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How Do Transnational Advocacy Networks Work?
Advocacy networks that span state borders are not traditionally powerful players in international politics. However, by mobilizing information in support of a cause, they can change the nature of international policy and practice.
How do transnational advocacy networks make a difference in international policy and practice?
Advocates of principled causes, ideas and values (like human rights or the environment) do not work alone. Nor are they limited by national boundaries. The last several decades has witnessed significant growth in the number loose coalitions or networks of advocates building bridges across borders to bring about social change. Scholars Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink call these transnational advocacy networks.
These advocacy networks have changed the face of international policy making and practice.
Redefining the Field in International Politics
Advocacy networks do not rely on traditional bases of power like military or economic muscle. In the traditional sense of “power” within the international arena, advocacy networks are relatively “weak” players. However, these groups have become increasingly influential. They have become major players on the field of international politics.
The larger approach of transnational advocacy groups has not been to simply force their way into international politics-as-usual. Rather, they have sought to change the way the game is played in international politics. They reshape the terms of international debate. They redefine and sometimes create the issues that gain international attention. They work to realign alliances and coalitions of powerful players. In short, they change fundamentally the way that international policy and practice occurs.
Prior to the involvement of transnational advocacy networks the game of international politics was one where the field was well defined, the teams were known and where the rules were set—all favoring the largest and most muscular players. Enter networks of activists who built bridges across national boundaries to advocate for principled causes.
Advocacy networks realized that politics-as-usual in the international arena excluded important issues and populations. Knowing that the traditional game was closed to them, they have worked to redefine the game (issues, players, dialogue and practice) in such a way that international policy making and practice is now more open.
How do transnational advocacy networks influence international policy and practice? Keck and Sikkink identify four types of politics that these advocacy networks use.
Control over information is the strongest tool in the advocacy network repertoire. They gain influence by mobilizing information as a strategy for advocacy.
What Is Going On?
Information on events and issues used to be controlled primarily by governments. Because of this, an event on one side of the world might seem like an isolated incident. Transnational advocacy networks provide a much broader scope of information that does not necessarily cater to the good image of states. However, this information is influential not just because of its content, but also because of the ways in which it is communicated.
Why Does It Matter?
In order to motivate people to action, they need to understand why the issue at hand matters. Sometimes, in order to do this, advocacy networks change the ways that issues are defined. They change the terms and so change the nature of the politics.
For instance, before 1976, the practice of female genital cutting was known in the U.S., but primarily by the medical and anthropological communities. It was sometimes known as "female circumcision" creating an association with the widely accepted practice of male circumcision. However, that changed when advocacy networks renamed the practice "female genital mutilation." By changing the name (and therefore the mental associations) activists were not only able to communicate the information, but communicate it in a way that called up strong negative emotions.
Symbols link one idea to another. When a striking event is made into a symbol for a cause, it can become a powerful tool for conveying information. By linking the 1973 coup in Chile to Vietnam and Watergate, U.S. activists were able to make the coup a powerful symbol of the fight for human rights.
As relatively weak players, advocacy networks have only limited ability to change things on their own. However, by creating links to other, more powerful actors, advocacy networks can gain greater influence or leverage for change.
For instance, by creating and mobilizing links to international financial institutions, NGOs may link access to loans to environmental protection. By linking causes to things that people value (like money, trade or prestige) advocacy networks can create material leverage for their cause.
Advocacy networks also exercise moral leverage. When states know that they risk public shaming because of their actions (for instance, torturing prisoners), they may think twice about tarnishing their reputation on the international stage. In democratic countries, politicians depend on votes and the threat of a damaged reputation can put the politician's job in jeopardy.
States and companies make commitments in support of causes. Sometimes, however, these commitments are given simply to remove them from public scrutiny. If a state or company can pay lip service to a cause, then it may deflect criticism.
However, advocacy networks monitor the actions of states and companies. If the state or corporation does not live up to its commitment, advocacy networks can make this public. By highlighting the discrepancies between what an actor says and what it does, activists can marshal public sentiment and motivate the state or corporation into living up to its word.
Although transnational advocacy networks are not traditionally powerful players in international politics, they can exercise considerable influence. Their main tool is information. By mobilizing information in support of a cause, they can change the nature of international policy and practice.
Data and Methods:
Historical research on advocacy networks involved in transnational campaigns.
Qualitative research involving case study comparison and theory generation.
Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Ch. 1, pp. 1-38.
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