How to double your impact through advocacy and influencing

by 08th Oct 2019
CARE staff, refugees and school children in Berlin with a street painting created to highlight the Syria crisis CARE staff, refugees and school children in Berlin with a street painting created to highlight the Syria crisis

Advocacy and influencing is at the heart of CARE’s program strategy – otherwise we couldn’t achieve our aims of tackling the structural causes of poverty and inequality, and scaling up our impact far beyond the communities where CARE and our partners work directly. But what are the most effective tactics and strategies that CARE uses to influence change? Here’s what we have learned from a recent review of CARE’s most successful advocacy and influencing work.

Out of 208 advocacy and influencing initiatives that had reported to date, we looked in detail at 31 cases where CARE and partners had contributed significantly to an influencing success. Twenty of the 31 cases demonstrated national or local level policy, plan or budget influence in the global South, while 11 cases occurred in the global North, influencing donor strategies or international negotiations. We estimate that outcomes from these initiatives have so far improved the lives of more than 55.5 million people, with the potential for future impacts for a further 116 million people. This more than doubles the 46.1 million people for whom CARE’s work had contributed to positive change by the end of 2018.

So, what lessons have we learned for successful advocacy and influencing work?

1. Commit and persist: sustain advocacy efforts beyond project timeframes

Across contexts, it was clear that advocacy is a sustained effort, with advocacy wins being based on influencing that spanned from 18 months to at least five years. In the global North, advocates generally focused on “windows of opportunity” with efforts rarely lasting more than 18 months. In the global South, we found that the most significant successes took at least five years of effort for significant change to materialise.

Some changes took considerably longer. The Guatemalan government approved the first ever School Feeding Law in 2017; CARE had been working with school feeding programmes in Guatemala since 1958. Many of the most significant cases such as the Child Malnutrition Initiative in Peru and the adoption of CARE tools and approaches within the National Disaster Risk Management policy of 2015 in Madagascar involved close to a decade of sustained effort before impact was achieved in people’s lives. This aligns with Oxfam’s findings from recent analysis on influencing policy and reflects the need for sustained commitment on advocacy beyond short-term individual projects.

In some cases, country programmes were able to sustain donor funding for the same thematic area over a long period, such as rolling funding rounds from DIPECHO for Disaster Risk Reduction in Madagascar, or they had a combination of unrestricted funding and flexible funds like DFID’s Programme Partnership Agreement (PPA) or trust funds (e.g. Patsy Collins Trust Fund) or foundations supporting change at scale over a long time-frame (e.g. Gates Foundation support on health in Bihar, India). Both forms of funding were crucial to sustaining advocacy efforts.

2. Invest in relationship-building: back doors, and corridors

The top four tactics employed across the North and the global South were: (i) lobbying-decision-makers; (ii) coalition building; (iii) public forums; and (iv) innovation diffusion.

Twice as common as any other tactic was lobbying decision-makers. This was also judged to be the most effective tactic. Of the 31 cases, 23 employed some form of lobbying decision-makers, and in 19 of these, it was ranked as the most influential tactic.

A substantial proportion of these cases were “insider” approaches where CARE and partners already had a good relationship with government line ministries, having built credibility and trust over a number of years. For example, in Madagascar, CARE is considered one of the “pioneers” of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). The CARE team spent years building a relationship with the government, and this ultimately led to the adoption of a number of CARE tools and approaches within the National Disaster Risk Management policy of 2015 and in government DRR programs, such as a community risk and vulnerability mapping guide and a manual for setting up Local Rescue Committees.

Trust is key, and this was especially the case when working on sensitive topics or in contexts with more restricted civic space. In Vietnam, for example, the Nâng Quyền (Women’s Empowerment) project had a partnership with the Department of Social Vice Prevention. This helped ensure the inclusion of We are Women clubs as an action line in the National Action Plan on Prostitution Prevention and Control, 2016-20.

Close relationships with multilateral agencies were also crucial in a number of cases. In Egypt, a strong relationship with the World Bank, both nationally and internationally, was vital to getting various ministries to adopt accountability mechanisms in their planning. In Cambodia, partnership with UNICEF was also key to developing training materials for the government’s Special Education Department in the Multilingual Education National Action Plan for 2014-2018.

In global forums, windows of opportunity are often serendipitous and take place outside formal negotiation spaces. At the COP23 climate change negotiations in Germany, one such moment at a dinner provided CARE the opportunity to share materials with the Uruguayan delegation, including a policy position paper and analysis on the added value of a joint work programme on agriculture commitments. These inputs were argued to have helped shape the latter half of the negotiations.

3. Utilise evidence: share proof about what works

While lobbying decision-makers was the most important tactic, this was often combined with technical knowledge and the promotion of a specific method or tool (“innovation diffusion”). Demonstrating that these methods or tools were effective and scalable was central to this.

On occasion, CARE’s technical expertise was directly sought by a government. Since 2015, CARE Egypt provided technical support to the Ministry of Finance related to transparency and accountability and is one of six CSOs which has a partnership with the government. The Ministry has adopted CARE’s Governance Programming Framework as their operational framework for fiscal transparency, and CARE Egypt’s Third Party Monitoring method has also been piloted in the national cash transfer programme, Takaful and Karama, in Assiut governorate. The Ministry estimates that the use of the method has saved 22 million EGP (US$1.3 million).

Elsewhere, we see significant efforts to build a robust evidence base to convince governments. In both Malawi and India, this has included Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) to “prove” the effectiveness of specific interventions. Presenting credible evidence that CARE’s Community Score Card was effective in achieving reproductive health outcomes in Malawi’s Ntcheu district was an important input into National Community Health Strategy consultations. This helped the government recognise the value of social accountability and promote (community) score cards as one of the highlighted accountability methods.

Likewise, in India, having data from an RCT was argued to be key to supporting the scale-up of a digitalised monitoring system in the world’s largest maternal and child health programme in the state of Bihar. An RCT was built into the initial pilot which worked with 282 Angan Wadi Centres and 564 Community Health Workers (CHWs) covering a population of around 300,000. The RCT showed that Information Communication Technology (ICT) interventions at Community Health Worker level have the power to influence health outcomes. Model replication is now taking place in eight states across India, currently amongst 100,000 CHWs and with anticipated scale-up expected to reach 1.4 million CHWs.

4. Identify alliances: build partnerships and coalitions

Working through networks or coalitions is an increasingly important tactic. Perhaps the most effective initiative employing this tactic was CARE Peru’s convening of the Child Malnutrition Initiative coalition. By combining savvy messaging (“5 by 5 by 5” – a commitment to reduce malnutrition in children under 5 by 5 percent in 5 years, or “10 recommendations for the first 100 days”), the coalition got presidential candidates to commit to significantly increase investment in nutrition. The elected candidate remained committed to his election promise and prioritised reducing child malnutrition once he was in office. With stunting halved in a decade, around 2.8 million people have benefited from this increased investment and prioritisation by the government.

Coalition-building is also key to local partner-led advocacy. In Bolivia and Ecuador, for example, our local partners and social movement actors were the primary advocates in support of the ratification and implementation of ILO Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers, while CARE offered a mixture of resources, expertise and convening of key stakeholders to support our local partners. This convening role recently bore fruit with the first meeting between the National Union of Domestic Workers (UNTHA) and the Ecuadorian President. Shortly after the meeting, the President announced his support on national television to ensure legal recognition for the union, which would allow it to formally negotiate pay and conditions with employers and the government.

Working through policy networks was also important in the global North to make coherent recommendations to key bilateral donors. In the UK, CARE led inter-agency efforts to draft joint submissions through the Gender Action on Peace and Security (GAPS) network and Gender and Development Network (GADNET) humanitarian working-group. These submissions were geared towards the UK National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, as well as DFID’s Strategic Vision on Gender Equality (2018-30), which reflected CARE’s detailed recommendations including the development of bilateral policy and guidance for its staff on strengthening women’s participation in humanitarian action.

Public forums such as local planning and budgeting meetings also played a role, particularly in local-level advocacy efforts. These forums helped ensure budget commitments were more pro-poor across 15 Union Parishads (the lowest tier of government) in Northwest Bangladesh through the Journey for Advancement in Transparency, Representation and Accountability (JATRA) project. In Uganda, public forums were also an important tactic which helped revoke illegally-issued land titles in Central Forest Reserves through the Forest Resource Sector Transparency (FOREST) programme.

Globally, public forums featured in the majority of successful cases. These included collective efforts to promote the voices of refugee women activists during the 2016 Global Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York and CARE Canada’s organising an Experts' Roundtable on the Crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh in April 2017. However, given the density of coalitions and the wide array of lobbying efforts from other actors, it is not always clear how these forums directly influenced decisions.

Perhaps the greatest surprise for advocates is that activism and campaigning such as marches, petitions and social media campaigns did not feature prominently as the main influencing tactic in these successful cases documented so far. Oxfam’s recent findings tell a similar story, but it is worth noting that there are various challenges in demonstrating how campaigns and social media make a difference. However, as these are key tactics in ongoing influencing work, there is a task to make these connections more clearly going forward.

Recommendations and ways forward

These are the key learnings we have identified for CARE’s advocacy and influencing work:

  • Identify ‘windows of opportunity’ and long-term advocacy goals in order to position yourself for success. Given that many advocacy wins take more than five years of effort to achieve, CARE needs to secure long-term funding and continue to promote a more long-term “program approach”, ensuring projects integrate advocacy and align to contribute support advocacy goals.
  • Focus your advocacy on areas where CARE has recognised expertise and evidence. Strengthen your evidence base for what works in different contexts, prepare it into different communication materials and position this directly with decision-makers.
  • Identify strategic public forums that position CARE and our evidence in front of key stakeholders. These public forums can either be influencing spaces or can be opportunities to showcase CARE’s evidence and CARE as a legitimate and reputable actor.
  • Policy change often relies on credibility and trust, so it is important to invest time in building strong relationships with decision-makers, partners, and influential stakeholders. Don’t forget about partners and allies and the power of coming together in a coalition!
  • Vertical integration between international, national and local work should be a more explicit goal. It’s important to ensure that efforts are complementary both from the bottom up and the top down (rather than simply an extractive exercise from South to North).

For further details, see the full learning report.

Tom Aston

Tom was the monitoring, evaluation and research lead for the inclusive governance team. He particularly looked at the application of theory-based evaluation methods such as contribution tracing and outcome mapping.

He joined CARE International UK in 2012, providing support to the Latin America and the Caribbean and Middle East and North Africa regions, particularly in conducting political economy analyses, and conducting studies on social accountability and advocacy.

He has an MSc in Development Administration and Planning from University College London (UCL) and is doing a PhD on the political economy of cash transfers, with Bolivia as a case study. Previously he worked for CARE Bolivia and as a consultant for the ODI and UCL on issues of social protection and disaster risk reduction.

One good thing I've read

For those of you looking to unlock the activist inside you I recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities.