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Advocacy and self-advocacy

The two concepts of advocacy and self-advocacy have been associated with welfare states, civil activism, empowerment, rights-based grassroots groups and professions, which advance social justice for insular minorities.

How do the two concepts relate, are they mutually exclusive or is one subsumed. This article discusses the origins, distinctions, benefits and contemporary use of both concepts in relation to people with disabilities. The two concepts are explored with a view to understand prevailing challenges in society pertaining to people with disabilities, and as a measure of progress.   

Historically, the establishment viewed advocacy and self-advocacy groups suspiciously.  They were often accused of sowing discord, inciting citizens and posing security threats in that they challenge the status quo. A good example is the early Pan-Africanist groups and individuals who mooted ideas of independence of African states post the 1884 Berlin Conference. They were viewed with great discontent and often labelled as radicals, terrorists, and outcasts and constantly put under surveillance by colonialists because they advocated for change.

However, this attitude changed during the post-independence era where groups, which felt marginalised were encouraged to organise into alliances, associations or any other form of organised participation to enlighten the larger society of its plight. This led to increased activism by groups such as the labour movement, sexual minorities, gender equality groups etc. There was a notable shift from discontent with activism pre-independence to embracing it in the post-independence era.

Advocacy as a concept has different interpretations and variations and as such, there is no single universally accepted definition. However, most definitions encompass support for a course of action towards a common goal. Most advocacy initiatives lobby public and political decision-makers to reconsider their policies, practices and/or behaviours that might be seen as unfair to particular groups. That is why advocacy is a preferred strategy for individuals and groups advancing empowerment, human rights and civil liberties agenda. To this end, advocacy is synonymous with the protection of interests, rights and entitlements of individuals or groups for positive change. Similarly, self-advocacy is an interactive process in which individuals or groups of people speak or act on their own behalf in the pursuit of their needs and interests. This concept can be traced back to the enlightenment era especially among disability rights movements when self-advocates spoke up and out against stigma associated with their disabilities. These birthed slogans such as:  “Voices for choices”; “We are people first: our handicaps are secondary”; “We can speak for ourselves”; and “We don’t need assistance.” While these well-crafted communication messages did not change the situation, they nonetheless created strong, vibrant and powerful disability self-advocacy movements, which policymakers could not ignore. The messages aimed to attain the right to self-determination, integration and independent living. In essence, the disability rights self-advocates wanted to promote, protect and ensure equal enjoyment of rights, fundamental freedoms and civil liberties as enshrined in preambles and bill of rights of most liberal democratic states constitutions. In Botswana’s constitution, the above civil liberties and rights are captured under Chapter II Section 3-19.

Self-advocacy has become an embodiment of the modern - day society as it calls on people who are directly affected by a problem to change their own situation. The above assertion rings true to principles of good governance among them representativeness, inclusiveness, promotion and protection of rights, equal participation and listening to voices of the marginalized.

The success and use of advocacy and self-advocacy need to take into consideration several factors, which include amongst others context. In this instance, the context includes internal and external trajectories that constantly shift to meet the demands of the prevailing socio-economic and geopolitical environment. Botswana’s context is unique and needs to be explored for the benefit of all marginalised communities. However, its major undoing is the fragmented and polarised advocacy environment where the benefit of one group does not translate to the benefit for all. Unfortunately, if narrowly confined like the case of Botswana then advocacy loses its real essence, as its core function is to encompass the ideal, image and aspirations for all.

However, there is a positive that is worth underscoring.  Botswana’s advocacy context relies heavily on dialogue and negotiations, which are viewed as reasonable and rooted in the ethos, ethics, best practices and traditions of the society. It assumes a calm environment which radiates positive energy, driven by the highly revered African humanistic value of “Botho”; respect for all parties and recognition of all regardless of social standing. This is a powerful value-laden context that promotes harmony, dignity, compassion, compromise and reciprocity but guards against vengeance, retaliation and victimisation during the advocacy process.

Power and politics are entangled in advocacy and self-advocacy work as activists aim to influence social change by challenging the status quo.  Advocacy and self-advocacy are by nature social change processes that focus on effecting change at individual, relational, structural, institutional and systemic levels. It is in the process of this course that the advocates and self-advocates come across power structures and some diverse interest groups who want to influence, derail and distract decisions of the group. It could therefore be argued that any model of societal change is political and value-laden, thus the need to understand and acknowledge the power dynamic inherent in the context of every advocacy and self-advocacy work. This is not only important but becomes necessary. Advocacy and self-advocacy groups should conduct extensive research and engage marketing communications experts for technical assistance and or guidance for an impactful, effective, strategic communication and messaging.

Timing and rolling out advocacy programmes have to happen at the most opportune time for maximum benefits especially from

a captive audience.  This can be classified as the peak period. For instance, Botswana has just emerged from an election, which was an opportune time. The best time for all advocacy and self-advocacy work to have happened was when political parties were drafting their manifestos. Advocacy groups should bring issues to the fore and influence ideas and decisions at this critical time. Most political party manifestos use phrases that advocacy groups could leverage upon, among them; “A more inclusive economy “, “Provision of jobs” and “A new Botswana”.

The real turning point for disability rights advocacy groups would have been, say in the envisioned inclusive economy, what is in there for people with disabilities in terms of affordable, accessible housing and the built-in environment; access to rail, road and public transportation; economic activities within government and the private sector; and creation of employment quotas in structured work environment especially where employers employ more than 50 people, supported employment, cooperatives and start-up capital for people with disabilities who venture into business with the intention of opening up more job opportunities. The other critical issue regarding inclusiveness would have been how each political dispensation intended to retain and or return employees who had sustained injuries at work but still have potential to continue ‘return-to-work programs.’

On the Umbrella for Democratic Change’s (UDC) promise of a hundred thousand jobs during the first year in office, the critical questions that should have been raised: how appropriate, accommodative and disability sensitive would have been these jobs? How do you reverse and transform the current situation where workers with disabilities are relegated to service-industry jobs such as messengers, petrol attendants, cashiers and cleaners as opposed to strategic decision-making roles in the world of work? This is where disability self-advocacy and advocacy groups would have influenced the agenda, at the manifesto-drafting phase. What is in there for people with disabilities in the envisioned, reawakening period that was termed “New Dawn’’ or “New Botswana” as echoed by some political movements? 

Legislative enactments, post-election Botswana’s political space is oozing with hope and optimism over the frequently expressed constitutional review narrative, if ever it were to happen, what fundamental, concrete and evidenced-based issues are disability advocates ready to put forward?  It has to be interventions that reverse the adverse current situation where there is no specific legislative enactment geared towards the protection of people with disabilities against societal discrimination practices at work, in education including equal participation and access to health care in accordance with International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No.159 and United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CBPR) of 2006. Instead, the country has adopted several fragmented policies that seek to promote equalisation of opportunities for people with disabilities in society. Unfortunately, these generic policies lack specific provisions on the employment of people with disabilities or robust measures to recruit, retain and return to work people with disabilities. This huge legislative gap in Botswana provides an opportunity for people with disabilities to be exploited in society, including in the employment and labour market, as there is no room for recourse.

The purported constitutional review must address and close this huge anomaly and treat disability as both a right and a developmental issue for maximum protection and benefit of citizenry. The above by extension implies that the Constitution of Botswana must first recognise disability as a fundamental “human right” which will further extend to civil, cultural, political, social and economic rights.

Over and above this, advocacy and self-advocacy work, as interactive processes require certain structures for it to be effective, easily understood and quantified. Structure in this instance entails a level of collective organising, dynamic mix and use of core advocacy skills and recognition of major stakeholder’s being; client, advocate and service providers. Simple as it may sound, how do advocates minimise distraction from real issues thus empowering and serving the best interest of disadvantaged communes who in this case are people with disabilities? Different advocacy processes, principles and ethical considerations have to be employed to maintain that structure thus safeguarding the needs and interests of clients, advocates and service providers.

In conclusion, advocacy and self-advocacy rely heavily on power dynamics within and among advocates,  high self-efficacy, self-esteem and confidence the more likelihood of success. Botswana disability movement is at infancy and lower advocacy pedestal and eclipsed by a weak civil activism environment; have poor linkages and are overly reliant on government support thus prone to derailment and loss of focus.

This situation can be improved by forming alliances, associations with other rights-based organisations such as women, labour and gender equality groups. Advocacy and self-advocacy as social change strategies are a game of numbers as succinctly captured in one of Karl Marx famous passages when he said “workers of all lands, unite”.

Advocacy takes immense effort and contribution from all to achieve the set goals especially in a resource-constrained country like Botswana. As social change processes, advocacy and self-advocacy are resource and labour intensive and takes time to show impact. They, therefore, need to be well structured, planned, contextualized, strategically communicated, implemented at critical and strategic times and should be well positioned for maximum benefits.

The question that arises in Botswana’s disability movement therefore is:  are we there or are we not? The rest is for your own imagination.


*Thuto Tomeletso is a principal consultant with the Institute of Development Management. He writes in his personal capacity

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