The 21st century provides unprecedented opportunities for common citizens to advocate for causes they believe in and issues they are passionate about. This is the century of non-governmental organisations, small interest groups, and campaigns launched by individuals. Many do an excellent job in contributing to the betterment of this weary planet. Yet, many also suffer from lack of reflexivity over how they go about their advocacy, what undesired messages this sends, and how sometimes their efforts might be counterproductive.
After a decade of professional work advocating in human rights, foreign policy, defence and security issues, allow me to highlight some basic lessons I have learned from my own mistakes and mistakes I see being committed commonly by others.
Not poetry, or emotions, but facts alter policies and make meaningful campaigns: If you are arguing that there is an issue, prove it, demonstrate it and communicate it in such a way that it leaves no doubt behind and opens eyes. Lousy arguments, grandiose claims, and poorly produced briefings only weaken credibility and open the door for doubt and criticism. It is all the more important to do so if you are challenging a formal body or a government. You might be right, but if you have not given your best to make your case, they can easily relativise your points and brush you aside.
Have a strategy: Meetings, pictures with high level officials or angry press releases sent out to any email address you can get hold of are worth nothing, unless they are carefully considered steps towards carefully considered objectives. We all want peace on earth, and goodwill among men, and no one has the power to single-handedly solve complex issues we see unfolding. You might have a long term vision to end poverty, conflicts and human rights abuses, but for your efforts to have any meaning, you have to focus on achievable, tangible and strategic steps towards that vision. Before acting on a cause, stop, think and have a long term game plan. Often, the most effective strategies are quiet and behind-closed-door work that takes a long time to actualise. Know the pitfalls of public campaigning, and use publicity moderately. It is a double-edged sword, and at times can hinder long term change.
Do your homework on your advocacy targets: Knocking on every door and meeting everyone with an official title is not advocacy, but having a busy week of meetings that goes nowhere, changes and achieves nothing. Locate who and which official body can bring change on the issue you are working on. Do not fall into the mistake of thinking the highest person in that body is the person whom you should meet. Often, it is their advisors and mid-level management that take practical decisions and can quickly act on tangible requests. Relationships are everything in advocacy, not as a means but as the very end. Work hard to earn the trust and friendship of your advocacy targets, and work harder to maintain them by providing excellent information, impartial advice and research-based expertise.
Do not transfer your frustration with the world onto the first official you meet:You might feel your heart palpitating a bit as you enter an official building with an impressive name. You have a long model-UN speech prepared to shake and rebuke officials sitting inside – people who have never heard what you have to say and who have no hearts or morality. In reality, those buildings are full of people like you: human, moral, deeply passionate about making a difference. I have sat in countless meetings where academics and activists continually rebuked and angrily challenged officials, all along thinking they are advocating for change. Such juvenile approaches might help you feel better, but they close doors for you among people with whom you need to work. Advocacy is not a therapy session, but a sophisticated form of diplomacy. It demands measured behaviour, respect, humility, and a knowledge of when to speak up and most importantly, when to shut up.
Involve and respect people you claim to be advocating for: It is always deeply disappointing to see people claiming to be campaigning for vulnerable people, but who do not include their voices, requests and involve them in organisations and campaigns. It is also deeply unethical to simply campaign for people without ever getting their permission and support for your work. Without ethical considerations on whether your advocacy might cause more pain for them, relativise their suffering, or put them in a difficult spot, advocacy turns into a harmful show that only benefits the advocates, not people they are claiming to help.
Leave your ego, politics and ideologies at home: If you are claiming to be raising your concerns for a humanitarian cause, then make sure why and what you are doing is for that end and not about you, your domestic politics, and your ideologies. Nothing so undermines advocacy and relativises suffering of people around the world as domestic political agendas which cherry-pick incidents to score a domestic political point. Nothing so kills humanitarianism as an advocate whose entire framework is actually themselves, their fame, their importance, and their place at a big table. Self-promotion is not advocacy, but just self-promotion using charitable aims. As a test of your motivations, ask yourself: Am I willing not to be publicly credited if something great happens? Am I willing to work with and advocate for people whose beliefs, values, and ideologies are different than mine? Am I willing to step back from the buzz and stage lights? If you cannot answer 'yes' to these questions, then you have to stop and reflect hard and long about your motivations. The answers will almost always already be clear to people around you.
With great opportunities come great responsibilities. We have more and more chances to impact the way things are in the world, but unless done correctly, not only do such opportunities go to waste, they can also be harmful and raise serious ethical problems. Thus, a good advocate is almost always self-critical, cautious, and committed to ensure that his or her efforts actually mean something.