The Importance of NGO advocacy

In our meeting room at my previous job at the Federation of Community Legal Centres we had an old campaign poster from the early 1980’s with a cartoon showing police turning a blind eye to domestic violence.

Despite the huge ongoing challenges around violence against women, I liked the poster because it was a good reminder of what has changed for the better in terms of police responses to family violence and victims’ willingness to report the crime and seek help.

These positive changes can be directly linked to the introduction of a new Victoria Police Code of Practice to respond to family violence in 2005, and also to landmark family violence legislation introduced in Victoria in 2008.

Behind each of these important changes to laws and policies were many years of hard work by domestic violence campaigners – by welfare agencies, peak domestic violence bodies, community legal centres and victim survivors – advocating for social change, advocating for police to change, advocating for a law reform commission inquiry and then advocating for law makers to act on the inquiry’s recommendations.

It’s this type of advocacy by non-government organisations, or NGOs for short, that I wanted to talk to you about tonight.

Whether its achieving better consumer protection laws or the closing the gap targets, NGO advocacy is critical if we want to promote human rights, social justice, a healthier environment, the arts – whatever the mission of the NGO might be.

The influential 2007 bestseller, Forces For Good, identified six common practices of high impact NGOs.

Number one of their list is bridging the divide between service delivery and advocacy and becoming good at both. Service delivery alone can’t achieve large-scale social change and needs to be combined with advocacy.

Put another way, good services that respond to a need are worthy but not enough. To have greater impact in achieving a mission, an NGO needs to advocate to address the systemic cause of the problem.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s model has a strong focus on advocacy and systemic change.

We help individual clients obtain justice but the issues and cases we work on are carefully chosen to maximise their systemic impact – so that a court ruling or change in policy that directly affects our clients will also more broadly benefit many more.

One issue we have closely followed is the treatment of asylum seekers being detained in the Australian funded and controlled Manus Island Detention Centre in Papua New Guinea.

In late February this year, following the unrest that led to the murder of one asylum seeker and serious injuries to more than 60 others, a Judge in PNG’s National Court launched an inquiry into the human rights of the 1000 or so detainees on the island.

The inquiry had the potential to make significant recommendations to improve conditions for the detainees, speed up the processing of their refugee claims and rule on whether their ongoing detention was lawful under PNG law. The entire inquiry was scheduled to run and conclude in just over a month.

We contacted Amnesty International who had previously reported on conditions in the centre and agreed to work together on the inquiry. We urgently pulled together a pro bono legal team of leading barristers and a major law firm to work with us.

We knew it would be logistically difficult and costly to travel to Manus Island, around 800km north of Port Moresby, so we contacted Australian Communities Foundation and within a few hours two supporters had generously agreed to fund the costs to enable our Director of Legal Advocacy, Daniel Webb, to travel to Manus to the inquiry.

As part of the inquiry, Daniel was able to inspect the detention centre along with the first Australian and PNG journalists ever allowed inside.

First hand he witnessed the appalling conditions there – one room with around 112 bunks packed into it so tightly you couldn’t walk between them. Everywhere they went people crying out for their help and telling them who murdered Reza Berati.

The court inquiry hasn’t been allowed to conclude. The PNG Government brought a bias application against the judge that launched the inquiry and that challenge – which has been bankrolled by the Australian Government, is still slowly moving through the PNG Supreme Court.

But while the inquiry has stalled for now, our participation in it has been vital from an advocacy point of view.

Daniel, first from PNG and then back in Australia, was able to speak to national and international media numerous times to expose the appalling conditions in the centre and to push for change.

We were able to draw on our work on the inquiry in our submission and appearance before the Senate inquiry into the violence surrounding the death of Reza Berati.

Through the connections we established we were able to expose the fact that the Australian Government is paying the PNG Government’s legal bills for the bias application to shut down the human rights inquiry.

And we continue to draw on the work to highlight that fact that after two years of indefinite detention in appalling conditions, not one single asylum seeker has had his refugee claim finalised – but two have died and over 60 been injured.

What impact does this work have?

Firstly, it provides vital transparency and accountability over a critical human rights issue that has been shrouded in secrecy.

Secondly, it generates pressure for change. By informing the public about what is happening in their name. And by informing key decision makers about the impact of government policy.

Obviously change in this area is extremely difficult but there are small improvements. In July this year, the Australian Government decided it would no longer transfer asylum seekers to Manus Island. More recently it has quietly indicated its intention to move from a closed detention centre to an open one, allowing the detainees some freedom of movement.

Over 1000 men remain detained there but these small steps are some indication of the recognition that the continuing situation is untenable.

The broader point is that advocacy on this issue is critical.

NGOs can deliver important programs to address the immediate health and wellbeing needs of detained asylum seekers but to really improve their situation, we need to change laws and policies to stop their cruel, indefinite detention.

The problem in Australia – and worldwide – is that advocacy by NGOs is under threat from governments who don’t like to be criticised.

There is a well-documented global trend of governments making it difficult for civil society to advocate.

And while of course there is a spectrum with repressive countries like Russia, China and Egypt cracking down with harsh measures at one end – established democracies like Canada, Spain and the UK are not immune.

Here in Australia, in 2012 the Queensland Government introduced gag clauses into Queensland Health contracts that say that:

Where an organisation receives 50% of more of its funding from the Queensland Government, it must not advocate for state or federal legislative change. The organisation must also not include links on its website to other organisations that advocate for state or federal legislative change.

In NSW, following a campaign by the Minerals Council, the Government cut funding to the NSW Environment Defenders Office and the Federal Government followed by cutting funding to all Environment Defenders Offices across Australia.

The Federal Government also removed a “no-gag” clause from community legal centre contracts that explicitly recognized the right to advocate and changed the contract so that Federal funding could no longer be used for law reform advocacy.

The Government also cut funding to a range of legal centres and announced there will be more cuts to come in future years without saying which services would be cut – creating a climate of fear in which centres are reluctant to speak out for jumping to the top of the list of organisations whose funding will be cut.

Similar things occurred with Aboriginal Legal Services, with refugee and asylum seeker legal services, with the Refugee Council and more.

High Impact Practice Number Four in the book Forces for Good is to “build non profit networks and treat other groups as allies.” In other words collaborate.

Collaboration and partnership are key to our success at the Human Rights Law Centre, whether it’s on Aboriginal over-imprisonment, children in detention or ensuring women can safely access reproductive health services.

But we are clearly seeing the stifling of advocacy in our collaborative work with government funded NGOs – who are happy to work quietly behind the scenes but who are reluctant to speak out publicly for fear of losing funding.

So what can philanthropy do about it?

Philanthropic support for advocacy is vital. It’s vital normally but it’s especially important in this current climate and in areas where the government is sensitive to criticism.

The importance of supporting advocacy is better understood in the US, but I think recognition is improving in Australia. The High Court’s Aid/Watch decision and the modern charity legislation which both recognise the legitimacy of NGO advocacy help in this regard.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s ability to advocate without fear – to speak plainly and strongly where needed – is directly linked to our independent, sustainable funding.

Less than 6% of our funding this year will come from government, with grants from philanthropic trusts and foundations making up more than half of our funding.

Independent, sustainable sources of funding are simply critical to our impact.

I want to end by talking briefly about you.

It’s so wonderful to be in a room of passionate people who care about making a difference and who are willing to act to make it happen.

On behalf of all the recipients of Australian Communities Foundation support over the past year I want to sincerely thank you for what you are doing.

What you are doing is profoundly worthwhile and has an impact.

It’s people like you who put the fire in our engines. Thank you.

Hugh de Kretser is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.