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writing for godot

Work in human rights: As the late US representative John Lewis used to say:

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Saturday, 21 November 2020 15:10


Human rights: Food for a non-troubling thought  ‘HR activism’


Human Rights Reader 554


[TLDR (too long didn’t read): This Reader is about the practices HR activists and public interest civil society organizations are expected to implement and the implications this has for the fulfillment of human rights. For a quick overview, just read the bolded text].

-Activists must transform every ‘it was’ into an ‘I willed it thus’! That is, take hold of the situation, accept their responsibility in it, and set a commensurate goal worth pursuing. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

-The penalty of inaction and of apathy often is destitution, marginalization, illness and death. (Amatya Sen)

[What follows may well fit into my iron laws category]

1. Activists beware

  • By looking so much at the tip of your shoes you can end up walking backwards or stay nailed to the ground. (Esteban Valenti)
  • No wind is favorable for him who does not know where to go or where he is going.  (Seneca)
  • Do not too soon stop remembering what was supposed not to be forgotten. (paraphrasing Jorge Luis Borges) [Not a tongue twister].
  • Playing the cards poorly (discarding the aces of good alliances) will be a misguided decision. Never toss away valuable cards. (Joseph Nye)
  • Stereotyping the object of your criticism emotionalizes the issue rather than leading to correctly analyzing and diagnosing it.
  • Stop talking about crises and start talking about challenges. Stop talking about claim holders being victims and recognize that they are key social agents. [If you continue to point out the negatives in your analyzes, it is most likely that others will see us human rights (HR) activists in negative terms!]. (Kumi Naidoo)
  • The frenzy everyday of activism risks neutralizing your HR work. It risks destroying your own inner capacity for focusing. It can destroy the effectiveness of your work, because it kills the root of your inner wisdom that makes work gratifying. (adapted from Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
  • To allow yourself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit yourself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the contemporary malaise. (This because there is a pervasive trend to which majorities most easily succumb. Take overwork: The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate obsession).
  • To retreat from any sensitive subject is to deny yourself an important opportunity for opening a path.


2. A last beware here: The challenge we face as HR activists has been described as now having reached base camp --knowing that still to be climbed is the Everest peak…


3. Activists, do consider these good practices/this advice


  • Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a grave mistake… (Napoleon Bonaparte)
  • Be realistic: Often the ethical dilemma entails a choice between two equally unwelcome alternatives: choose the easier way out. Reflective activists look at possible actions, recognize moral conflicts and understand their source and then take responsibility for handling the respective issue when making decisions. This also means: Go to negotiate/to demand on a high moral ground. (Yash Tandon)
  • Cooperative actions succeed only if in relatively egalitarian societies. Community members/claim holders will cooperate only when they have a common interest, are convinced that that common interest can only be met by acting collectively. Cooperation is more likely to occur in cases where claim holders are faced with a serious common problem or threat (--if there is none, create one?). Therefore, foster selective and negotiated alliances that build on specific common interests and accommodate people’s interests from the design phase-on of any action. (N. A. Khan)
  • Enthusiasm is an indispensable condition to bring about big transformations in history.  (Julio Monsalvo)
  • Good activists encourage heterogeneity while maintaining program focus.
  • Local struggles need to be linked to wider issues. For activists, this means helping communities to regain their critical consciousness and strategic initiative to reclaim social justice overall; it also means communities refusing any form of fatalistic passivity, as well as developing engagements that eventually and progressively lead to a global power base --not forgetting to engage women and youth so they engage in sustaining the strategic struggle. (J. Onyx and K. Dovey)
  • Question the pseudo-scientific view that common people’s observations cannot be quantified; this is nonsense. Such a view unconsciously colors people’s perception of reality. It often leads us to error. (The brain is an adaptive organ: Our ways of thinking and perceiving the world are full of prejudices developed over many centuries as adaptive devices that do not necessarily lead to our describing absolute truth). (Konrad Lorenz)
  • Seek help from committed experts and academics who share our human rights (HR) commitment.
  • Success or failure are complicated matters. Any serious struggle will have moments of regression. It is constant activism that is actually on-and-on called upon to retool your options and policies based on evolving circumstances. Nothing is gained with snapping your fingers… Some things work, other do not and we pick up and continue from there. (Noam Chomsky)
  • Use a framework that connects all the different social actors you know so as to attempt to set up a highly focused common agenda.


4. A last advice: Manage to develop a political project of as-a-universal-an-appeal-as-possible by tapping on the various social and political opportunities at hand and by using the resources available in a HR significant and productive way. You will find that a major difference is brought about by claim holders’ determination to do something about their many deprivations.


Public interest civil society activism

5. Keeping the state, governing and funding bodies and other vested interests honest can be a tenuous path for many activists. Of necessity, public interest civil society activism* must adapt to different circumstances across countries. It has become clear that these civil society activities must be ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’. For them, activism has to go to the ‘nitty-gritty’ and that is hard work that may not appeal to those who lack the ideological motivation. [So, ‘if you are looking for glamour, join a corporate bank’…]

*: The definition of civil society refers to the broad collectivity of non-official, non-commercial and more or less formally organized groups that seek to reinforce or alter existing rules, norms and social structures. (J. A. Scholte) [I would add there are conformer, reformer and more radical CSOs]. The definition of public interest civil society refers to voluntary associations, organizations, movements and/or networks that live and act in the social space outside of the state and of the private sector(!).


6. Most importantly, public interest CSOs see claim holders, not merely as victims, but also as active agents of change --and work according to this premise.


International NGOs activism?: An altogether different set-up

-Congruence between ‘a mission’ and value-based/value-guided programs is only achieved when the values development organizations stand-for actually carry their everyday practice. Yes, institutional NGO cultures do not change overnight, but can and do, on occasions, change.

7. Here are a list of my yeses in this dispassionate assessment:

  • Yes, unfortunately, too many international NGOs (and some of their coopted national NGO allies) have become ‘professional lobbyists’ (not on HR issues though) that too often fail to appropriately report back to the communities they represent. Also look at how often the lines between the interests of these NGOs and those of the state and those of external funders are blurred. A first step is to recognize their complicity --if there is one-- with the structures that they want to change, i.e., their complicity in the status-quo. What will help in this is a ‘process of learning from practice’, actively interrogating their practice, particularly remaining connected to the local scene to demand accountability. (Yes, accountability is more difficult to pin on global actors).
  • Yes, if these NGOs do not have a constituency, they may be/are not accountable to anybody, even ethically. Their advocacy seldom attempts to influence people who do not have the same (purported) ‘progressive’ thinking they have. [We note, yes, there have been few progressive HR policies that have been implemented with the advocacy and mobilizing efforts of selected international NGO activists].
  • Yes, communication is central to both NGO and public interest CSOs activism. Without communication, there is no activism. The communication needed is about the ‘redistribution of freedoms’ since, so far, mostly the more privileged have significantly benefited from development enterprises.
  • Yes, there is growing concern over the de-politization of individuals in international NGOs. Communication strategies must counter this since a progressive ideological foundation is essential to development and to HR advocacy work on equity issues; this is clearly lacking in many NGOs. Their staff is often disenfranchised from the collective; their organizations are encouraged to be competitive rather than collaborative, their programs and projects are siloed, and activities are tied primarily to economic outcomes.** (Connie Musolino et al)
  • Yes, international NGOs are rather uncertain and often unreliable allies of ‘the poor’. Their systems and structures are just not appropriate enough for comprehensively tackling the social determination and HR roots of the problems of those rendered poor. They are so busy doing ‘things’ that they not-often-enough stop to see the validity of their (mostly service provision) work. They get satisfied with less than the best, get familiar with mediocrity and hesitate to stand up and be counted on the issue of widespread HR violations. They operate in parallel to government, but claim to be more effective. (?) They have too often become marginal to the people by sacrificing values in the name of expediency. They need to revision and remission themselves to become relevant in a people’s empowerment process that takes more years than 3-year projects. (Prem John)
  • Yes, NGOs are yet to establish linkages to join forces with the people’s movements instead of being patronized by bilateral funding agencies that seek to depoliticize the NGOs movement.
  • Yes, the sustainability of NGOs has become a different animal from the sustainability of actions by the people, for the people. An NGO’s continued existence is not an end in itself!
  • Yes, while Northern governments are the initiators and executors of the Northern development paradigm, the response of international NGOs can vary from total submission to organized resistance, to becoming pressure groups and confronting the system. What needs to be stopped is the cooption of multilateral and bilateral other external funders with international NGOs. In the process, big INGOs have become mega NGOs.

**: The People’s Health Movement’s (PHM) is not an NGO; it is a global network of networks. Its distinctive niche in the above is that it pays particular attention to campaigning on structural issues since its members are convinced that focusing on single issues risks ignoring the inequitable underpinnings of the respective national and the global economy. In response, some of the activities of PHM, and especially its International People’s Health University short courses, are designed to politicize NGO and other health and social service workers to encourage them to go beyond the provision of curative health services and to extend them to prevention and advocacy for structural changes to economic and political systems. Its motto is that Health for All has always consisted of an outward global looking approach to addressing health equality. (


8. Finally, let me leave you with a question: Are international NGOs a convenient green light to the privatization of social services? I ask this because, in the global context, often privatization equals denationalization --and the latter leads to deeper inequalities and further HR violations. …Food for thought.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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