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What is advocacy?

Anyone can advocate for change, but it is not always easy

Written by Joanna Watson 2022

A group of Mozambican women, with one young child, sitting together on the ground under the shade of a tree

Led by the local church, these community members in Mozambique are advocating for their land rights. Photo: Kylie Scott/Tearfund

A mixed group of smartly-dressed men and woman in Uganda sitting on the ground outside, partly under the shade of a tree

From: Community-led advocacy - Footsteps 118

Tools and ideas that communities can use to challenge injustice and change difficult situations

The first time I engaged in advocacy, many years ago, I felt nervous, and my mind was full of concerns: Why would such powerful people want to listen to me? What if I forgot, or stumbled over, my words? What sort of difference could I make in the face of such a huge issue?

These kinds of concerns can be common when we first start learning to advocate, especially if it takes a long time to see any impact.

Anyone can be an advocate. It is not a professional activity, and there is no requirement to have special qualifications. But we have to persevere and practise, and allow our skills and confidence to develop.

Standing up for justice

The word ‘advocacy’ has different meanings for people in different contexts, depending on their experiences, language and culture. In some contexts it is risky to talk about advocacy; in others it is beneficial. In some languages there is no equivalent word, so it may be necessary to find an alternative phrase.

Tearfund defines advocacy as: ‘Influencing the decisions, public policies and practices of powerful decision-makers to address the underlying causes of poverty, bring justice, and support good development.’

Advocacy is firmly rooted in the Bible, and in God's heart for justice and compassion (eg Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:17; Luke 11:42).

Approaches

There are three main advocacy approaches: for, with and by communities. Many initiatives will use all three approaches at different times.

  • For communities:

    Advocacy done on behalf of communities affected by an unjust situation. This approach is important in places where affected communities are unable to speak out, perhaps because of fear or danger.

  • With communities:

    Advocacy done collaboratively, where communities affected by an unjust situation advocate with others who are not directly affected.

  • By communities:

    Advocacy done by communities directly affected by an unjust situation. This is often the most effective and sustainable type of advocacy. It gives integrity and legitimacy to the activities and challenges unjust power relations.

Local, community-led advocacy is not always easy, but it is deeply rewarding as people learn how to voice their needs, problems, hopes and solutions, and grow in the confidence and ability to influence decision-makers and bring change to their communities.

A smiling Nepalese man working with wood in his workshop under his home

After advocating for local government support, Hari’s community in Nepal now have a micro-hydropower plant in their village and he has been able to expand his carpentry business. Photo: Kit Powney/Tearfund

Methods

It is important to choose advocacy methods that are appropriate for the context. For example, in countries where citizens can freely express their views, public activities often work best. But in countries where it is difficult to challenge the government, advocacy needs to be done less publicly (see Quiet influence).

Some of the most popular methods include:

  • Lobbying: Dialogue and conversation with decision-makers.

    Activities include:

    • writing letters
    • making phone calls
    • sharing research findings
    • enabling decision-makers to meet people affected by the issue.
  • Campaigning: Encouraging people to participate in actions that put pressure on decision-makers to bring about change.

    Activities include:

    • public meetings
    • petitions
    • demonstrations
    • street marches and non-violent protests.

    When a lot of people get involved in a campaign, it is sometimes called a movement.

  • Media messages: Using the media to spread advocacy messages can greatly increase the number of people who are aware of the situation.

    Activities include:

    • writing a newspaper article or a social media post
    • radio or television interviews
    • hosting or attending a press conference.

However you decide to do advocacy, remember to keep going, even if it feels difficult. Over the years I have learnt to be patient and to keep practising, and I encourage you to do the same. Because it is only when you find and use your voice that you will discover the advocate inside you!

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Additional resources

Written by

Written by  Joanna Watson

Joanna Watson is the author of Tearfund’s Advocacy toolkit. She leads an international team who support Tearfund’s advocacy partners around the world.

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