Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Advocacy Stand-Off

I have to say that I increasingly find my views and convictions around advocacy out of step with emails that find their way into my inbox. I suspect that we are on the verge of a major stand off in Canada between our federal government and all kinds of advocacy groups. CIDA's de-funding of Kairos late last fall (see for Kairos' fact sheet on this issue) and the more recent indications that the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC) will also have their funding slashed - are two important water marks that quantify the chill that is growing between our federal government and prominent advocacy groups.

These groups clearly see it as an important part of their mandate to relentlessly criticize government policy and policy makers for failing to solve the serious global problems which immiserate a billion or more people on this earth. To be clear, I suspect that for many of these agencies the problem begins when the federal government fails to live up to the commitments and promises it makes. The frustration over this - especially as both the leaders and the grass roots members of these organizations literally rub shoulders with the global poor and marginalized whose lives WOULD be made less miserable if governments of the G8 countries would just keep their promises - boils over into a pervasive and seething anger which subsequently influences every advocacy initiative.

It IS frustrating when the failure of so called "wealthy" nations to keep their promises means that the poorest of the world's poor continue to live in abject poverty and without dignity. But let's be realistic. The problems are incredibly complex. Money, though a necessary part of the solution, is only one part, and I would argue, not even the most important part. And when faith-based and other civil society advocacy groups focus on the dollars, we perpetuate the lie that more money can solve the problems. Governments provide a convenient scapegoat but we have to remember that governments are NOT gods. They are not omnipowerful or, omnicompetent (as Bruce Clemenger of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada likes to say).

Governments do what they have to do to maintain their positions of power. They are often hanging onto power by a thin thread. They cannot and will not be able to lead effectively on the global stage if they are vulnerable to a fickle and selfish constituencies at home. The righteous indignation of Canadian advocacy groups - like Kairos, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the Council of Canadians, the Canadian chapter of Make Poverty History (to name a few) is but one voice that the government hears. And who do these organizations speak for? How representative are their views? Do they have the support of the business sector? Let's face it, if we seriously expect our governments to put their commitments to the Millennium Development Goals ahead of the pressures for economic growth from the business sectors of their own economies, I think we need to change our tactics - and possibly our hearts.

I cringe when I hear the language of rights and of demands and of anger defining our advocacy and our public voice and presence. I think we mean well. I KNOW we do. I understand - and share - the frustration with policies and policy makers and the feelings of helplessness in the face of such horrendous suffering. But let's not spend so much of our time and resources chasing after vague promises of more money - except when it is programming money that we KNOW is being well spent and making a positive difference for our partners. Let's divert THAT advocacy time and those resources to efforts to change our own cultures and our own constituencies.

When widespread public opinion in our privileged countries champions the causes for which we advocates and social activists are passionate our governments will have the moral authority and political capital to keep their promises - and not just promises to provide money but more importantly to design and implement structural reforms. There are lots of addictions in our societies that will need to be confronted if we are to win over public opinion. We have our work cut out for us!

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