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  • Internal Affairs: How the Structure of NGOs Transforms Human Rights by Wendy H. Wong
  • Erica Bornstein (bio)
Wendy H. Wong , Internal Affairs: How the Structure of NGOs Transforms Human Rights (Cornell University Press 2012), 251 pages, ISBN No. 978-0-8014-5079-2.

What makes a human right relevant on the world stage? Is it the right's inherent moral value? Or is its relevance a product of marketing, funding, or the magnetic capabilities of a charismatic leader? Internal Affairs suggests we turn our attention to the structural design of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to understand what distinguishes those human rights issues that are championed as international concerns from those that barely make a ripple. At the crux of this well written and easily assignable text stands the notion that the success of a rights-campaign hinges on its structure. The book will be a valuable contribution to the scholarly libraries of anthropologists, political scientists, and international relations experts, while also serving as an indispensable tool for rights-based practitioners.

Human rights NGOs and social scientists, take note: the book offers a magic formula. If the gold standard of human rights advocacy is the ability to influence international law and change the behavior of states, Wendy Wong identifies a tripartite means of comparing organizational structures and measuring their advocacy. She posits that organizational structure of NGOs can be analyzed in terms of the following three components: (1) proposal power—who sets the agenda, (2) enforcement power—who enforces the agenda, and (3) implementation—who carries out the agenda, including grassroots advocacy. The effective campaigns are those that have large, localized grassroots communities focused on spreading a strong, clear message. These campaigns are centered around a structural design rooted in centralized proposals, enforcement powers, and decentralized implementation mechanisms. Wong explores how this particular institutional alchemy yields the capacity to initiate economic sanctions, influence states, and change laws.

Wong refers to an NGOs ability to facilitate change as political salience, and she utilizes this concept to sidestep both simplistic moral binaries and literature on norms and normative change. Political salience, which is defined by Wong as including the ability to influence states and other powerful political actors by way of advocacy, is determined by a campaign's implementation and structure, and not by the inherent moral worth of a human rights claim. Because NGOs aim to change laws and most laws are state-based, economic sanctions are a primary means through which international NGOs seek to effect change. Wong documents how human rights based economic sanctions began in the 1960s, before which sanctions were neither a strategy nor a potential outcome. States incur market losses when sanctions are implemented, so deciding to use sanctions signals a breakdown of inter-state negotiations. Although human rights and economic sanctions both follow flows of international norms and, in this way, are normative (declaring right and wrong), only a few rights become the rationale behind economic sanctions. This is what makes these few rights politically salient.1 These are the rights for which states are willing to incur the costs of sanctions. [End Page 796]

Effective NGO advocacy determines which rights are salient and which need attention; however, no rights are inherently more worthy than others. Rights become urgent and necessary to defend through the efforts of NGO campaigns. The key defining variable that makes some NGOs more successful than others in swaying the public toward a human right's political salience, according to this book, is the internal structure of an NGO: the distribution of agenda-setting and implementation powers. Wong is not influenced by the affective dimensions of human rights campaigns, such as wide-eyed children, suffering victims, and tortured souls that compel so many to engage with grassroots efforts. Instead, she focuses on how an issue becomes a topic of concern to begin with and argues that we focus our attention on how power is exercised within institutions. Only then can we understand how some ideas make it onto the world stage and others remain in the background.

Though the book effectively uses the comparative method for analysis, at times it seems that to compare MSF with HRW, Oxfam with...


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pp. 796-799
Launched on MUSE
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