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Better learning for better advocacy

Advocacy is all about influencing the decisions, policies and practices of powerful decision-makers, usually in government

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Rosa Mariano, an active Life Team member from Zambezia Province, greets her neighbours. Photo: Rebecca J Vander Meulen

From: Lifelong learning – Footsteps 90

Articles on learning from others and stories and advice from around the world

Advocacy is all about influencing the decisions, policies and practices of powerful decision-makers, usually in government. It is done in order to address the underlying causes of poverty, bring justice and support good development. Learning about an advocacy issue (eg access to healthcare or the right to graze animals on common land) is important because all advocacy work needs to be based on correct information, which comes from a source which those in power can also access.  

There are many stages to an advocacy project. You need to start by identifying, researching and analysing the most appropriate issue to address through advocacy. Next you need to develop and implement an advocacy action plan. You can then monitor progress and review the impact you have made.

Usually, the success or failure of an advocacy initiative depends on the research and analysis you do before you start approaching decision-makers.

It is like building a house: you need to build strong foundations to make sure it doesn’t fall down! Therefore, it is important to ask:

  • Have we identified the most relevant issue to advocate about?
  • Have we done enough research and analysis?
  • Have we learnt as much as we can about the issue before taking action?

Research and analysis

Often, knowledge about the issue can only be gained through research, which involves the focused collection of information and data, and analysis, which involves thinking about what this information and data mean for your work. What you learn will then help you to make a plan of action.

It is good to start by gathering information that is both quantitative (ie facts, figures and data) and qualitative (ie stories and quotes from people affected by the issue). Research may be primary or secondary:

  • Primary research comes from original sources. You get information directly from those involved in or affected by an issue. This can be through interviews, surveys or informal conversations.
  • Secondary research comes from trusted sources that have already gathered information on your issue. It is often called ‘desk-based research’ because it can be done using websites, books, reports or sets of statistics. These can be found on the internet or in newspapers as well as through libraries, universities, government departments, NGOs or research institutions.

Analysis involves asking questions about the information you have gathered and identifying patterns and themes which can easily be communicated to others.

NGO staff interview young people about their HIV/AIDS awareness in Southern China. Photo Bless China International

NGO staff interview young people about their HIV/AIDS awareness in Southern China. Photo: Bless China International

Research questions

To help with your research, here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Effects: How is this issue affecting poor and vulnerable communities?
  • Context: How is the issue viewed where we are working? What is the wider situation in the country, in terms of social, cultural, economic, religious and environmental factors?
  • Causes: What are the causes of the issue? What factors are making it worse?
  • Role of Government: What is the role of the government in the issue? What laws, policies and practices relate to it? What budget information is available in relation to it? What formal strategies, official action plans, statements of intent or draft proposals exist?
  • Targets: Who has the power and authority to bring about change? Are they able to actually act on this issue? Do they agree they have responsibility for change? How will we access them? Are they open to discussion?
  • Solutions: What do we think needs to be done to resolve the problem? What are we going to propose? Are our proposals realistic? What will we say if people disagree with us? Do we have a clear vision for change, and a clear plan for how change will come about?
  • Involving others: Who else is interested in the problem? If they are in favour of what we are asking, how can we work with them as allies? If they are undecided, how can we persuade them to help us? If they are opposed to what we are asking, how can we address their objections?
  • Resources: What resources might be available (including money, equipment, volunteers, building space etc) to help us do our advocacy?

Problem tree 

One powerful and popular visual mapping tool is the problem tree. It can be useful for analysing a core situation and all the related issues, including the causes of a problem, the factors making it worse, as well as the effects of a problem and how they are impacting poor and vulnerable communities. This can be developed into a ‘solution tree’, which is a valuable tool for working out what needs to be done, and what needs to be proposed, for a problem to be overcome.

FS90_7_large - Problem tree

Case study from Nepal 

Nepal has a national planning law that is meant to be inclusive, allowing local communities to contribute to local and district plans and budgets.   
While central government is still able to develop its own priorities, the law provides a mechanism to empower local communities to assert their own priorities and have their concerns formally heard. Unfortunately, commitment to this process has been low. Many communities are not even aware of this opportunity and decisions are often made by a small self-selected group of politically influential men. 
One Tearfund partner, United Mission to Nepal (UMN), heard about the law and realised that it related to the work they were doing with local communities around issues of good governance. As a result, they did some research about the law, using the internet, contacting government departments, and asking other agencies what they knew about it. This helped them understand why commitment to the law was weak, and enabled them to think of ways to ensure its implementation. 
They also decided to raise awareness about the law, in order to facilitate community input into the local planning process and to improve local government transparency and accountability. They did this through community meetings involving community members and leaders, representatives from political parties and the media as well as through training workshops. 
After learning about their right to participate in local planning, communities were supported to develop proposals which reflected community needs and priorities and to present them in accordance with the law. These participatory meetings ensured that all voices were heard and that the proposals selected truly represented the community’s concerns. They also led to the community members, newly empowered, continuing the process themselves after the support had finished.

Joanna Watson is Advocacy Adviser at Tearfund.

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