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Is Advocacy becoming too professional? A conversation with World Vision and Save the Children

October 12, 2016
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world-vision-logoI was guest ranter at an illuminating recent discussion on advocacy with Save the Children and World Vision. They were reviewing the lessons of their ‘global campaigning on the MDG framework’ on maternal and child health (MCH) (here’s a powerpoint summary of their findings global-campaigning-within-the-mdg-framework-sci-wvi). Some of the conclusions were painfully familiar (quotes from the briefing for the meeting):

‘There is little evidence that global institutions’ monitoring and accountability are driving a more consistent implementation of commitments at a country level and whether civil society are consistently utilizing these promises as part of their campaigning’

But the conclusion from that observation set my alarm bells ringing:

‘Lessons learned:

  • There needs to be more coordination and planning together to ensure a meaningful contribution of CSOs to global reporting
  • There needs to be a clearer articulation in strategies of how global frameworks support national level change with specific activities to support partners, local communities and civil society to use intelligence in their campaigning
  • We need to understand how CSOs can better contribute to the global accountability frameworks and translate this into meaningful change at a country level.’

My conclusion was more like ‘oops, start again’ and I set out what I meant: Set aside your precious campaign and

At the cuddlier end of campaigning

At the cuddlier end of influencing

advocacy toolkits and go back to square one. How does change happen on MCH? What role is there for national organizations, including but not confined to CSOs? What role for voluntary international agreements like the MDGs, or for INGOs?

Which echoed my main finding on the paper I’m struggling to finish on theories of change on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict affected states: most organizations in aid and development don’t actually have a theory of change; they have a theory of (their own) action, which absorbs all their time and energy, leaving precious little space for thinking about how the broader system is evolving. Hardly surprising then that our theories of action tend to be pretty crude – they aren’t adapted to the system they are trying to influence. Paraphrasing Donella Meadows, advocates are more interested in dancing with each other than with the system.

But as the meeting wore on, my concerns got deeper. It felt like what I was witnessing was the birth of a new guild – the advocacy professional. There’s lots of reasons why that is a good thing – people learn from each other, exchange ideas and experience, and sharpen up their act. But I was also acutely conscious of the downsides. Any emerging guild has to establish its identities and boundaries – who is/is not a member. That rapidly leads to rituals of inclusion/exclusion, typically around language and methods, and the occasional burning of heretics just to keep everyone on their toes. Something similar is going on in the fledgling psychotherapy profession at the moment and it’s not a pretty sight.

Didn't follow best practice, apparently

Didn’t follow best practice, apparently

But that need to establish an Us/Them division of the world feeds into precisely the problem I was witnessing on theory of change v action – indeed it could be seen as its underlying cause. And it gets compounded when people think professionalizing means moving from ‘art’ to ‘science’ and then equate science with a bunch of set rules that they must follow.

What to do? In these situations, institutional logic tends to trump other kinds (like evidence for example): just look at the limited success of all the efforts to encourage academics to work across disciplines. In aid and development, the equivalent is pleas to abandon ‘siloed thinking’, but one person’s silo is another person’s epistemic community and future career. Who do you think is going to win that one?

What might help aid agencies and NGOs overcome this tendency? Some thoughts, but I’d welcome yours:

Internal secondments: make would-be advocates spend a month in other parts of the organization, and a few months with partners, to keep the ‘othering’ process in check

Money talks: funders can nudge people out of their silos (although academics’ dogged refusal to cooperate with other disciplines despite research funds being available shows the limits to that approach)

Other suggestions?

Some other highlights of the discussion:`

Campaigns tend to focus on new policy and budget commitments at national level. They are much less successful at getting such changes implemented, or at working on a sub-national level. Where campaigns have got somewhere on implementation, it is because advocates and programme people have joined forces.

Efforts to shoehorn different national contexts into a single set of global indicators suck (designed to allow INGOs to dazzle funders with ‘we saved X million kids last year’): ‘people running around collecting data that didn’t help them save-campaignmuch.’

Being an implementing partner with authoritarian governments is a double edged sword. On the one hand it engenders a good deal of caution and self censorship among INGOs; on the other, you have a reservoir of trust and access for ‘insider’ approaches that less engaged NGOs lack.

One of the problems for those trying to capture the results of advocacy is that staff on the ground don’t see what they do as advocacy – it’s just how you deal with the obstacles you face and the conversations you have to get your work done.

Save is trying to take these lessons on board in what looks like a very promising new ‘Global Accountability Framework’ for its global campaign that involves

  • Ditching global indicators
  • Focus on what you have learned/changed during the time of the programme
  • Develop ways of collecting data on how much learning has taken place
  • Use of impact stories and ‘ranking scales’
  • Moving to realtime data and feedback, for example getting staff to record activities on Google Maps
  • Working with some of their funders to develop ways to measure ‘political will’. Good luck with that
  • Developing ways to track public attitude changes towards maternal and child health


  1. Great post. I’ve been thinking for a while that there’s a lot of people out there who think advocacy and influencing is merely about doing a stakeholder analysis, developing a plan, implementing it and managing away the risks. There’s a phenomenal amount of toolkits, guidelines and handbooks that’ve been produced, which see advocacy as a technical process (I’m still waiting to meet someone who actually plans their policy work in advance, lays it out in a report and revisits it periodically to review/change it as these guides often prescribe). But they don’t capture the reality though of influence/engagement: the clash of values and ideologies, politics and power, conversation and gossip, the feelings provoked by processes of inclusion and exclusion, the lengths you have to go to, to motivate people to take an interest and act, and much more…

  2. Nice post. Advocacy is a mindset that seemed to bear fruit when donor money was flowing. So now the challenge is how to help the CSOs get out of the advocacy quagmire.

  3. Love this blog! It resonates with some of the reasons why I stopped being a ‘professional advocate’, at least for now. I think the challenges that prevent us breaking away from this established dynamic of instrumental, incremental, linear policy change work are pretty huge. I know it’s old fashioned, but I think there remains a role of creating space for ‘professional changers’ to engage with and talk about some of the most fundamental learning on action and change (stuff like Mancur Olson, etc). Sometimes I think it helps to realise that some of the things NGOs have put in the ‘too difficult box’ have already been explained rather well, albeit with challenging consequences for the received wisdoms of NGO advocacy. Maybe academics can help with that, rather than mainly being wheeled in to be pointed at research projects. Going to work with other bits of the sector, or other sectors, and in challenging places like Myanmar definitely helps, but without wider change there is a risk it ultimately makes one (well, me) feel even more frustrated at widespread organisational reluctance to acknowledge these problems.

    Plus, perhaps a new position is needed in campaigns/advocacy departments – someone fulfilling the role of the slaves in a Roman Triumph, whispering into the ear of the victorious general, “you are only a man” or “you are not a god”. I like to think of this as an institutionalised form of ‘Duncan’.

  4. The problem actually is that majority of those driving advocacy do not understand what it is. As a result, they have a limited understanding of the importance of strategy and tactics in advocacy which mean the difference between failure and success in advocacy. You have to be a qualified advocatr in the classroom and through practice but not a journalist, communications expert or political scientist if you are to produce results.

  5. This resonates with some work we’re doing on the emergence of a “research professional”: https://www.academia.edu/19530004/Online_symposium_on_the_changing_ethics_and_politics_of_knowledge_production_in_fragile_states

    There is, I think, a lot at stake in the professional norms that emerge to govern a profession — but, as you point out, we often miss the boat when it comes to the political moment to shape them. How do we change that?

    I’m also really intrigued by how professional norms – for example, for researchers – interact with those emerging for advocates. Which do they draw on or share (e.g. “rigor”, to give a scientific appearance), and which do they distinguish (e.g. “actionability”, to show that advocates do, and not just think)? The answer to that will tell us something about how advocates are positioning their political role in the global development ecosystem.

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