What is an advocacy issue?
An advocacy issue is a problem or need that is closely connected to policy or the implementation or enforcement of policies.
In the planning process of a campaign, it is important to define several critical advocacy issues that are related to your broad advocacy topic, for instance, child rights, or sustainable food systems. Clearly, each of those broader topics contains a large number of potential advocacy issues. Child rights in a given country may have advocacy issues related to schooling, enforcement of labor laws, welfare systems, or children’s participation in policy processes. All those issues are critical in ensuring the rights of children. During the process of defining advocacy issues, we would further describe the surrounding framework which defines the problem in more clarity.
Let us take the broader topic of child rights and the advocacy issue related to “enforcement of labour legislation.” By discussing why this is an issue and what exactly is the issue, we may quickly come to an advocacy issue like the following:
Child labor affects 300,000 children in the country. Child labor has been illegal since 1963, but up until today, no effective and transparent institutions have been put in place to investigate and stop employers or parents. There is no political will to end the practice.
This advocacy issue connect the issue of child labor with some underlying causes, in this case, political will and institutional capacities.
Context analysis is helpful in defining clever advocacy issues.
We recommend defining advocacy issues after having done a good deal of analysis about stakeholders, policymaking processes, and options for participation, as well as analysis of the relevant policies and their implementation. This could be done through a context analysis, ideally in a collaborative manner with some potential allies in an advocacy process.
During the context analysis, critical insights are developed. They can then be reframed into potential advocacy issues. Potential, because further prioritization is required to define the key issue or issues that will become the focus of the advocacy campaign.
Here are some advocacy issues that have been identified in an advocacy planning process aimed at enforcing the Right to Food and developing sustainable food systems in an African country. Here are three of the eight issues that were defined:
1. Small-scale producers are not at the core of the food policies in country X, which focus on industrial agriculture and increased production (see: County Investments and Development Plans, Food and Nutrition Security Policy or Agricultural Sector Extension Policy). Farmers hardly participated in the policymaking and planning processes and in turn, their interests are not reflected.
2. Agriculture extension services are too few and the "demand-driven" approach excludes large groups of remote or poor farmers. Better extension services could be at the core of improving local food security and locally adapted production.
3. Food and nutrition security legislation is currently not fulfilling the right to food in article X of the constitution for citizens and it is not the top priority of national governments. For instance, 4.1 million people are highly food insecure (on IPC 3+ level).
Prioritizing advocacy issues
Focus is critical for advocacy campaigns to be strategic and strong. Sometimes campaigns spread too thinly and in turn, cannot achieve change. Surely, what you can and want to take on depends on the size and capacity of your campaign—and if you are embedded in a larger and more diverse social movement.
However, we recommend that you prioritize one or maximum of two advocacy issues, which then become the center of the campaign. To narrow down to one issue is a critical milestone in your advocacy planning. We have developed the following tool to help you with the process.
The tool visualizes three criteria. The priority issue or most strategic advocacy issues should score high in all three criteria: impact, issue centrality, and feasibility.
Impact: This is the potential impact that we achieve if we manage to address the issue through advocacy. The significance may refer to the number or proportion of people affected, the severity of the consequences if the issue is not addressed, as well as the urgency or pain felt by those affected.
Issue Centrality: While Impact is a clear concept, issue centrality is more complex and sometimes requires a good deal of analysis. The underlying question is if the issue is central to the wider topic that you want to address, and if solving this will have positive spill-over effects on other issues. Or in turn, will avoiding this issue slow progress on other issues?
Feasibility: How feasible is it that we, including our coalition members and the rights holders, can meaningfully contribute to addressing this issue. Is it winnable? In the current context? These questions are closely linked to resources, such as competence, partnerships, finances, and time. It is also connected to the passion and commitment to change the issue within the coalition.
The tool is useful in starting a conversation on the criteria and to compare the different issues.
For the three issues mentioned above, the tool may trigger a conversation about the centrality of the first issue on small-scale producers and their inclusion in policymaking. This inclusion may have spill-over effects on the second issue about extension services—as the affected farmers will probably lobby for better extension services too. The extension services, however, may have a higher or at least more predictable impact than the first or third issue, which refer to larger policy changes that might be more of a long shot.
The priority issue is the foundation for the campaign goal
At the end of the exercise, we select the most strategic issue, which is a high priority in all three criteria. This priority issue (sometimes two) will then be the foundation for developing the goal of the campaign. The issue will then become the center of the campaign, while the other issues are complement the priority issue — but they are not abandoned. As the context changes, the complementary issues might move closer to the center or further away.
Once you have six to ten well-formulated advocacy issues, you introduce the prioritization tool and the three criteria.
Then divide the group into groups of two to three people. Ask each group to rank the issue according to each criteria. First for Impact, then issue centrality, then feasibility. Each group will be asked to report the highest ranking three issues for each criteria. This conversation will take 20 to 30 minutes
Then ask each group to report their priorities for each criterium.
Usually patterns emerge, with few issues ranked very high by many groups.
Discuss the two or three highest ranking issues further until you come up with one priority issue. If this process is challenging, another group discussion can help to come up with one priority in each group that can be used.
Confirm the priority issue in the group.
About the Author:
Retta Menberu Woldetsadik stands up for civil society-state dynamics, good governance, advocacy, and a rights-based approach to development. Since 2018 he has been part of CSA, built up, and leads the Africa office to advocate for change and empower the youth. After working more than two decades in development and health leadership, as a trainer, researcher, and consultant in clinical medicine and public health, Retta developed himself to a broader development leadership and facilitation role by operating as Country Director for ActionAid International, and as regional Strategy Adviser for Rush Foundation. Additionally to his work with CSA, he works as a coordinator, researcher, adviser, and facilitator of international development and humanitarian organizations, alliances, and multi-actor partnerships in diverse contexts across Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Joachim Schwarz is passionate about social justice and on a mission to support like-minded civil society actors and social entrepreneurs to become more powerful and innovative. Hence, in 2014 he left his NGO career to build the Civil Society Academy. He is an outstanding facilitator and coach with expertise in social innovation, leadership, organisational change, and advocacy. After more than 20 years in Africa and Asia, he is now based in Berlin.