Advocacy on behalf of others: what is our legitimacy?

Jane Carter, 03 November 2015
Advocacy on behalf of others: what is our legitimacy?

Last Thursday marked a turning point in organisational knowledge sharing, with the holding of a virtual “Shareday”. That is, our staff in 32 partner countries were invited to join a Webinar to exchange experiences on two topics, selected by vote in advance: advocacy, and market systems development. I suspect that in only a few years’ time, the excitement that accompanied seeing and interacting directly with colleagues in different parts of the world will seem rather quaint. However, until recently the cost of technology, combined with the quality of internet connections in many places, has precluded such a form of sharing.

Whilst presentations were on-going, a written chat session bubbled at the side of the screen, throwing up a wide variety of observations. One issue that generated a flurry of responses in the advocacy session, seeming to preoccupy many staff, was legitimacy. Of course advocacy is ultimately about recognising and influencing, possibly even changing, power structures. So what is a legitimate role for us – as an international, Swiss-based organisation aiming to advocate for policy changes – in such dynamics? In our partner countries, what right do we have to speak on behalf of groups of citizens (those marginalised from decision-making processes) to other citizens of the same country (decision-makers in government or the private sector)? The vast majority (some 95%) of our staff working outside Switzerland are nationals of the country in which they work, which gives them legitimacy as fellow citizens – but this is a disingenuous argument. It is usually the very fact that our staff work for an international organisation, backed by organisational knowledge, experience, and funding, that gives them a voice. In most cases, they do not consider themselves members of those groups whose rights they seek to uphold (with the exception, as far as our women staff are concerned, of women’s rights). There was general consensus that those who are directly affected by a policy, law or intervention and can speak from personal experience are potentially the best advocates. The issue is how to support such individuals to demand their rights effectively – and safely.

Building capacities

Teaching public speaking skills, and supporting marginalised individuals to use existing mechanisms to channel their voices, is clearly one role that we have. The SDC-supported project Sharique in Bangladesh is a case in point, building the capacities of women and other marginalised groups to participate in local governance planning, budgeting and monitoring. At the same time, the project works to build the responsive capacities of the relevant institutions – here in particular the lowest level of local governance, the Union Parishads.

Channelling lessons of experience upwards

Sharique also has ambitions to bring experience to the national level. For this, concisely packaged information in the form of policy briefing papers or short videos, even the stories of change mentioned in a past blog, are appropriate. Experience on the ground provides credibility, but how it is told can make a big difference to how it is interpreted. A clear lesson shared in this regard was: pick your message. Be focused and selective.

Knowledge of rights

Informing individuals of their rights is another important part of advocacy in which we are often active. Katrin Rosenberg, who works on our safe labour migration project in Sri Lanka and facilitated the online chat discussion, noted that labour migrants are often unaware of their rights. Thus one activity of the project is to inform would-be migrants, and the community based organisations working with them which advocate on their behalf, about the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. Although this has not been signed by most destination countries, it has been ratified by Sri Lanka – making the government bound to implement its provisions. These include adequate pre-departure preparations, also for the families left behind; local complaint handling mechanisms if needed in the destination countries; return and reintegration provisions; and engagement with the destination countries for better treatment of migrants.

Linking decision makers

Mention of the UN was in fact started in the chat by Yogesh Pant, based in Surkhet, Nepal and working for the water resources management programme WARM-P. He provided the example of using windows of opportunity to link individuals with influence. In this case, WARM-P was able to link to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water with politicians in Kathmandu. In advocacy work, cause and effect is rarely easy to show, but is a fact that the right to safe drinking water and sanitation – a crucial provision for some of the country’s poorest and most marginalised citizens – is included in the new, recently approved Constitution of Nepal.


Jane Carter

Jane Carter

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1 Comment for «Advocacy on behalf of others: what is our legitimacy?»

  1. Bharat K Pokharel

    15 November 2015 at 19:06

    Very interesting! Succinct examples from South Asian countries. In addition, Nepal’s experience shows that added value being a Swiss organisation is to facilitate all conflicting parties to come together for policy dialogue for change and transformation, and empower right holders to voice and demand good governance, and make duty bearers accountable and responsible to response and deliver services fairly and timely.