Thoughts on Advocacy and the role of service organizations


Late last month, I attended a bi-national meeting hosted by the UNHCR in the USA on Alternative to Detentions (ATD). Present were Government, NGO and UNHCR representatives from Canada, USA, Australia and Sweden. In between the very many presentations on new policies and guidelines, good and bad practices, challenges and advocacy strategies for getting governments and communities to buy into ATD, we made side trips to visit service agencies both in the USA and in Canada.

During a discussion at one of our Canadian NGOs that we were visiting, the question was asked by one of our international colleagues about advocacy and the role of service organizations, especially on issues like detentions. The leader of the organization answered by saying that there are significant restrictions placed on agencies' ability to do advocacy. She pointed out that even government contracts, particularly those with the Federal government had the restrictions written in as a condition of funding. All of what she said was factual of course and the smart money would probably say that Boards of directors should be vigilant in ensuring that those restrictions and funding conditions are followed to the letter.

But I couldn't help the niggling sense that this wasn't the whole answer. Even after the Centre's leadership clarified that advocacy was done through coalitions like OCASI and the Canadian Council for Refugees, the sense that something was missing in that answer did not quite go away. After all, this was a community that has worked with its political and elected leadership to create champions on refugee issues. An agency that has developed models of cooperative and collaborative service delivery with Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) and other service and public agencies all to the betterment of the Asylum process; an agency doing excellent work with and for Asylum seekers. Yet their message was that they weren't engaged in advocacy because it is not allowed (or is restricted) due to our Charities' laws and funding conditions.

I continued to think about this as we crossed back into the USA. This discussion was not new. It is ongoing in our sector and certainly at OCASI where the tension between government funding and policy/advocacy imperatives is ever present. Maybe what were different this time were the international audience and the fact that we had spent hours talking about how to bring about systemic change on a politically sensitive and potentially polarizing issue. Yet an agency that was working to operationalize exactly what was being discussed couldn't name the work they were doing. Couldn't claim and celebrate the victories they had had without reframing it. Without presenting the change and difference they are making as a service response (which it is on one hand) as opposed to the systemic change which it is and that has come about because of the advocacy they have inspired and at times led.

I share this because I think as the sector continues to manoeuver through this political moment with the myriad of changes that seem to occur on a daily basis at all levels, we must be mindful that in protecting our funding sources (and it is important to protect our funding) we do not hide our light under a bushel for fear that it might be blown out!