- New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs
Paul J. Nelson and Ellen Dorsey, in their recent book, examine the various "seemingly disparate, activities of international nongovernmental organizations" concerned with poverty and inequality, which use strategies linking international human rights advocacy with social and economic development.1 These strategies call for the human rights groups among them to advocate for economic and social rights, as well as civil and political rights and for the development (and environmental) groups to introduce concepts of political emancipation and rights advocacy into their agenda. The strategies also call for more collaborative relationships with governments, beyond the old strategy of naming and shaming. Among the "disparate" NGOs they use as examples are Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Amnesty International, CARE, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), and Action Aid, as well as some other smaller NGOs that address economic and social rights.
The authors ask: Why have the international human rights and the development agenda converged? What impelled the [End Page 1018] change? And more importantly, who has benefited? As for their motivation, the authors attribute it to the desire to eliminate inequality, deprivation, and marginalization. How effective are the new strategies? They respond that the groups should be judged by their impact on the lives of the large numbers of people who live under inhuman social, economic, and political conditions. Overall the authors conclude that international NGOs have been most influential with respect to persuading governments to refrain from actions detrimental to human rights, such as water privatization, but not so effective when it comes to governments fulfilling positive obligations such as providing healthcare and education. They qualify their conclusions as first steps and call for more rigorous research.
If we look at the history of external inputs to economic and political development since the founding of the United Nations in 1945 until the early 1990s, we can see two very divergent trends: the success stories like Japan, Western Europe, Israel, and Taiwan on one hand, and the utter failures in Africa, parts of the Caribbean, and the Middle East, on the other. Since the beginning of the 1990s the development picture has become more complex with the rise of China, India, and Brazil as well as the evolution of the former communist countries. The linking of the rights and development agenda has taken place during this second period, which is also characterized by a major increase in the number of local NGOs and community organizations in developing countries. This, coupled with government corruption, has prompted international development agencies to partner with local NGOs and community organizations rather than just with governments. Partnering, sustainability, and local capacity building are now the dominant mantra in the development thinking. The strategic changes identified by Nelson and Dorsey took place within, and are consistent with, this larger framework.
The book is an excellent chronicle in its major task, namely, to trace the changing strategies and convergences among major US and UK human rights and development aid NGOs. This is a book about the way changes in the international system "produced recognizable changes in NGO sectors' methods, missions, and strategies."2 The volume focuses on how the "[i]nternational NGOs struggle to maintain the independence, credibility, and stability that are essential preconditions to the exercise of power and influence."3 In the process, it describes new advocacy strategies—the traditional rights groups embracing economic issues and development groups incorporating human rights—as well as new forms of collaboration among them. Unfortunately, with the exception of passing references to one or two local groups, the voices of the intended beneficiaries remain in the wings.
This absence of the voices (there is not just one) of their NGOs partners on the ground and of the people the new strategies are supposed to benefit raises questions about the relationships between the international NGOs and local NGOs and social movements. Although historically more reliant on local NGOs, even the international human rights NGOs often relegate their local partners...