Not all rights have Norms: Blame Diffusion in International Anti-Hunger Advocacy at the U.N. and Elsewhere

Michelle Jurkovich’s talk “Not all rights have Norms: Blame Diffusion in International Anti-Hunger Advocacy at the U.N. and Elsewhere” began in an unconventional way. Rather than speaking on the topic before ceding to questions, Jurkovich began by confronting the audience with deceptively simple questions. What are the causes of chronic hunger? Who is to blame? What is the solution?

    Student answers varied, blaming causes as disparate as climate change, intellectual property laws, American food subsidies, and low wages. Corrupt governments, developed countries, multinational corporations, domestic business, and consumers (in essence, everyone) carried the blame, demonstrating Jurkovich’s main point: advocacy to reduce global hunger has failed because there is no clear target.

    There are several schools of thought explaining the theory behind international action, the most prevalent being iterations of the ‘boomerang effect.’ Local NGOs and advocacy groups recognize a problem and coordinate with international NGOs, which then urge foreign governments to exert pressure on the abusive government. However, anti-hunger advocacy breaks this model due to the fact that there is no targeted actor to which to assign blame and there is less need for cooperation with local NGOs since the information about the problem is widely available. Instead, this issue falls more closely into the buckshot model, characterized by a fragmentation of activism and a lack of focused pressure on governments, which allows for evasion. While the application of the buckshot model is frequently explained by a lack of NGO resources (which is not the case in anti-hunger activism given the vast resources of groups like the Gates Foundation) and the difficulty of pressuring for positive rights (the distinction between positive and negative rights is contentious given that ‘negative’ rights like political freedom still require a lot of investment on the part of the state), Jurkovich contends that the lack of action on global hunger is actually a question of norms. 

    Norms, defined as “a standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity,” require both actors and actions. Social pressure cannot work if it is unclear who is violating a norm. In order to demonstrate that anti-hunger advocacy relies on moral principles rather than norms, Jurkovich interviewed the heads of twelve of the largest NGOs working on hunger such as Oxfam and the Gates Foundation. Not only did she find disagreement about where to place blame and how to resolve the problem between different organizations, she also found disagreement within each organization. It is this fragmentation, she claims, which demonstrates that although it is universally agreed upon that hunger is wrong, there is no norm and thus international advocacy will continue to fail.