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Co-optation

Co-optation
Tina Minkowitz - Fri Dec 09, 2011 @ 08:05AM
Comments: 310

The first phase of co-optation I experienced in the anti-psychiatric abuse movement was in 1985.  I was not a very active member or leader at that time, but I went to the annual "International Conference For Human Rights and Against Psychiatric Oppression" in 1985 and experienced the three-way division that left the North American movement, at least, in a weakened and demoralized state.  This division may have also allowed NAMI, an organization of family members that at the national level receives most of its funding from pharmaceutical companies and is pro-forced psychiatry, to emerge as the voice of "mental health advocacy" sought out by the media.  

The 1985 co-optation was brought about by government mental health agencies in the U.S. negotiating to fund a consumer movement that would co-operate with, rather than oppose, the mental health system.  Before 1985 the groups I knew about met in people's houses and in public spaces, and on rare occasions received funding to open a drop-in center and house where people could stay.  We held our conferences at a university campus when school was not in session, not in fancy hotels.  From that time till today, developments have been such that most of our movement is dependent on funding from the mental health system.  Some organizations use the funding creatively and even find that, by refusing to "pre-emptively comply" with onerous conditions, they can do much more than they might have thought possible.  

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (a UN human rights treaty, on which I worked as a representative of the World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry) represented, to me, in part a way to break through the stagnation in the movement, particularly the way that talk about abolition of psychiatric incarceration and forced interventions had been stifled by government money.  Most likely I would not have expressed it that way at the time, but I saw an opening in human rights and the lens of non-discrimination that allowed us to say "we have been left outside looking in, now we claim a place at the table and redefine what's on the menu."  This was helped greatly by the fact that we came in as part of the disability community which had politicized its own involvement in an earlier UN process so that the slogan "Nothing about us without us" was a rallying cry that made sense to governments as well as non-governmental organizations.

Since the adoption and entry into force of the CRPD, a new co-optation is happening that I had not anticipated.  I should say at the outset that the mental health system co-optation is also continuing on the world level, with WHO and its supporters sponsoring "human rights" training and manuals that accept the practice of forced psychiatry, and promoting alliances of user/survivor organizations with mental health agencies based on this same premise.  But the co-optation is not limited to the mental health system this time.

The International Disability Alliance has been converted from a coalition of equal partners in which each member had a veto over activities or positions that did not reflect its own positions, to an agency run by non-disabled people (executive director and other key positions) primarily from the global north that "works in" countries in the global south and claims to represent the global community of people with disabilities at the UN.  WNUSP, a member of IDA, no longer has the power to collaborate with its colleagues (the other global organizations of people with disabilities and regional federations of disability organizations that are the members of IDA) to create mutually agreed agendas and carry out work together.  Instead, the work is proposed by the executive director, approved by the IDA members as a "governing body", and then carried out by the secretariat, at times with token participation by the representatives of IDA member organizations. 

Human rights organizations, including those dealing specifically with the rights of people with "mental" disabilities, and development organizations, saw the opportunities for their own growth and development of their work.  While we were regrouping after the exhausting and exhilarating task of creating the CRPD, these organizations took advantage of the new treaty to continue on in their old work that was based on faulty standards, particularly the now discredited and superseded Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness (see Torture Rapporteur Report A/63/175, paragraph 44, and OHCHR Legal Measures Study A/HRC/10/48, paragraphs 48-49, acknowledging the MI principles superseded by the CRPD).  Funders also approached these organizations practically begging them to get involved, despite at least my own voice cautioning funders that they should insist that such organizations partner with organizations of people with disabilities who have the policy expertise and authenticity to drive CRPD implementation and monitoring just as we created the treaty itself.  (At least one organization is playing a token game, repeatedly inviting us to join in their agenda and ignoring our requests for honest dialogue and acknowledgement of our leadership.)

One phenomenon happening in all the international co-optation post-CRPD adoption, is the bypassing of WNUSP, the global organization of users and survivors of psychiatry/ people with psychosocial disabilities, with funders, human rights organizations, WHO and IDA secretariat seeking to have a direct relationship with national user/survivor organizations to provide them with training on the CRPD.  This is disrespectful and not in keeping with the principle of "nothing about us without us," and gives the impression that we are not the suppliers of expertise but only the recipients of training by experts whose lack of lived experience seems to give them greater credibility.  These agencies, all based in the global north, also appear to want to "protect" user/survivor organizations in the global south from the influence of leaders in the worldwide movement who are opposed to forced psychiatry.  They seem to think that wanting freedom from oppression is a conspiracy of outside agitators - sound familiar?  

Our movement has been slow (from my perspective) to understand the potential of the CRPD much less to be willing to believe in yet another promise that may remain unfulfilled.  There has already been a lot of co-optation worldwide, so that those of us who want our national and local organizations to work for abolition of forced psychiatry have to deal with funders, non-user/survivor staff who usurp decision-making power, and members who are peace-loving and traumatized people reluctant to be in the middle of ideological wars.  Despite all this it is happening, and user/survivor organizations everywhere are taking the CRPD and making it their own, adapting the message of freedom and self-determination to their own circumstances and speaking in the many authentic voices of our movement.

I feel sorrow and grief over the co-optation that has happened in relation to work in which I was personally involved.  Yet I see the results of my work not only in the user/survivor movement taking up the CRPD standards, but also in the fact that many of those who fought me at one time or another end up adopting the positions and strategies I have advocated.  I would rather the co-optation not be happening, as it drains energy and puts additional obstacles in our path.  My hope is that we can defeat co-optation by naming it and coming together to cooperate for our freedom and for the solidarity to meet our human needs.  The CRPD gives us a chance to develop policies appropriate to the society we live in, to play a role in governance responsible to the society as a whole.  (I mean that we have an opening to put forward serious, comprehensive policies for laws and programs that reflect what we truly want.  It is similar, I think, to what happens after a revolution when the revolutionaries have to govern.)  As I have been arguing elsewhere, I believe we have the tools, models and skills to shape such policy.  Watch for further discussions and let me know what you think.  

The "growing up" of a movement does not have to mean co-optation, rather co-optation is a challenge that a movement has to face in its "growing up." 

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