Advocacy, the Invisible Hand

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Recently I have been thinking about the roles that advocacy and campaigning play in bringing long term positive changes in the development sector.

Most organizations, either not for profits or social for profit enterprises, channel their energies and efforts on direct implementation that should bring tangible results that are measurable.

I feel that advocacy and campaigning are not simply overlooked but also neglected because they are hard to measure and most importantly they do not bring quick results that all donors want to see when they fund a development action.

Therefore advocacy and campaigning hardly find much space in the “magical” log frames of organizations.

It is not only a pity, it is also a problem.

First of all let’s try to understand what we mean by advocacy and campaigning. What about lobbying?

The Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing published by NCVO, the British NGOs umbrella organization, defines campaigning as: “Organized actions around a specific issue seeking to bring about changes in the policy and behaviors of institutions and/or specific public groups…the mobilizing of forces by organizations and individuals to influence others in order to effect an identified and desired social, economic, environmental or political change.”

A free on line vocabulary defines campaigning simply as “work in an organized and active way toward a particular goal, typically a political or social one”

Campaigning is an organized form of advocating for a certain issue or cause. When we talk about advocating, we should reference the Latin roots of the verb “advocate” that implies speaking or writing in favor of someone.

Even now days many Latin languages use the same linguistic root of advocating to define a lawyer or a barrister: “avvocato” in Italian or “abogado” in the Spanish language.

So by advocating you take sides in a particular issue, you defend it and you carry out actions that might help “holding” your position in that particular issue.

My understanding of advocacy brings me to regard it as a strategic area of action. On the one hand you implement some interventions at the  local level, for example, you build a school and on the other hand you do some advocacy work to make sure that the rights of education in that particular area where the school is going to be built are enforced.

Advocacy interventions normally are considered as light interventions like organizing a workshop, petitioning the local government etc. The true is that advocacy work can be as varied as possible and depending on the issue at stake, on the budget at one's disposal and on the skills available, you can decide to design a great variety of activities.

You can design a mass media campaign involving a mix of involvement of celebrities, TV commercials and a series of Op-Eds and columns in the major dailies.

At the same time you might decide to carry out a rally in the major urban centers as well as holding a series of community gatherings at the grassroots level for example by using street theatre.

Another option would be to act with a different purpose. Not simply creating  mass awareness but also deciding to raise your stakes by trying to directly influence policy makers. This is called lobbying that Wikipedia defines as “Lobbying (also lobby) is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies

Certainly lobbying can be seen as a “high reward, high risk” game as you can get your fingers burned by trying to get into the decision making process at the highest levels.

It is not surprising that lobbying is not only a highly remunerated profession in western countries but it is also highly controversial. The major powers have come up with specific legislation on how to rein in lobbyists with strict conditions regulating the relationship between lobbyists and elected officials or public servants.

You must know that the most successful lobbyists are former colleagues of persons now in power. The assumption is simple as only those who had power before can easily reach out to those who hold power now. Lobbying is done at very personal level, it is all about friendships and relationship.

I do not see anything wrong with it as long as it is done ethically and for a good cause. Trying to influence the policy makers to change the Education Act or the Social Welfare Act is definitely different than influencing them for looser regulations over gambling, smoking or the selling of alcohol.

I have always been fascinated by the power of advocacy either at a small grassroots level or at the national policy level. The fact that very few organizations are involved  is a matter of concern

It is true that there are networks and alliances but very few of them seem to be very effective. Some organizations invest in them but often times we see a clash of egos in terms of visibility and overlapping between what an organization can do on its own and what can be done and claimed as part of a network.

An organization can draw the right mix of “collective” advocacy action and “individualized’ approach to advocacy. It is possible to draw lines between the two based on the assumption that certain actions are more successful as part of a platform of likeminded organizations while other interventions are more effective if done on their own. Circumstances can also be an important factor in the decision to be taken.

What counts most to me is that advocacy must be recognized as an equally important working area as doing direct implementation. I would say that maybe it is even more important than the former. Unfortunately the focus is always focused on shortermism rather than long term.

The problem is to persuade donors about it. Even trickier is to take a long view approach to development, recognizing that systematic change happens only by a synergetic effort of different players with different actions at different levels.

Recognizing and admitting that reaping the “fruits” of a development action takes more than what is permitted in a donors’ log frames would be another important milestone in making aid more effective in bringing the desired results in the long run.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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