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Bringing justice, influencing the powerful

Many of the problems we address in advocacy work arise because of abuse of power

2015 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Human trafficking – Footsteps 96

Real-life examples of the lies traffickers tell and action to prevent trafficking

By Joanna Watson

Many of the problems we address in advocacy work arise because of abuse of power. Usually, in trafficking situations, traffickers have gained power because they have used force, violence, bribery or coercion to get what they want. It is therefore very important that we understand who holds the power, both formally (who officially has the power) and informally (who actually has the power). 

What is power? 

Power is the ability to influence the behaviour of people and the circumstances they live in. It determines who makes decisions, what decisions are made, when they are made, and how. When we speak out in advocacy, we interact with power because we are holding decision-makers to account for their use of power, trying to change the way power is used, challenging the abuse of power, and helping people to identify and use the power they have to influence change. 

One way we can do this is through a power analysis – see table below. 

Many governments have drafted legislation to protect the victims of trafficking, but these laws are frequently ignored and abused. This means that our advocacy work needs to involve all the groups who have a stake in the issue of trafficking in our context, so that we can involve them in appropriate ways. For example, government officials, the police and law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to fulfil their responsibilities to uphold the law, while families and communities at risk of trafficking need to be made aware of the potential for trafficking, and their entitlement to protection. 

Lowering the risk 

When we advocate on a topic like trafficking, we should be aware of the risks involved. People may experience different fears, particularly because of the corruption and entrenched interests which may be involved. This is understandable, especially in countries where law enforcement is weak, where civil society organisations do not have a strong voice and where government shows limited respect for human rights. 

Taking some simple steps can help to lower the risks of advocating for change. For example, you can:  

  • Work with other organisations, locally, nationally and internationally. This helps provide support and is particularly useful for smaller organisations. International organisations can also help to put external pressure on the government which may be difficult from within the country. 
  • Build good relationships with decision-makers. Respect those in power and give them clear explanations about the issues you are facing. Also, cultivate relationships with a wide range of people and organisations. 
  • Be aware of your rights and who to contact if you face any harassment. Make links with organisations that can provide legal advice and support. 
  • Ensure that the community is engaged in the advocacy work. This promotes wider support and engagement on the issue and therefore greater protection. 
  • Work with the media. If this is appropriate in your context, engaging with the media will make your advocacy work more visible and will enable the media to help to hold people in power to account. 
  • Develop an organisational risk strategy. This will help you to identify the potential risks and develop specific strategies, systems and safeguards. 

Power analysis table 

Consider the relevant people, groups, organisations and institutions involved in advocacy: 
  • Who has power? 
  • Who lacks power? 
  • Whose voices need to be heard? 
  • Who needs to hear the advocacy message?
  • Who is, directly and indirectly, helping those whose voices need to be heard? 


    Consider the culture, context, political environment and levels (international, regional, national, provincial, district, community) at which advocacy is taking place: 

    • Where does power exist? 
    • What is the culture where you are doing advocacy and how does this affect power relations? 
    • Which levels are most powerful? 
    • At what levels do voices need to be heard?


      Consider the types and forms of power that are applicable to advocacy: 

      • What power relations* exist? 
      • If there is a power imbalance, what is it like? 
      • What types of power are there? 
      • What different forms of power are available, and who can use them? 
      • What could a change in the balance of power look like? 


        Consider how appropriate different advocacy approaches are: 

        • How does power operate? 
        • How clear is our understanding of power relations? 
        • What methods and approaches of advocacy are likely to work best to address any power imbalance? 
        • How could we overcome obstacles to better power relations? 

          * The phrase ‘power relations’ describes relationships between different types of power and relationships between different powerful people and organisations. 

          MMF worked with the local government departments responsible for legal paperwork to help the migrant workers. Illustration: Bill Crooks

          MMF worked with the local government departments responsible for legal paperwork to help the migrant workers. Illustration: Bill Crooks

          Case study: Thailand 

          Two million migrants from Myanmar live and work in northern Thailand. Many arrive with dreams of overcoming poverty, while some are forced to migrate due to conflict. All of them are easy prey for exploitation and discrimination, and many lack legal papers and are not aware of Thai employment laws. 

          One of Tearfund’s partners, MMF (Mekong Minority Foundation), integrated advocacy into its programmes to respond to the need, and decided to address all the main issues simultaneously. 

          They built relationships with the companies that were employing migrant workers, to help them improve working conditions. They worked with the local government departments responsible for legal paperwork to help the migrant workers register officially so they could claim their rights to basic services while in Thailand. They trained church and community leaders to identify people who may be at risk of exploitation and discrimination. They raised awareness among the migrant communities about Thai employment laws, and the requirements expected of migrant workers. They also cared for migrant children who were vulnerable to trafficking while their parents were working, by opening a day-care centre. 

          Originally published in Tearfund’s new Advocacy toolkit (2nd edition, 2014) page 72 

          Case study: Cambodia 

          Trafficking children between Cambodia and Thailand is big business, even though there are laws in place to protect them. One Tearfund partner, determined to see the laws enforced, took some Cambodian government officials across the border into Thailand to witness the conditions in which trafficked children were living. They worked with communities and churches to raise awareness of the laws against trafficking. 

          They also encouraged the government officials, the border authorities and others to fulfil their responsibilities for upholding the law. Now, when children are at risk of being trafficked, many people know how to enforce the laws. Children themselves know how to get help. Trust has been built between the various officials who are meant to uphold the law. Breaches of the law are occurring less and less frequently. 

          Originally published in Tearfund’s new Advocacy toolkit (2nd edition, 2014), page 6 Illustration: Bill Crooks

          More information on doing advocacy in challenging environments can be found in Tearfund’s new Advocacy toolkit. This article has been adapted from Section B2, pages 30-33. The Power Analysis table was originally adapted from material in Oxfam’s ‘Quick Guide to Power Analysis’ and appears on page 35 of the new Advocacy toolkit. 

          Joanna Watson is Advocacy Adviser at Tearfund and is the author of the Advocacy toolkit (2nd edition). 

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