Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is advocacy a dirty word?

Scene: Inside the heads and hearts of PRADANites.

I’m PRADAN’s “Advocacy Intern” for the summer. But “advocacy” at PRADAN seems to be a misnomer.

So, PRADAN’s been empowering poor and marginalized women for over 20 years. All along, PRADANites have regularly interacted with policymakers, elected officials, and financial institutions to help communities connect to the resources that they need – for example, to develop a watershed or buy better seeds or market their tasar silk.

And yet, nobody here identifies themselves as advocates or any part of their work as advocacy. In the first two weeks of my internship, I interviewed a few dozen PRADAN staff to help PRADAN reflect on its advocacy experience to date and to start generating a more focused mandate for impacting the context in which they work.

“So tell me a bit about your personal experiences in advocacy.” - Me
“You want to talk about advocacy? What do I know about it?” – PRADANite #1 or # 2 or #20
“We’re implementers with our focus on the field. We’re not advocates.” – PRADANite #___

A prominent Indian leader of an international research think tank here offered his explanation of this mindset: “Nobody wants to be considered an advocate, because it means you have a drum to beat. You are on one extreme or another, where knowledge and evidence have no place.”

Is this surprising in a place like India where Gandhiji and the civil resistance movement is the foundation of the country’s democracy and the inspiration of activists around the world? And more recently, where the Right to Information campaign has helped secure every Indian the right to ask questions and demand accountability of the government?

Trying to dig deeper, I asked PRADANites to walk me through their engagement with the government and other institutions. How do you interact? What are you trying to achieve? Do you think you’ve been successful and if so, what’s worked well? If not, what are the challenges or constraints you’ve faced?

“Here’s how we shifted the mindset and strategy of a district development officer…I helped a self help group present their proposals on how to improve their village to the Gram Sabha…I’m on the state government’s committee on women’s empowerment…” or “We’ve been trying for months to secure a meeting with a district collector without any luck…I can’t get invited to participate in the state government’s consultations…Even though the Sarpanch has seen our fields and came to the self help group's meetings, he still doesn’t get our approach and do what the women ask.”

Despite an aversion to the word advocacy (read it slowly for extra effect), PRADANites are doing it and want to be doing it more and doing it better. “Advocacy is essential. If the problems of the rural poor aren’t highlighted, our implementation in the field can only go so far.”

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