by Nate Howard
In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.
This week, we want to share a condensed version of an article published in the Spring 2014 issue of Intersections.
Advocacy is too often reduced to engagement with legislators and other political officials, with a primary focus on those in northern power centers such as Ottawa and, especially, Washington, D.C. To be sure, such engagement is an indispensable part of a multifaceted advocacy approach. Yet we need to conceive of advocacy, and approaches to systemic change, in a broader and more complex manner if we are to acknowledge the dispersed nature of power, including the power exercised by communities in the global south as they organize to address local policies and processes that represent barriers to justice and social change.
We should not think of advocacy simply in terms of political engagement in the global north, but also in terms of: communities in the global south mobilizing to engage local, regional and national government officials in their contexts; solidarity among communities and organizations from the global south; Indigenous groups learning from each other’s post-colonial struggles; and more. This broadened understanding of advocacy, we suggest, productively challenges assumptions we often implicitly hold that northern states—especially the United States—are history’s primary actors and shifts our focus to the energy and agency within communities in the global south.
MCC’s partners across the global south often urge MCC to undertake political advocacy in Canada and the United States. Yet these same partners are also typically immersed in communities that are actively mobilizing at the local level to advocate for change.
Before arriving in Colombia in 2012 to start co-facilitating the Seed program, I worked for almost six years with MCC in Guatemala. While there, I worked alongside communities of Indigenous peoples that had found their lives turned upside-down by the intrusion of a massive open pit gold mine within their territory known as the Marlin Mine.
In March of 2013, as part of an advocacy learning tour from Colombia to Central America, I once again visited these communities that had experienced so much turmoil. Though it was wonderful to reconnect with old friends, it was unsettling to see that despite nearly ten years of advocacy efforts condemning the devastating impact of the Marlin Mine’s operations, the prospects of the communities in which my friends lived had only worsened. The numerous documentaries, news stories, awareness raising movements, legislative campaigns, human rights violation reports, technical studies, innumerable masters and doctoral theses and even international sanctions, had not created meaningful change.
In most instances, the lofty goal of international advocacy is to change actual social, policy, and political outcomes. While international advocacy campaigns such as those highlighting the adverse environmental and social impact of the Marlin Mine can count some limited achievements, the cumulative success of such international advocacy is ambiguous at best. As a result, many organizations engaged in advocacy are having new conversations about the nature of their efforts. Faith-based organizations such as MCC are no exception.
Participants in MCC’s 2013 advocacy learning tour from Colombia to Central America grappled with questions about the nature of advocacy, including where efforts should be directed and by whom? Where do we envision the locus of change to be? What should the role be of MCC as an agency of Anabaptist churches in Canada and the United States in helping bring about that change? As learning tour participants considered these questions, we identified new questions for MCC to consider:
How can MCC best support the people on whose behalf it advocates?
Unfortunately, even when MCC advocacy efforts result in some kind of policy change, the positive impacts are often not experienced—at least directly—by the people and communities whose situations had stimulated the advocacy activity in the first place. To be sure, MCC’s partners around the world call on MCC to develop long-term strategies centering on political power centers in the global north, recognizing the roles that countries such as the United States play in various systemic issues. Yet alongside these long-term strategies of political engagement how can we also keep the communities most affected at the center of the advocacy outcomes we seek? How can we better access the immense possibilities of creating pressure from below via short- and medium-term strategies that empower populations, stave off immediate negative impacts and maintain the necessary enthusiasm at the base, while long-term political strategies slowly unfold?
How can MCC maximize the chances of real effectiveness in its advocacy initiatives?
An important part of our work is to develop action plans in which progress toward systemic, long-term change is achieved by working on interim outcomes, indicators and concrete activities that assume a certain set of future conditions. Within this planning, however, can we create more flexibility in our advocacy efforts in order to respond to the intuitive, creative and spontaneous acts that surge from affected communities themselves and that are often the watershed moments that force the hand of social change? What would happen if we invested more resources in learning how to comprehend the nature of these decisive moments, rather than in exclusively long-term political strategies or awareness raising campaigns?
Finally, a more philosophical question: how does our conviction (sometimes held implicitly, sometimes stated explicitly) that ultimate power resides in the north hinder or help what we seek via advocacy?
How does this conviction reinforce the notion that change trickles down from the top to the bottom? How does this conviction foster passivity and encourage people to wait for others to resolve their problems? How does it blind us to the available power that exists within communities in the global south and the vital movements already underway there?
Advocacy is a phenomenon that continues not only to evolve, but also to grow in importance. Few comprehensive and transformative social changes for the communities that MCC accompanies in the global south come about without some form of organized social movement. Yet these changes typically do not emerge from a single source or cause. Rather, these changes involve the complex interplay of political and public engagement in the global south as well as in the global north.
Nate Howard worked with MCC Colombia at the time of this publication
Get involved: To learn more about our work and how you can get involved in advocacy, visit our website here.
To learn more about the Marlin Mine and MCC’s work in Guatemala, see more resources here.