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Food for a willful thought


Human Rights Reader 383


-I have been impressed with the urgency of doing; knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough. (Leonardo da Vinci)

-Big minds have a will; small ones only have wishes. (Albino Gomez)


Tomorrow must be more than just another today


  1. In development work, it is actually the result of a willful effort by our leaders –those with the right ideals– to effect change by combining youthful conviction with a desire to test out their ideas in the real world.*

*: Reality is itself in perpetual movement though. I am what I am, but I am also what I do to change what I am. (Eduardo Galeano)


  1. Let’s face it: Some development workers go through their work as taking a nice walk, constantly distracted by this and that, or as being immersed in a fictional world. They tend to avoid or refuse to think in depth about what is utterly wrong in our world (or in what they do…). They live as if only the small window of reality they view is valid. They negate other dimensions of reality.** (Luis Weinstein)

**: Have we become prisoners of ‘the culture of impotence’? I suffer with special intensity the divorce between words and facts. When you say yes, you do no. When you say more or less, you do less. Somehow, too often facts and words never encounter each other. We are trained to lie to ourselves. We are trained to accept such lies as a way of life. (Eduardo Galeano)


  1. So, are such colleagues just going to be a caricature of a development professional in country X where there are no activists and no respect for human rights (HR)? This is a bad metaphor of a strange reality, because then they have to admit they are living a small life in a country full of people forced to live insignificant existences and progressively with truncated dreams. Like that, they/you never arrive at the truth –and that does not even get to bother them/you… (Leonardo Padura) Passivity in the face of unequal forces is anything but impartial. (The Guardian)


Rightful decisive confrontation does not determine who is right — only who is left


  1. Being an activist does not mean being a danger to your country; activists are actually a warning to those whose narrow-minded view of the role of HR in development is a danger to their country. The kind of development-for-the-sake-of-development philosophy must thus be criticized. Intellectual honesty and openly questioning injustice is indispensible. Maligning those who question and challenge injustice is a sign of intolerance on the part of governments that have a difficulty in separating what-is-good-for-all from what-is-good-just-for a-few. In short, the value of HR activists exerting opposition must never diminish. (T.J.S. George)


  1. The above highlights some further attributes of being a good HR activist:
  • HR activists must be able to distinguish the intentional from the circumstantial, the permanent from the passing, the important from the trivial, the objective from the subjective. (Pablo Simonetti)
  • HR activists are not to be alpha fe/males; they must place themselves under the orders of the majority. They cannot get/achieve everything they want, but if they start out hard-faced and independently tough, the results are usually bad. (P. Iglesias)
  • HR activists do not only think of reverting specific HR violations; they also reflect on the ability of HR instruments to target the structural causes of those problems. (Eduardo Arenas)
  • The last thing HR activists want to do is to humiliate those that oppose HR –but it is not totally out of their list if absolutely needed. Typically, a HR activist would say: “I didn’t say I was blaming you, I said it was your fault”.
  • Today’s HR activists are agents of profound transformations at the front line of emancipatory politics. (A. Badiou) (Big words, but true…).
  • When activists envision solutions in bleak times, these may sometimes seem like dreams. But dreams mark beginnings so that there is movement forward inserting a sense of hope in the air. (D. Parra) Ergo, in dreams begins responsibility. (W.B. Yeats). and
  • Not facetiously, if HR activists would agree with those that oppose HR, they would both be wrong.


  1. Therefore, defiance is a way of life for HR activists and good communications are key to successfully protest. If they try to do it through the press, what they want to communicate will be blacked out, censored, filtered or plainly ignored. When the system is so closed and self-replicating that it renders claim holders powerless, the first step in gaining power is not to appear like they have no power, i.e. not concede their powerlessness. So, in comes the internet: It tells all of us there are urgent issues; it brings us worrisome information, at the speed of light. But does this motivate you? With very few exceptions the internet does not propel you from virtual reality to reality. It will motivate some people to connect and act, but not enough people connect. (Ralph Nader)


The challenge we face is to set up a community of practice, i.e., to create a whole network of interested, motivated and committed activists working on human rights.


In other words, the challenge of HR activists is to bring together the demands of different groups of claim holders and focusing on how they can be used to oppose the common enemy. (D. Howarth)


  1. In order to build our movement towards equality and dignity, young leaders defending HR (HR activists in-the-making) need to be watching both for challenges and opportunities. They must follow and analyze ongoing contradictory trends in their countries’ policies, i.e., those that negatively affect claim holders. Interpreting these trends is not necessarily based on rigorous research, but rather on applying their political understanding of the situation.***

***: Take for instance the movements of people who want to deny women’s inalienable right to sexual and reproductive health and undermine evidence-based arguments with impunity. Activists must debunk the claims of these anti-choice activists who want to send us back in time when it comes to women’s choices. (E. Palomino)


Getting there


  1. It is impossible to transform yourself into a HR activist until you join a larger movement for economic and social justice led by the oppressed and exploited. What is not often enough talked-about are things we can collectively do, together, to support positive change for our communities. Take, for instance, fighting for our collective rights against exploitation and for building social networks of resistance against alienation and for unity: There can be no neutrality here. How can we support each other to take a stand for social justice in a conservative environment? We need to outline our strategy to build the actual massive organization that brings together the people’s counter-power necessary to achieve the needed structural transformation(s). Until we have successfully organized claim holders and historically-marginalized communities to build counter-power and claim greater control, it will be impossible to do away with the current ineffective and unfair development practices.**** Being persistent not only means that we learn, we adapt, and we make changes where we need-to based on our practical experience, but it also means that we do not give up on our long-term vision. (Marta Roberts)

****: The Masaai people of Kenya say that a man alone is worth nothing: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.


  1. The essence of the problem is that still most people and organizations representing yet-to-be-mobilized claim holders are asking elites to take action on their behalf rather than taking action themselves. Not only is this a fearful and powerless approach, it reinforces the widespread delusions that elites have the power in this regard and that they are responsive to claim holders’ pleas. Neither of these is true. Claim holders can and must exert the needed counter-power since elites only respond when claim holders create the circumstances that compel them to do so –and not otherwise. Hence, it is the actions that claim holders take, as individuals, as communities and as organized groups that generates the outcomes we want in HR work. (R. Burrowes)


  1. As nonviolent HR activists, we do not ask elites (or their governments and corporations) to change their behavior. Instead, we ‘invite’ them to respond decisively to circumstances that we create in order to compel change. If we invite yet others to participate in the actions we are taking, elites have no choice but to act as claim holders demand. So, activists have the choice to either spend their time lobbying elites to legislate, or they can systematically invite/inspire those around them to do the same and force changes in behavior and deeds. (R. Burrowes)
  2. Equally, TNCs are not yet feeling anywhere near enough ‘claim holders pressure’ to change their behavior. (This, irrespective of the rhetoric some of these corporations use in various international fora claiming corporate progress is being made). ***** Corporations are actually resisting any change that does not reflect an advantage in the markets in which they operate. In essence, those who are scared and powerless will either do nothing or they will waste their time lobbying elites and their governments and corporations to change without applying the pressure that compels either to respond with deeds. Claim holders and their leaders must understand the principles of non-violent action and how to use it to leverage power effectively. (R. Burrowes)

*****: Elites keep cooking up the statistics to make us believe we are steadily progressing.


  1. Bottom line and to keep in mind: In organizational work, sharing and communicating a vision instills an ambition, not a true understanding of the process(es) by which it can be achieved. This is done through a narrative. Visions are static, narratives are stories by which people understand a process of change. Good HR activists can capture tough messages in stories. Narratives have to be disseminated. Stories spread through networks. Success in spreading a narrative depends on reaching a small group of influential people. Building a critical mass of citizens understanding is not achieved through press statements, but by crafting narratives, by devising smart presentations of the basic facts and by understanding networks. Otherwise, people are overly inclined to accept arguments that best serve their narrower interests. (P. Collier)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Beware: Success hides behind each failure (and failure behind each success). (A. Gomez) If I am not failing, you should fire me. Take risks. Activists must be willing to increase their risk threshold.

-There are those who fight for one day, and they are good. There are those who fight for one year, and they are better. There are those who fight for many years, and they are very good. But there are those who fight their entire lives: they are the irreplaceable ones. (Bertolt Brecht)

-“Do you know something, son? We move slowly; like in the processions. But processions always move forward; they never go backwards. And the most important: We all go together and we leave nobody along the road”. (A retired woman in Córdoba, Argentina)

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