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Do we need a new model for advocacy?

Published on: 25/03/2012

The traditional NGO advocacy model focuses on creating pressure for change through ‘awareness raising’ activities. The idea is that if people are aware of the need for change, it will happen. But does this approach really work? And more specifically, is it an effective path to influencing the policies of organisations and governments?

Take the example of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the New Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation that won the 2005 Stockholm Water Prize. At a workshop on triggering policy change, CSE director Sunita Narain presented their experience in promoting rainwater harvesting as a solution to India’s frequent droughts. CSE began amassing evidence in 1980s, and then in the 1990s they stepped up their advocacy efforts. They did everything you’re supposed to do in an advocacy campaign: they engaged the media; they published books, manuals, policy briefs; they organised high-profile events and developed public awareness TV spots; they set up a website, networks, training workshops and demonstration projects; and they addressed politicians—the President, Members of Parliament, State Governors.

But, said Narain, despite all that work, in 2002 when the country revised its national water policy after a particularly nasty four-year drought, CSE’s recommendations on rainwater harvesting weren’t included. CSE continued its efforts, and eventually policy makers did see the light and established a National Rainfed Area Authority, incorporated groundwater recharge through water harvesting into the national drinking water plan, and instituted a programme to rehabilitate traditional water harvesting structures. I like to think CSE’s hard work paid off and that they had a lot to do with these changes. But the point is, even if they did, it took over two decades of sustained effort. Two decades! This story is not unique. Advocacy, as it is traditionally practised, almost always takes a long time to impact policy—that is, if it succeeds at all.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, two decades may not seem like that long. But what if you’ve only got six years to show results or even less? You’ve got to ask: is there a better way? An example from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), this year’s winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, demonstrates a different path to influencing policy change. In 2003, IWMI scientist Tushaar Shah published a tidy piece of research on how India could fix its groundwater overdraft and power shortage problems by giving farmers a reliable and full voltage power supply for their tubewells but for only eight hours a day, and gradually increasing the flat-rate tariff on farm power. Shah used his connections to spread the word—he shared his paper with a well-respected, retired bureaucrat who had the ear of the Gujarat Electricity Board Chairman. Within the year, Gujarat adopted Shah’s proposed solution.

It was a big, expensive decision—Gujarat had to spend US$290 million rewiring the countryside to even make it possible. And no doubt a whole host of factors came into play, including (one hopes) the quality of the supporting research and (one reckons) the incentives for the actors involved. But it’s worth thinking about: when it comes to making big, expensive decisions (or even small, cheap decisions), which has more influence: faceless research or the recommendation of someone you trust?

In Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Walmart's Green Revolution, the author, Edward Humes, traces Walmart’s conversion to sustainable business practices back to personal connections. According to Humes, it was largely the efforts of one man, Jib Ellison, that convinced Walmart’s top leadership to ‘go Green’. And Ellison himself got in the door through his relationship to Peter Seligmann, founder of Conservation International, who had a personal connection to Walmart’s chairman, Rob Walton.

Now I’m not saying that the approach taken by Shah and Ellison is always better than the traditional advocacy route taken by CSE—I’ve been working with researchers too long to say anything without qualification. Context, context, context I say. But given the objectives, timeline and strengths of Triple-S, we’ve chosen to follow more in Shah and Ellison’s footsteps. We call our approach ‘invocacy’ because it puts emphasis on building relationships with individuals rather than targeting monolithic organisations or the wider public and because it works to cultivate the impetus for change inside organisations and institutions rather than creating pressure for change from the outside.

Of course, we’re not abandoning the traditional advocacy approach entirely. We’re working with organisations with similar goals to amplify the effect of advocacy efforts and we’re using various channels to get information emerging from Triple-S research to as many people as possible who could potentially pick it up and run with it. And, because IRC’s commitment to promoting ‘water services that last’ goes beyond any one project, we’re also able to play a bit of the long game that advocacy requires. In other words, we’re not putting all of our eggs in the ‘invocacy’ basket…just a lot of them. We’ll let you know how it goes.

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