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Legitimacy is one of the most crucial concepts in doing advocacy work. If CSOs are asking officials and power holders to be accountable to them, they must prove their legitimacy to those officials and power holders. Advocacy groups need to always work on establishing and strengthening their legitimacy. There are two pillars for legitimacy: cause-based legitimacy, and people-based legitimacy.

Cause-Based Legitimacy

In social justice advocacy, legitimacy is not only based on valid representation of a group of people or organizations. It is also based on having a legitimate cause. In many occasions, Kumi Niadoo, CIVICUS Secretary General and CEO usually gives the shocking example that the Ku Klux Klan, the violent white supremacist group that committed many crimes, including murder and arsons, against blacks and other minorities in the Unites States, is, in fact, a civil society group that is supported by real people and has its own constituency. The question here is “is this a just cause to advocate for?” We always need to run the causes we fight for through a critical test of the values that Cohen, et al (20011)) identifies (p. 7-10), and through the different United Nations declarations of human rights to ensure that these causes deserve our efforts and struggles.

It is crucial to know that some causes might not be popular among the people in your community, or they not popular only in the beginning. Many widely accepted causes and values were not accepted in our communities in the beginning. Examples of such values are girls’ education some 200 years ago, or the value of raising children without the use of violent punishments. Non-existence or rejection of some values does not necessarily mean that such values are not good in themselves. They might simply mean that we need to work hart in challenging the deeply rooted existing values and building strong constituencies around them.

We might see two extremes with cause legitimacy. First extreme is that as long as we have people supporting the cause, it must be right. In that case, we might end up with an organization like the Ku Klux Clan, or the Apartheid Regime in South Africa.

The second extreme is when some people rely on a good cause to establish their advocacy campaign without exerting the necessary efforts to build a strong constituency around their cause.


With your circle of advocacy colleagues, review the causes you have identified to work on, or the ones you have been working on already. Please write the most 2-3 important causes you are struggling for.

How much are they in compliance with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

What are other common values that these causes support?

People-Based Legitimacy

After we establish the legitimacy of our cause, which is still one part of establishing the legitimacy for our advocacy work. The other pillar of our advocacy legitimacy is to build a strong constituency for your cause, and fully rely on people to drive the campaign for it, which is what Miller (19972)) describes in her book. Miller makes the case that legitimacy is simply about the question of who has the right to speak in the name of a group or an issue. She talks of this representation dilemma that NGOs and CSOs need to address. The same difficult question applies to other groups such as the donors speaking in the name of the recipients, international organizations speaking in the name of national or local ones, etc.

Following are some questions that Miller advises advocacy groups to ask themselves to examine their people-based legitimacy 3).

  • On whose behalf does your organization [or network] speak?
  • On what authority or basis does our organization [or network] speak?
  • Who grants us the authority or right to speak?
  • How is that authority granted? Through a Board made up of community people, NGO leader, and prominent citizens? Through elections of officers by group members? Through democratic decision making processes? Through consultations with community groups?
  • How can we increase our legitimacy?”

Miller, Valerie; 1997. Advocacy Sourcebook: Frameworks for Planning, Action, and Reflection, p. 14. Institute for Development Research, Boston Massachusetts, USA.

1) Cohen, David in: Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 7-10. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.
2) Miller, Valerie; 1997. Advocacy Sourcebook: Frameworks for Planning, Action, and Reflection, p. 14. Institute for Development Research, Massachusetts, USA.
3) Ibid, p. 14

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