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#2: Activism versus Advocacy

Johanna Martinsson's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011

Originally published on February 8, 2011

In recent weeks, we have seen how citizens in several countries have taken to the streets in great masses to demand change. While real change is yet to be seen, it’s most certain that things will never be the same. In thinking about activism in the public sphere, and what methods are most effective in bringing about social and political change, the University of British Columbia recently hosted an interesting seminar, entitled “Advocate or Activist: What is the best way to effect change?”  The panel included: Stephen Toope, UBC President; Jacqueline Kennelly, Assistant Professor, Carleton University Department of Sociology and Anthropology; and Ronald Deibert, Associate Professor, University of Toronto Department of Political Science. They raised a number of interesting points, which I will try to capture in this post.  Here’s also a link to the podcast.

The panelists mention that “activism” (in terms of protests) generally gets a bad rap, and at times, it’s even seen as a “dirty word”.  The media, for example, oftentimes portray protests in powerful images, but with a negative connotation.  How often have we seen images of protests that spiral out of control, with a group of angry young people protesting on one side, and the police throwing tear gas on the other? Since such images tend to become the focus of attention, Kennelly points out that the initial meaning, as to why these young people assembled in the first place, gets lost, and/or missed from public discourse. Now, we can’t say this holds true for the recent mass protests, in which the message has stayed on point, despite some turbulence.

Activism can be a very powerful tool, and at times the only path to change. Taking to the streets may be necessary to provoke and raise awareness, especially when access to other forms of expression is non-existent, or limited.  Deibert, however, points out that protestors often have conflicting ideas about the issues they want to confront, and that there is no space to address these effectively.  Based on Kennelly’s research on activist groups in Canada, activists often feel left out of public discourse, and/or feel that they don’t always fit in.  Thus, there’s a need to open up forums, and to be more inclusive, which could entice people to take part in the political process.

As has been discussed before on this blog, and specifically in the recent weeks, social media can be an effective tool for activists to not only raise awareness and to mobilize support, but it can also open up space for conversation, and address contradictory ideas.  It’s been mentioned, for example, that young Egyptians discussed and organized on Facebook and Twitter for the past couple of years, since passing out of flyers was not allowed on campuses.  As we have seen, however, governments can be quick to shut down such online efforts, but as my colleague Anne mentions, “taking citizens offline does not take away their power to act.”

In terms of advocacy, the panelists refer to it as a tool that works “within the system”, while activism is a tool for the “outside”.  Both are tools that can be useful at different times, and under different circumstances. The difference between the two, however, is not always clear-cut, but Kennelly suggests that activism can be used as a stepping stone for advocacy to take form, as it helps raise awareness and broadens the arena for change agents to advocate for a specific policy, and/or reform. 

In the end, the goal is to effect change, and both advocacy and activism are necessary tools.  In today’s fast changing global environment, there’s a wealth of causes competing for attention. Thus, to bring a specific cause to the forefront, and to effect political and social change, both activists and advocates need to use innovative tools, stay abreast of environmental changes, and build long-term coalitions.  As Kennelly mentions, “change doesn’t come out of nowhere.” It takes months, and even years, to organize efforts.  Not to mention, to bring about transformational change.


Photo Credit: Flickr user M. Soli

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I will agree with Johanna that activism is equivalent to fighting from 'outside'. Activism works like wonder in open societies where the right to hold alternative views to those of government are upheld and protected by law and in practice. In most of the South where most legal instruments are to protect the ruling elite against the wellbeing and progress of the masses, things are totally different. Where the right to differ and even public stage a demonstration is not practically recognised, activism can yield very little results. To this extent, all activists are black listed and every new position or attempt to make a point no matter how genuine is put in the same old basket of 'Opposant'. In other words, in the South, most activists are seen as radical opposition persons wishing to overthrow the regimes in place. This is where I think that advocacy could be more benefitial. In order to conduct advocacy, one needs to place himself in the position of a potential partner and collaborator. When this is made to be the case, little resistance will flow from those who wield political power. This is a living experience by the Foundation for Human Rights and Development in Cameroon ( We spent close to a decade figthing as activists, then, we achieved little; quite often, we were not even 'noticed' by the government. But when we made use of advocacy, we started getting the government to do most of the things we ussed to present through activism. Therefore, advocacy could be a more potent instrument for moving powerful governments into listening to CSOs and to the masses.

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