What is Advocacy? A Perspective from the Field

By Rachel Rose Thu, 07/30/2015 - 14:55

One of the areas that interest us at Public Finance for WASH is advocacy: how can NGOs and other stakeholders successfully advocate for increased allocation of public resources to WASH? In this blog, Rachel Rose of the Urban Institute talks about her research experience around advocacy in the context of a research and advocacy project that an Urban institute team is doing for WSUP.

  What is Advocacy? A Perspective from the Field

In an effort to shape public policy, development organizations strive to get their voices heard. Whether it is reporting recent evaluations or publicizing new findings, many organizations struggle to amplify their messages and reach decision makers.  However, there is an important but often overlooked difference between information sharing communications and advocacy campaigns. Organizations often fall short on their efforts to influence public policy when they fail to know the difference and effectively use each tool in appropriate contexts.

In our research work for WSUP, we reviewed how communication and advocacy can influence local policymaking, programming, and budgetary allocations. If you aren’t current on our work to date, be sure to read our introduction blog and one-year update.  In our literature review, we offer clear descriptions, and distinctions, between advocacy and communication for development:

“While information and knowledge sharing fall into the domain of education or broadening of options, advocacy falls into the domain of persuasion, which is about narrowing options and motivating decision makers to choose one among many.”

 “Advocacy requires that communication be persuasive enough to sway decisions to be made for or against an issue.”

 Successful advocacy is an important tool for development organizations to shape the policies that affect the communities they serve. The Alliance for Justice provides a compelling argument why development and nonprofit organizations should make efforts to move beyond simple communication sharing and towards effective advocacy: “Nonprofits traditionally serve constituencies and issues that have a limited voice in the policy process. Nonprofits providing services frequently have the best-- or only-- information on the social needs they exist to address. In addition, these nonprofit organizations are less subject to self-interested motivations, driven instead by a commitment to a broad community of people or common interests.” 

To frame these theoretical definitions with real world experience, we wanted to provide a short interview with our consultant from Ghana, who is helping the WSUP country team to advocate for increased municipal sanitation financing for the urban poor.


   Please meet Abdul-Nashiru (Nash) Mohammed, an advocacy and WASH expert who draws upon a wealth of experience from his time at  WaterAid. 

   Below are key insights gathered from a recent interview with Nash, in which he brings to light advocacy challenges faced from all sides, as well as proven strategies for success.  In his own words:

 (1)   How would you define advocacy?

“A process aimed at triggering or achieving change in policy, practice, or even changing an approach, among other things. Those to be targeted by this process could include decision makers at different levels – national, sub-national (decentralized) and community.”

 (2)  What do you believe is the biggest misconception/misunderstanding of advocacy among different actors?

 “NGO staff think advocacy can be used as a confrontational tool to change policies especially when they feel the decision makers or politicians are not receptive/responsive; they often assume it is supposed to bring or give immediate results hence they fail to plan for it with a longer term perspective.”

 “Community citizens are often under the impression that advocacy, including lobbying, is something that organizations and experts undertake on their behalf hence they overlook their own roles in the process.”

 “Local government sees advocacy efforts as fault-finding activities initiated by external institutions (NGOs, etc.). In other words, external agencies support NGOs to expose their weaknesses and poor/bad practices to citizens. They therefore try to block or frustrate external advocacy activities.”

 (3)  What has proven successful in your advocacy work?

“The most successful advocacy is often done by those who are directly affected by the situation especially if the platforms for engagement are available to them. But if external agencies are supporting then they ought to advocate with those affected.”

 “Evidence-based advocacy work has proven successful in a lot of cases especially when there is a body of credible and concrete evidence. This way, the advocates can properly tailor their messages for the appropriate targets in both the short and long term.”

 “Creating platforms for affected citizens to dialogue directly with decision makers works in 8 out of 10 cases especially in reaching consensus on a reform agenda.

 We are delighted to have Nash as part of our team and are encouraged by his leadership and progress to date.  Be sure to check back as we will wrap up our research and have final reports from not only Nash and the Ghana team, but our Mozambique and Kenya teams as well.