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Key ingredients for successful advocacy – do they really exist?

Published on: 24/11/2015

I was just at the Professional Women in Advocacy Conference. As I looked around the room, I realized it was the first professional conference where I did not know anyone. It made me recognize the WASH sector is lagging behind.

It was a great event where I saw professional full time advocates coming together and learning from each other to amplify their effectiveness. The unfortunate reality is professionalizing and prioritizing advocacy in the WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) sector could use some work. Taking time away from my busy day-to-day schedule allowed me to reflect on what we are doing well, where we have gaps, and how we can move forward. Here are my takeaways.

What's good at the global level

Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6), an independent goal focused solely on water and sanitation, is one of the biggest global WASH advocacy successes in recent history.  Just as the MDGs, SDG6 gives us advocates something concrete to build campaigns and strategies around However, the focus on sustainability and full coverage makes our jobs both easier and harder. Easier, because most people care about equality and ensuring everyone is included. Harder, because selling sustainability and systems change is not nearly as tangible as a toilet or a borehole. To achieve the SDGs we need to move to the country level, including our advocacy. One of the most effective mechanisms to do that is Sanitation and Water for All (SWA). SWA is an advocacy platform to increase political prioritization for WASH, promote the development of a strong evidence base to support decision-making, and strengthen government-led national processes.

There are other global movements, campaigns, and networks that target decision makers and are at the heart of civil society advocacy at the global, regional, and national level. These umbrella organizations or coalitions set agendas and rally advocates and non-advocates to hold governments accountable for their WASH commitments. Several are providing technical assistance, tools, and messaging to their members to use at the national and sub-national level in developing countries.  A comprehensive list of these organizations will be found in our soon-to-be published WASH Advocacy Landscape, which can be found on the IRC website starting in December.

Advocates in developing countries, local civil society networks, and their efforts to reach national government leaders are the best chance we have to achieve the SDGs by 2030

Highlights from US and European Advocacy – Grassroots and Grasstops

In the US and Europe, there are no shortage of great advocates within multi-sectoral and WASH-specific organizations working on government advocacy and advocacy for more sustainable practices including sustainable service delivery. On the US side, there is a handful of dedicated staff to coordinate efforts and push advocacy forward, which is a great step in “professionalizing” advocacy. Recently, the US had a huge win with the passage of the Water for the World Act in 2014. It took a village to accomplish along with many years of advocating members of congress for much needed policy changes. Many countries in Europe have similar coalitions and coordinating mechanisms that are driving WASH policies and budgets. For example, the NGO-platform within Netherlands Water Partnership and their members have regular dialogues with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure all SWA commitments are upheld. They also “advocate for better targeting and sustainable financing for WASH in the national parliament.” 

Grassroots advocacy is on the rise – just look at the attention water and sanitation were given at the Global Citizen Festival earlier this year.

Where do developing countries fit in?

This is the most important “key ingredient” in the advocacy mix. The developing country advocates, local civil society networks, and their coordinated efforts to reach national level government leaders are the best chance we have to achieve the SDGs by 2030. You may see this as a contradiction to my previous statement about the role of SWA but the reality is decisions are not made at the global level. In many developing countries, key budget and policy decisions are happening at the district or county. Advocacy needs to follow suit. 

One of the many great examples of local WASH advocacy is UWASNET in Uganda, an organization that brings together civil society work in collaboration with the government via national dialogues to ensure the voices of communities and civil society are heard. They also play a role in accountability of both the government and the NGOs working in Uganda. Other regional coalitions provide a means to share advocacy knowledge and successes and coordinate when appropriate around specific WASH issues. Groups such as FANSA, ANEW, FANCA, FANMEX and FANAS often link developing country advocates and national level coalitions with regional and global advocacy work. The key here is they are full time employees working on advocacy. Just another step forward to “professionalizing” advocacy.

Why isn’t advocacy for WASH more prevalent and what’s not working?

During a session, at the most recent UNC Water and Health Conference held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, WASH advocates from around the world met to talk about challenges or gaps in advocacy. This list reflects the ideas of more than 35 organizations engaged in advocacy.  

  • Advocacy is difficult to fund
  • There is a lack of human resources and capacity to do strategic advocacy at all levels
  • No clear means to share advocacy challenges and successes
  • Very few strong grassroots movements for WASH aimed at decision makers
  • Advocacy to donors (governments, corporations, foundations, and private philanthropists) around best practices has been one-off and ad-hoc

Where do we go from here?

Despite all of the amazing advocacy work happening around the globe, it is not mainstreamed…yet. Advocacy is an afterthought. The WASH sector has not prioritized full-time advocacy professionals working alongside their program counterparts. We need to be looking for creative ways to integrate advocacy into programs at all levels. We also need to build on the tools and training programs that currently exist to increase the human resource capacity to do advocacy right. Finally, we need to think of advocacy as a profession and make sure anyone engaging in advocacy is strategic and prepared. Only then will we be able to achieve the SDGs, increase public finances for WASH in developing countries, and make sure citizens can voice their opinions for change.


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