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

October 12, 2016 6 By Duncan Green

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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