Nicola Melloni, Paris, December 2007
Unexpected Power - Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists
The role of transnational non-governmental activism
Ref.: Shareen Hertel, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006
Document type: Book
The role of transnational non-governmental activism
This book is part of a new generation of research on the role of transnational non-governmental activism, which has moved beyond showing that non-state actors are a significant force in shaping global politics as well as domestic change. This new generation shares a few common traits, including a focus on internal conflicts within transnational campaigns, a desire to push beyond a distinction between norms and material interests, a growing awareness of so-called ‘new rights’ campaigns beyond traditional civil and political rights, and a shift of attention towards the agency of domestic activists at the ‘receiving end’ of transnational campaigns.
Two transnational campaigns
Hertel compares two transnational campaigns of the 1990s targeting child labour in Bangladesh and gender discrimination in the maquiladoras in Mexico. Theoretically, she relies on the language of framing and opportunity structure derived from traditional social movement theory as well as the more recent emphasis on mechanisms and processes as it has been promoted by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly in their collaborative work Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Hertel argues that in the Bangladeshi case the mobilization was initiated by external actors (outside-in pattern) while in the Mexican case the campaign focused on changing behaviour in two nations at the same time (dual target pattern). At the core of the argument are choices made by domestic activists, which Hertel identifies following the contentious politics literature as mechanisms. In the case of Bangladesh, local groups chose a strategy of blocking the transnational campaign aimed at ending child labour because the campaign failed to provide viable educational or other alternatives for the children. In the Mexican case, local activists used a more reformist strategy of backdoor moves which ultimately allowed them to broaden the transnational campaign led by Human Rights Watch (HRW) to reflect a larger set of local needs. As HRW mobilized primarily around the issue of pregnancy tests as a case of gender discrimination in the workplace, local labour groups perceived the transnational focus to be too narrow and focused on the right to work and conditions in the workplace broadly defined.
Six mechanisms of transnational contention
While Tarrow identifies six mechanisms of transnational contention (global issue framing, internalization, diffusion, scale shift, externalization, and coalition-forming), Hertel focuses only on two (blocking and backdoor moves) and argues that domestic activists pick one strategy over the other based on ‘(1) the manner in which the campaign emerges; (2) the nature of threats, if any, issued by the initiating « sender » of the campaign; and (3) the degree to which receiving-end activists share an interests with senders in the overall success of a campaign’. In Hertel’s words, dual target campaigns, non-threatening mobilization and a sincere effort to discuss and develop shared interests within a campaign will likely avoid resistance on the local level. While this framework provides some insights into the role and autonomy of local activists, it does not shed much light on the conditions under which those local groups succeed in changing the content and direction of a transnational campaign. Hertel’s focus on mechanisms distracts from systematic differences among local groups (e.g. based on domestic resources, popular support, or principles promoted) and the effects of the transnational discourse on each participant. The core claims of the book focus on the interactions within the networks driving those campaigns, but the evidence presented primarily states the policy positions taken by different groups within the campaigns. It is not clear if and how the participants in those networks interacted with one another and what each side took away from those instances of discourse among transnational activists.
The Mexican case
In this sense, the Mexican case seems less about backdoor moves designed to change a transnational campaign and more about how three different participants (Human Rights Watch, labour groups and feminist organizations) define a lowest common denominator to bring transnational pressure on a government and the garment industry. Human Rights Watch used its legitimacy and power to ‘crack the door open’ for the subsequent domestic mobilization. However, HRW never accepted the much broader local frames of the conflict and remained largely unaffected by the principles advanced by Mexican activists.
The Bangladesh campaign
Similarly, the campaign on child labour in Bangladesh turned only when new, principled actors (primarily from Europe) became involved and highlighted the likely dire human rights consequences of banning imports. Hence, Hertel succeeds in showing that local activists frequently have different interests and often more autonomy than assumed in the existing transnationalist literature. It remains to be seen if those local groups actually have the power to change the interests and principles advanced by powerful external groups and organizations.