Does Letter Writing Really Work?

February 7, 2009

Those of us who work in the Individuals at Risk Campaign get this question a lot, especially from people who are considering joining the Urgent Action Network, in which people can sign up to receive a certain number of Urgent Actions per month, and in turn commit to writing letters to government officials on behalf of those affected individuals.

It’s a valid question. Certainly, when I sit down at my kitchen table with my pad of stationery in front of me and my cat on my lap, it’s easy to feel both very removed from the issues, and very insignificant in the face of such grave human rights abuses. It’s a doubt that surely arises in every activist’s mind at some point or another: What difference can one person really make?

But that’s just it–it’s not just one person. With tens of thousands of people writing letters on behalf of the same individuals at risk, we’re no longer talking about just “lil ol’ me”. We’re talking about a movement. You’d be surprised how many letter-writers actually receive responses from the governments they write to. We ask them to share the responses with us, and they come in from every corner of the globe. True, just because the government writes back to you doesn’t automatically mean that they’re going to make the changes you’ve urged them to make, but it does mean they’re paying attention, and that they care what the world thinks. Governments caring what the world thinks means we have leverage. And that leverage can be turned into positive outcomes for individual people suffering human rights abuses.

So next time you think “Oh, I can’t really make a difference by writing this letter,” take a look at some of these successes, and ask yourself if those individuals would have been freed–or their executions stayed, or their protection assured, or their medical needs met–if everyone had decided not to bother writing a letter because it wouldn’t really matter. It does matter, and it does make a difference.