Advocacy as sounding an alarm

This week’s guest writer is Jason Carkner, External Grants Coordinator for MCC Canada. Jason is originally from Whitby, Ontario and holds an M.A. in international development from the University of Ottawa.

A recent trip to Chad changed my ideas about advocacy and about how I work with MCC partners around the world.

I was in Chad working with the Ethics, Peace, and Justice Department (EPJ) of the Evangelical Churches & Missions in Chad—the national umbrella organization for Protestant churches in the country, and long-time partner of MCC. I was there to help develop a peacebuilding proposal for EuropeAid, which focused on the formation of interfaith committees of Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic men, women and youth. The proposal included 68 committees, each with a diverse membership of 10 people, that would launch 135 local initiatives that promote interfaith understanding, acceptance, and peace across the country.

As MCC Canada’s External Grants Coordinator I do a lot of proposal writing, which typically means plenty of Skype calls, way too many emails and Word documents and spreadsheets, and long hours spent in a cubicle overlooking the traffic on Winnipeg’s Bishop Grandin Boulevard. What often gets lost in those long-distance collaborations are the stories, relationships, emotions, hopes, and convictions that undergird the work of MCC’s partners. My meetings with Victor Dogos, EPJ’s Program Coordinator, had all of that.

Jason with Victor in Chad

Jason Carkner with Victor Dogos of the Ethics, Peace, and Justice Department (EPJ) of the Evangelical Churches & Missions in Chad.

In one meeting I was trying to have Victor number off the central issues affecting interfaith conflict in Chad, explain how the project was designed to address each one specifically, and articulate how this will result in changes to the lived experience of Chadians. But he didn’t really do that. Instead, he told me stories.

He told me that when a man is ready to marry, he will seek approval from his prospective in-laws by taking something from someone else by force, typically livestock or valuable materials, and presenting it to them as a symbol of his authority, power, and ability to provide and protect.

He told me that police formally provide “mediation services” for community disputes, but that they function more like bribe-based arbitrations that assign blame, fuel distrust, and do more harm than good.

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Dogos Victor, left, and Tchingweubé Yassang Boniface lead a session at an EEMET workshop, teaching skills in conflict resolution and practical strategies for acting as community peacemakers. (MCC Photo/Silas Crews)

I heard many stories during those meetings. Plenty of follow-up questions and “translation” work was required to generate the language of results-based management that institutional funders require. It was a great reminder that, despite the heavy emphasis on participation and inclusivity in the development sector, this technical language can itself be exclusionary. If we’re not careful, it will command a particular way of viewing development at the exclusion of all other perspectives.

During a broader conversation about EPJ’s work—which includes peacebuilding, HIV/AIDS, and advocacy—Victor explained something that has changed the way I think about advocacy and the work I do with MCC. His comments, which were paraphrased by a translator, went something like this:

“Advocacy is kind of like sounding an alarm. If a community says there’s no health centre here, or there’s no clean water to drink, we can do advocacy on their behalf to show that there is need. There’s an advocacy for something, and there’s also an advocacy against something. In the case of police brutality, you can name it and advocate against it. That helps improve the conditions of life for people. The common thread that runs across our three programs—peacebuilding, HIV/AIDS, and advocacy—is improving the quality of life and stability of the community.”

It struck me that he spoke about advocacy as a means of “naming” an issue. Giving something a name makes it easier to tell its story, which makes it easier to know and understand, which makes it easier to change. But through his stories Victor was telling me that we only name things and know them from our own vantage point, and that the challenge is to establish shared names and shared meaning. That was the objective of our project.

In hindsight I can see that, through his storytelling during those meetings, Victor was advocating. He was sounding an alarm. He wanted me to understand that violence is valued as a display of authority and an ability to provide and protect, and that local authorities treat conflict as a matter of right and wrong, black and white. He wanted me, and the EuropeAid evaluators, to “get it”.

My conversations with Victor helped me realize that a proposal should be more than a technical document requesting funding. It should be a piece of advocacy that enables our local partners to sound an alarm, to name the drivers of conflict, and tell the stories of the harm they cause and how they can be overcome.

Jason's desk in Chad

Jason Carkner’s desk while working with the Ethics, Peace, and Justice Department (EPJ) of the Evangelical Churches & Missions in Chad.

We all see injustice, so we all have opportunities to sound an alarm. Not all advocacy needs to take the form of a letter to the Prime Minister or a protest sign at a rally. My time with Victor taught me that advocacy is everyday stuff.

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