborated the problem by saying that if anyone could answer why they would find the how. Thus, when assessing an advocacy programme, the most important issue that should be considered is why this programme was developed and whether it is justifiable to answer partially or fully that question as to why this is being undertaken. If that point is missed, then everything is missed. In terms of a particular project, unique to a particular country, what should be asked is why that project should be undertaken under those particular historical circumstances. If our project is about dealing with the institutional backwardness or obstructions to access to justice as a methodology to deprive all rights including the defeat of all attempts to improve the conditions of the poor, then the question that should be asked is whether this is a fundamentally valid idea.

When we say fundamentally valid, it does not merely mean a good idea or something that is alright but something which is far more fundamental. That is, do the historical conditions of this particular country or particular countries justify the selection of this particular objective as an answer to a problem that requires an answer? And it does not merely require some answer but it requires an answer without which the society cannot achieve the overall objectives of human dignity, equality before the law and human rights. Thus, we come to the core of ourselves. In short, it means that the objectives articulated in Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) {State Parties undertake to respect and ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or another status} and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 of the UN for 2030 {Promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies with peace, justice and strong institutions} are so fundamental to these societies, that without which, not a single step can be taken forward in achieving the other overall goals.

Therefore, considerable time should be spent on measuring the validity of this project. That means the validity of the answer to why meaning the justification for the particular objective in the particular historical context in the particular society.

Who would answer that question as to the validity of these objectives? Above all, those who can answer that are the insiders, meaning those who live in these countries and who suffer from the absence of the realisation of these objectives. They have an existential experience as to whether one could achieve respect for human dignity if for example the policing system of the country is so backward and it relies heavily on the use of torture and ill-treatment of the poor as their tool for investigating into crime and also of social control. It is only an insider who knows what it means to go to a court which will frustrate all his/her requests for justice and instead push them back to a worse position than from where they started.

It is a rape victim who would know whether the justice system in her country would be able to grant justice. It is a young woman who has to go out of her house for education, or to the office for work, or for social purposes who could answer the question as to whether they feel safe and protected outside their homes.

It is the trade unionists of a particular country who answer whether the rights of trade unions are respected in that country or not. It is the people engaged in media work that could assess whether they are exposed to direct or indirect censorship and other kinds of punishments if they engage in the free exercise of their profession. To this we can add a whole other list.

For an insider to answer these questions, they do not need to read books or engage in any other kind of references. They can talk about these problems from their life experiences. If their life experiences show that everything is fine and that all these rights are guaranteed, then the insider story is one that affirms that the system is working well. But if the general will of the insider is such that it is negative, either completely or to a great degree, that means that the proper problem has been understood in terms of advocacy work to change it.

Therefore, any proper measurement or evaluation must first answer the question: is the objective of pursuing Article 2 of the ICCPR and SDG 16 valid and a fundamentally important issue to be pursued in the particular context in which this project is being operated. Without answering the why, going into all other factors will only be a diversion of the discussion towards trivialities rather than to the fundamentals.

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The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.

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