On civil society and advocacy

The way human rights and civil society advocacy works at this moment is flawed. We start from the wrong idea that we are obviously right therefore people should support and follow us.

We are arrogant and cocky in our righteousness and we become easily disappointed in the indifference or slower than expected reaction of the world that surrounds us. We justify our failures and intellectual laziness by claiming the much higher moral grounds that are at the basis of our ideas.

We rationalize obvious failures as success and we often refuse or avoid thinking critically about ourselves. We struggle or encourage lip-service within our small world while we are devastatingly critical towards many. We developed a language that is as meaningless and stiff as the language of the bureaucracies we are supposed to challenge and force to reform.  We actively discourage criticism, diversity of opinions and encourage and reward sycophants. We are most of the time a reflection of the systems we mainly argue against (working against these systems is a completely different story and a much rarer occurrence).  Our leadership in many cases is a strident reflection of the type of leadership we criticize.

Only after we accept, recognize and expose our own failures we will be able to keep in check our stupidity, arrogance and sociopathic tendencies. Reform will be the next step.

Our advocacy ignores some basic needs people have in order to feel comfortable – competence, autonomy and empathy.

We believe that do to the fact we think/ imagine we are competent everybody should trust blindly our competence. We do very little if anything to build our audience competency in a way that makes sense and only accidentally we try to do it in a way that is empathic.

We rarely think about the need people have for feeling independent/self-deciding. We try to impose not to convince and “lure” people into our way of thinking.

We assume people should trust us unconditionally while we do not even trust ourselves and we seem rarely able or interested to understand what triggers the attitudes and convictions that we try to change.

We disregard that without building trust, showing understanding for the difficulties that come with change and offering hope for improvements the chances to have enough followers is practically zero.

We are rigid and stuck in our own discourse. Often unprofessional. Many times what we do is in contradiction to what we argue for. Our advocacy fails because is dissonant with our own selves. We behave like we suffer of situational blindness ignoring the many cases when we are wrong.

We are no better than our societies. We could and need to be better. That requires courage and painful reforms. The main characteristics of the European Civil Society leader needs to change:  Lip-service disguised as diplomatic language, Dignitary like life-style rationalized as a need for efficient advocacy and proper dialogue with the decision makers in governments and intergovernmental- institutions and Project dependency should not be the pillars of the civil society.  Unfortunately they are.

There are many exceptional people involved in the civil society. But most of them end up making dangerous compromises or adapting altogether to the wrong institutional culture and not working on reforming the many things that are wrong.

This text is a manifesto. It is meant to generate debate.  It is based on my 11 years experience, failures and working within and with the European civil society mostly Roma civil society). I have been part of a number of boards including of some of the largest European NGOs[1]. During the last  years I resigned from all of them.

[1] European Network Against Racism

Football Against Racism in Europe

MtM – an Open Society Institute board


  1. Val – you are referring to a contemporary equivalent of the comprador bourgeoisie of colonial times when groups of people in colonised countries took on the habits and supported the interests of the foreign powers. It assured social or professional advancement and gave them power over their compatriots. The upper strata of civil society are tainted by the same phenomenon. The habits of dominant organisations are infectious when you get too close. Every EC mission, overseas embassy and multinational charity in any SEE country has its own cluster of hangers-on who lose their effectiveness as advocates because they are blinded by conventional wisdom, flawed indicators and international „models of best practice” instead of the true evidence in the streets. Any evidence that is gathered is frequently filtered and distorted to make reality match the assumptions of donors and promote the project-based „solutions” permitted by those assumptions.Then – as you said – new indicators are chosen that conceal the flaws in the old assumptions. Then a new trend is created that becomes a model of best practice and the cycle continues. And, all the while, politicians lie and cheat and gangsters drive big cars. .

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