Academic journal article Humanity

Interpreting the Rise of International "Advocacy"

Academic journal article Humanity

Interpreting the Rise of International "Advocacy"

Article excerpt

Advocacy seems to have become a core term in the vocabulary of international rights.1 Today the world of international non-governmental organizations is characterized by the imperative to "advocate," especially in the areas of development and humanitarian aid, as well as the defense of human rights and the environment. As early as 2002, Barry Coates and Rosalind David wrote, "Advocacy work has become the latest enthusiasm for most agencies involved in international aid and development. Over the past decade NGOs have dedicated more resources and given a higher priority to influencing and advocacy work at all levels (local, national, and international levels)."2 Indeed, in this time "advocacy" has become commonplace well beyond the sphere of English-speakers, together with increased interest in the literature devoted to NGOs and transnational social movements, typified by an emphasis on transnational advocacy networks.3

Yet there is something surprising about the meteoric rise in the use of the word "advocacy" for a particularly ill-defined activity. As I will show, there was some initial resistance to the word itself. For a long time, it generated uneasiness outside the English-speaking world. At first, the uneasiness was at the linguistic level, for there is no satisfactory equivalent in many languages. In Latin languages, neither Portuguese nor Italian nor Spanish nor French offered an adequate translation.4 The word plaidoyer is routinely used as the French translation nowadays, but it was still problematic ten years ago. But in addition to linguistic anxiety, in the late 1990s many French NGOs balked at describing their actions in these terms for more significant reasons.5 The original resistance to "advocacy" thus provides a point of entry into my attempt here to question a term that might seem far more natural to the English-speaker.

The point here is not to defend a proper use of the term nor to express regret at the widespread adoption of English vocabulary simply because I am a French speaker. Nor do I intend to reconstruct a genealogy of the term, which would entail a history of the evolution of the American legal field in the twentieth century that is beyond the scope of this essay. But examining how the term is used, the reasons for its success, the practices it designates, its consistent (or inconsistent) application, as well as the terms to which it is sometimes contrasted, offers useful tools for analyzing certain transformations underway in the world known as "international civil society." In fact, advocacy is a practice that allows us to define the social basis and concrete embodiments of "international civil society" as a normative ideal.6 More specifically, it opens a window onto transformations in several partially connected social worlds. Finally, studying the dissemination of the demand for advocacy brings us back to a sensitive theoretical issue, at the juncture of how ideas circulate in the world and how international aid is sociologically organized. Are we merely describing the circulation of a word, which can be applied to an infinite variety of practices depending on the context in which it is used? Or are we describing a little more, especially specific practices that accompany the word?

Of course, the meaning of the word "advocacy" and the practices it covers are not the same for every organization. The highly critical advocacy in which organizations such as Médecins sans frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) or Oxfam engage has little in common with the far more controlled form of intervention involved in the advocacy promoted by the World Bank. But in fact the variety of its uses is not unlimited. It would be a mistake to assume that a few powerful, independent, and critical actors are representative of the whole world of NGOs, which are varied, to be sure, but also filled with routines partly inherited from the international bureaucracies that endorse or finance them.7 Is there thus a little more than just a word involved here, as the family resemblance among many advocacy practices of different NGOs suggests? …

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