Advocacy in Fragile Contexts

By Margit van Wessel

There is a lot of interest in advocacy in the development sector. It is commonly accepted that projects in themselves are poorly geared to tackling structural causes of problems like poverty and injustice, and advocacy is taken by many as a necessary for addressing these structural causes.

However, despite all the interest in localization, and the acceptance that many important changes need to take place at country level rather than only in the Global North or international levels, there is little attention to how advocacy works in different national and sub-national contexts – the contexts in which many ‘partner organizations’ work. Somehow, while it is understood that everything is ‘context-specific’, advocacy and advocacy capacity development tends to remain understood in general, universalistic terms.   Manuals and programmes for example tend to start from the point that ‘evidence-based’ working is important, and that there will be a stable government to lobby.

This suggests a knowledge gap and an injustice. First, it perpetuates the idea that experience and systematized expertise built in the Global North is the only game in town when it comes to required advocacy knowledge and skills. Second, it fails to acknowledge existing context-geared advocacy knowledge and skills in the Global South.

Last spring, Cordaid, a development organization that focuses on fragile contexts, gave me and my colleagues Wenny Ho, Peter Tamás and Edwige Marty the opportunity to collect stories of advocacy in fragile contexts where Cordaid and its partners work. Using the Narrative Assessment  methodology, we developed five stories from South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, Central African Republic and Afghanistan from interviews with advocates from in-country organizations. These stories show how engagement with the context of fragility shapes effective advocacy.

Engagement with fragility shapes effective advocacy

For example, a story from the emergent country of South Sudan is about advocacy for allocation of oil revenues to communities. It shows how advocacy works in a context where issues such as laws, procedures, mandates, are still being negotiated, with informal rules also still being hammered out, hashed over and retracted. On one hand, civil society organizations must follow such rules, but on the other hand they can also contribute to their (re)creation and negotiation. A good example are organizations who support communities in renegotiating relations with important stakeholders by translating legal sources, supporting peaceful community organizing and development of procedures and mechanisms for managing revenues together with governments. Such organizations strategize with a keen and sensitive capacity to relate to a range of actors and dynamics of context, leveraging opportunities and working with limitations.

When it comes to achievements, these stories illustrate different ways in which networks, voices and capacities were strengthened, communications and relations between state agencies and citizens were enhanced, and innovative, context-specific ways to provide services were developed. At the same time, the stories show that contextual conditions may limit scale, with successes being often partial and contingent on unpredictably shifting conditions. They require constant tending and reinforcing.

When it comes to strategies, we see important roles for generally acknowledged strategies such as evidence-based advocacy, public campaigning, and lobbying. However, advocacy strategies are often part of organizations’ wider involvement with change, involving a range of stakeholders in a societal domain rather than mainly decision-makers or the public. For example, organizations seek to engage and convince state agencies, but also to mobilize and harness the power of informal authorities such as that of religious and community leaders. And we see that they engage with other diverse societal groups, such as youth organizations and relevant professional groups, such as teachers. The roles of advocates may be thus much more encompassing of full societal domains than advocates in the Global North are used to.

When it comes to capacities: advocacy training manuals and related publications often stress similar capacities such as the ability to cultivate individual and organizational reputation and relations; the ability to monitor political and policymaking arenas, to recognize and act on opportunities and adapt when necessary. Such generally acknowledged capacities do appear in our stories. However, they are accompanied by capacities that enable an actionable understanding of the context. First, the stories show the prominent role of the capacity to ‘read’ the context, essential for engaging with the ever-changing presence and relevance of unpredictable, diverse, and often constricting contextual factors to identify space and find creative ways forward. Second, the organizations’ advocacy can often not be seen separately from their capacity development and policy implementation activities. Their work involves a much broader and fluid approach to advocacy than the influencing of decision-makers and the public. Organizations are often participants in change as much as influencers. This requires capacities to engage with actors in diverse capacities and to take up roles that address different dimensions of change processes.

Making advocacy in fragile contexts visisble

With stories such as ours, the achievements, strategies and capacities of advocates working in fragile contexts become more visible, understandable, and appreciable. Most importantly, the stories and analyses also indicate that the development sector needs to consider more closely what it takes to achieve change in different contexts.

While our stories offer only snapshots into advocacy in fragile contexts, they provide the insight that context matters for advocacy in ways we do not know enough of. With this collection, we hope to facilitate conversation, mutual recognition and learning about what it means to do advocacy in different contexts. We also hope it will encourage donors, INGOs and other powerful actors seeking to support advocacy in contexts other than their own to adapt their advocacy strategies. Our recommendations for that are:

  1. Identify, acknowledge and support context-specific advocacy strategies
  2. Acknowledge and support contextually relevant capacities and capacity strengthening
  3. Consider contextual conditions in assessing achievements
  4. Advance context-relevant learning through South-South exchange
  5. Adopt longer-term perspectives on change

The stories and analysis are available in the free e-book, “Advocacy in Context”, also available in French.

Margit van Wessel (PhD) is assistant professor at the Strategic Communication Chair Group at Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands. Focusing her research on communication and inclusive development, she mainly publishes on civil society advocacy, civil society collaborations, and advocacy evaluation.

Image: Michael Smith under a Creative Commons license on flickr