Why Is Advocacy Important for NGO Sustainability?

Why is advocacy important for NGO sustainability? What are the key opportunities and constraints to effective advocacy for international NGOs? Use an example of an advocacy campaign to support your answer.

Advocacy has multiple definitions, but a working definition defined by Ross (2013, p.2), is “advocacy as a systematic and strategic approach to influencing governmental and institutional policy and practice change”. The main aim of advocacy is to shift policy, by transforming and influencing ideas within the public realm. For NGOs the role of advocacy gained substantial momentum from the 1990s (Covey, 1995). Therefore, many now believe that advocacy is an important activity for NGOs to be involved with, in order to drive sustainable development (Lewis,2007). It has enabled larger scale and more sustainable changes to occur, in terms of policy formulation and implementation. This essay will begin by looking at why advocacy is important for NGO sustainability. It will then discuss the key opportunities and constraints for effective advocacy, focusing specifically on Plan International and their campaign ‘Because I am a girl’.

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Advocacy became integrated into Plan International from 2003, but from 2010 their commitment strengthened. Primarily, they have taken a human rights-based approach, one “in which children, youth, families, and communities are active and leading participants in their own development” (Plan International, 2015, p.11). Consequently, this improves their capacity and gives them an opportunity to engage in the whole process and alter decisions which affect their lives (Plan International, 2017). Therefore, the rights holders are central to the work conducted by Plan International. The success of ‘Because I am a Girl’ further develops their reputation for its “authoritative and unique role, as an advocacy and campaign driven organisation, which has been in place for over 50 years” (Plan International, 2015, p.11). ‘Because I am a girl’ was a global campaign that ran from 2012 to 2018, its goal was to transform the lives of girls. It did this predominantly through education to ensure girls were not discriminated against, as well as targetingissues faced by women and young girls around the world (Plan International, 2018). The campaign encountered many opportunities and constraints which challenged the effectiveness of advocacy, which will be discussed in more depth throughout this essay.

NGOs are seen to be crucial leaders for businesses self-regulation to enable them to operate in a sustainable way. Most NGOs believe that behaving in a sustainable way is implicitly expected of them and not doing so increases their reputational risk. This is true, as advocating for sustainability is central to many of their missions and purpose. However, many NGOs are subject to potential scrutiny, as their activities are not always consistent with the principles they advocate for (Koster, Simaens and Vos 2017). This was the case for Plan International, as their reputation was in jeopardy when staff committed six cases of sexual abuse and child exploitation between July 2016 and June 2017. In that same period, there were also nine incidents of sexual harassment or misconduct by staff towards other adults (BBC News, 2018). This acts as an abuse of power, showing that Plan International have previously gone against its principles of advancing children’s rights and equality for girls, reducing their sustainability for the future (Plan International, 2018).

Advocacy is increasingly important and is used by many NGOs, it can have a positive effect by increasing awareness about issues NGOs are currently involved in, hence creating a global reach. Therefore, due to the plentiful supply of information, supporters and citizens become better informed about the issue’s countries face and how they can help get involved. This generally increases donations and has the potential to open new sources of funding (Ross, 2013). NGOs operate within a very competitive space, there are estimated to be over 10 million NGOs in the world (The Global Journal, 2018). If an NGO has a stronger brand, they are likely to gain more of an advantage allowing them to grow and develop, benefitting the communities they are involved with and aim to assist.

There are three main forms of advocacy, by the people, with the people and for the people. Advocacy by the people involves those who are immediately affected (Ross, 2013). They have legitimacy and can negotiate and come to an agreement based on their wants and needs as individuals, this is the type of advocacy that Plan International are involved with. Advocacy with the people, is where communities and others work together to advocate on similar issues (Ross, 2013). Finally, advocacy for the people is where people and organisations advocate on behalf of those who are affected by specific issues. NGOs have come to mobilise, articulate and represent people’s interests or concerns. This is prevalent within authoritarian countries, where society is constrained and do not have freedom of speech, making them unable to express their feelings and views (Jordan and van Tujl, 1998).

Effective advocacy involves measuring the effectiveness of policy. If advocacy was effective it would mean that the alliance achieved its policy goals by influencing decision makers. The alliance would also have the capacity to establish local institutions and alter the cooperation of the community in the process of policy influence (Lewis, 2007). This was apparent for Plan International in their ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign, as they took a rights-based approach to ensure that women and young girls had a voice to engage them within the policy process. The main problem associated with effective advocacy is the difficulty of measuring its impact, as advocacy takes a long period of time to show results. For the last 5 to 10 years most International NGOs have increased their expenditure on international advocacy (Edwards and Fowler, 2002). This includes Plan International, who’s expenditure increased by €10 million, from €25 million in 2017 to €35 million in 2018, which equalled 6% of the programme’s expenditure (Plan International, 2018). Edwards and Fowler (2002, p.90) argue that “Most NGOs expect their advocacy to work like a dripping tap”. This means that policy changes take a while to occur, as a variety of opposing agencies and individuals need to alter their actions to enforce this shift in policy. For ‘Because I am a girl’, the Policy, Advocacy and Campaign department have been in discussions with Plan’s offices around the world, as well as Plan International Headquarters, regarding the monitoring and evaluation of advocacy. They want to ensure Plan’s impact can be measured; this is the first inclusive effort at measuring the impacts of advocacy. If this proves successful, these tools will be implemented into other advocacy areas to ensure it remains effective, by bringing positive impacts for the community, such as influencing policy change (Plan International, 2015).

A key opportunity for effective advocacy is through technology, which has impacted policy advocacy. Specifically, through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Social media has been seen to dominate discussions on advocacy, due to the ease of use and the ability to spread advocacy messages globally, particularly to the younger generation who are more receptive to these messages (Saxton et al., 2015). Plan International have benefited from this and consequently have increased their global reach, as they are able to communicate with a larger audience. Due to more people being aware of the work they do; it is likely for donations to increase showing the positive impact advocacy can have on vulnerable communities. The key opportunity for effective advocacy through social media, is the ability to measure the publics reactions to advocacy messages through actions such as liking, commenting on, favouriting and sharing messages. Thus, NGOs now have access to quantitative and comparable data, enabling them to measure the relative effectiveness of their advocacy messaging strategies, to enable them to improve in the future (Saxton and Walters, 2014). ‘Because I am a girl’ created a hashtag (#GirlsTakeover) used on International Day of the Girl, which was created due to the campaign. It was implemented to support girl’s access to education across the world. This hashtag acted as an innovative tool and was used in social media communications. Its success is likely to have occurred, as it was a participatory tool, which classifies message, improves searchability and allows communities to form. These communities develop the spread of ideas, news, or opinions on a specific topic, in this case girl’s education (Saxton et al., 2015). The hashtag was beneficial and acted as a main driver towards seeing real change, as “Girls education in emergencies topped the G7 agenda for the first time” (Plan International, 2018, p.7). As a result, #GirlsTakeover empowered girls, increased their visibility, as well as inspiring others to join Plan International’s movement, showing the effectiveness of this advocacy campaign.

Another key opportunity for effective advocacy for international NGOs like Plan International, is their ability to change perceptions and shift policy. ‘Because I am a girl’ was primarily in place to ensure that every girl and all young women had power over their own lives, it aimed to allow them to shape their own world and give them value as individuals. The campaign proposed to eliminate the barriers that prevented girls from staying in education including child marriage, which is a violation of children’s human rights. It has been estimated by Davis, Postles and Rosa (2013, p.6) that “One in three girls in the developing world will be married by her eighteenth birthday”. Consequently, depriving them of their childhood, increasing their chance of violence, abuse and ill health and most devastatingly forcing them out of education. The campaign has been successful and Plan International have provided young girls with knowledge, information and skills to enable them to act and advocate for themselves, as well as support others. They now have the knowledge and confidence to discuss this topic with parents and guardians regarding marriage in terms of who and when (Davis, Postles and Rosa, 2013). The campaign successfully led to policy reform, the “first ever resolutions on child marriage were adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly in 2013” (Plan International, 2018). By 2017, the campaign acted as a tool that raised the legal age of marriage to 18 years old, which was implemented in countries such as, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (Plan International, 2018). This shows that policy reform acts as a key opportunity to effective advocacy, shifting perceptions and contributing to long term social change.

Plan International also changed policy regarding Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) acting as a major opportunity to effective advocacy. It has been predicted that over 200 million girls and women alive today have encountered some form of FGM within their lifetime (UNICEF, 2018). Due to the success of ‘Because I am a girl’, young women have more knowledge regarding the law and their rights. Therefore, this movement has inspired advocates and activists to spread awareness of the damaging consequences of FGM, as well as encouraging modern updated rituals (Plan International, 2018). The campaign has ensured that Plan International work alongside parents, community leaders, government authorities, along with children and young people, in order to increase awareness, change behaviour and ultimately end FGM (Plan International, 2018). The campaign aimed to enable girls to make their own decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Due to the effective advocacy, young girls now have a voice throughout the whole process, empowering them to claim their rights to a safer more fulfilling life. 

Many international NGOs including Plan International also face constraints which prevent them from advocating effectively. A major constraint to effective advocacy which also impacted their sustainability as an NGO was the sexual abuse scandal, which occurred between July 2016 and June 2017. The six reported cases of sexual abuse and child exploitation, as well as the nine incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct would have weakened the reputation of the NGO (BBC News, 2018). Consequently, Plan International have set out a new commitment to stamp out abuse and exploitation and have publicly apologised for their wrong doings. They have now enforced new safeguards to prevent future cases of sexual abuse and exploitation (Albrectsen, 2018). However, as argued by Batha (2018, p.1) “You cannot promote human rights or the dignity of every human being, whilst paying them for sex, and whilst funding an industry that exploits them,”. Plan International’s purpose as a child’s rights organisation, to improve the lives of others is worlds apart from their actions. This limits their effectiveness to engage in effective advocacy. Over the past few years sexual exploitation and abuse is an endemic problem within the NGO sector, with many reporting cases of misconduct including Plan International, as well as other large international NGOs, such as Oxfam and Save the Children (Karim and Beardsley, 2016). These cases act as a catastrophic failure of protection and brings harm and pain to those who should be safe and supported by these International NGOs.

One of the other key constraints is the lack of financial sustainability, making it increasingly difficult for NGOs to find sufficient and continuous funding to enable them to carry out their work efficiently. In 2018, when the campaign ‘Because I am a Girl’ was in place 62.4% of Plan International’s total fund balance was made up of temporary and permanent restrictions (Plan International, 2019). This type of funding holds constraints, which have been imposed by donors and are often limited to specific operating purposes (Blackbaud, 2011). For Plan International, this puts barriers in place meaning they can only fund specific projects based on the donor’s requirements, instead of funding the ones most in need. Due to the costs associated with advocacy, NGOs are less likely to continue to engage in this activity if they lack funds. Plan International’s income also fell by 18 million from 2017 to 2018, meaning it will be harder for them to advocate efficiently in the future. This is likely to have occurred due to their loss of reputation, as there was increasing coverage of the sexual abuse and child exploitation scandals. More worrying, Oxfam were also reported to have engaged in sexual misconduct, which has had a detrimental impact on their reputation causing them to restructure. Consequently, cutting hundreds of jobs and closing many UK offices (Smedley, 2014). This puts Plan International at risk with worries that they may follow the same path.

In conclusion, Plan International have recognised the positive impact advocacy can have through social media platforms and policy reform, the NGO understands that global advocacy is vital to allow the organisation to “seize every opportunity to shift political and institutional opinion and resources towards realising child rights” (Plan International, 2015, p.6). Their advocacy messages are posted across social media platforms, targeting the younger generation. This raises awareness and encourages them to get involved showing the promising hope of a sustainable future for Plan International. Implementing advocacy campaigns such as ‘Because I am a girl’, acts as a key strategy to create sustainable change for those in poverty, showing how important advocacy is for NGO sustainability and for social change (Plan International, 2015). However, legislation alone is not enough to bring about this change. Fundamentally, it will only occur when the value of girls’ lives drastically improves. Therefore, advocacy should continue, as the opportunities to effective advocacy outweigh the constraints, however it is critical to overturn the established attitudes that hold women back in society. Therefore, ‘Because I am a Girl’ acts as the banner for change to transform societies, showing the potential opportunities these campaigns have towards aiding vulnerable communities in terms of changing opinions and shifting policy (Plan International, 2015).


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Advocacy Coalition Framework for Analysing UK Immigration

The Advocacy Coalition Framework (Sabatier, 1993) is a tool that is used in policymaking and is particularly helpful in dealing with intense public policy systems. It facilitates the understanding of the policies and priorities that are involved in dispute management that arises from the interaction of different levels of Government and multiple actors while implementing the public policies formulated. To analyse the Immigration in the UK to the movement towards the UK Border Control, the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) can be applied.
The UK Border Agency is the merging of the Border and Immigration Agency, UK visas and the port functionalities as managed by the HM revenue and Customs. Thus, the policies that are under study in this assignment are those that surround the integration of the various functions into one body (Sabatier, 1993.)
Sabatier states that the various defining terms in the ACF include policy subsystems that involve the group of actors that interact with an element of constancy in a functional policy domain, which in this case is the immigration system transferring into the UK Border Control. Thus, all the players and positions in the whole transitional issue make up a policy subsystem (Sabatier, 1993.) There are two types of subsystems; the first being the Nascent subsystem that is in the process of forming such as the one in discussion (Sabatier 1993.) The other type is the mature subsystem that has existed for a period of ten years or more. Policy subsystems arise from the fact that there are new issues emerging or the conceptualisations of new issues and this is the case with the need for a more effective Border Control authority or immigration system in the UK. The other term is advocacy coalition that is basically a group of people sharing the same belief system. The goal of these advocacy coalitions is usually to change the actions of the government and redirect them to accomplish certain policy reforms (Sabatier 1993.)

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One of the reasons why the Advocacy Coalition Framework is preferred in this context is the ability to deal with the changing elite and public opinion regarding the priorities that arise in Border Control. Before the issue is addressed, it is important that the basic premises that constitute the ACF be mentioned. First, there is need for the issue of technical information to be addressed in addition to understanding that the issues that concern policy change need time. The policy subsystem is used in the analysis of the policy change that will require at least a decade to monitor. Sabatier (1993) states that the public policies can be conceptualised as belief systems. Advocacy conditions are usually associated with the players of the system being combined into a number of groups, or advocacy coalitions, which have the same normative and causal beliefs. The advocacy groups also have the ability to engage in a substantial coordinated activity over a long period. The beliefs systems that are shared by the advocacy coalitions are grouped into a hierarchy depending on the degree of resistance to change. There are those that are deep core and others are policy core beliefs. Due to the existence of the belief systems, various strategies are used to push for their beliefs. For example, there is the changing of the statutes and manipulation of the budget.
Sabatier states that there are exogenous variables that are considered in the framework. There are the stable variables that will not change despite that coalition changes this in the current case will include the basic constitutional structures that are to be followed. On the other hand, there is the issue of dynamic exogenous variables that are likely to change over time. In this case, the governing coalitions that result from the merger are going to change. The impact that the other subsystems have on the new system will be included here (Sabatier 1993.)
In the context of the UK immigration system being turned into the UK Border Controls there are the issues that are monitored constantly. For example, there is the advocacy coalition that constitutes the employees who will object to the policies that are meant to lay them off or reduce their benefits as well as the effectiveness that comes from the integration of various departments. Thus, there is going to be the issue of policy learning that can be described as members of various coalitions seeking to know more regarding the system so that they can be able to further their agenda.
In terms of the deep core convictions that can be obtained from this case study, there is the belief system that is held by the citizens. The deep core belief is that there needs to be free movement in and out the UK and especially around Europe. The citizens want it to be standard whereas the policies that are implemented by the Border Control want the age to be higher. However, under the belief system this falls within the category of the secondary beliefs that is shared by that advocacy group. Thus, there is a resistance to the new policies resulting from the merge of the various immigration bodies into one (Mcdonald, 2009.) Another advocacy coalition that is involved is the funding from the Government that requires the reduction in budget resulting from the different bodies coming to form one administrative head. Thus in the end there are various actors that are involved in the policy implementation.
The major controversies that arise in this context are concerned with the policy subsystem, when the policy core beliefs of different advocacy groups are in dispute. Consequently, each advocacy group is very unlikely to change when it comes to policy belief change. For example, the suggestion that the travellers will be checked against a watch list and in case of any inconsistencies separated for questioning, is bound to raise the issue who will make it to the watch list and its compilation given that there are regular complaints that the foreign offices are understaffed. In the case of such a dispute, there are the secondary aspects that the advocacy group will give up so that they can proceed to change the deep core belief.
Despite the disputes there are various points that the actors show consensus for example, all the actors agree on secure borders and accountability in the immigration that the country’s Government allows. It is important to note that the policy that is core in the subsystem cannot change significantly unless there is a change in the Government in power for example from Labour to Conservatives and vice versa. Hence, the idea to transform the immigration system into the UK Border Control cannot change much unless the Government changes (Fischer, Miller & Sidney 2007).
There is learning that is occurring across the advocacy coalitions that exist. On the dispute level it is easier for the policy-oriented learning to occur in across belief systems when the subject of contention is quantifiable, than when it is qualitative in nature (Sabatier, 1993.) For example, there was a concern that was raised by the legislative function concerning the staffing and adherence of Britain manages foreign UK Border Control offices. In response, the Director of the UK Border Control was able to provide statistics regarding the employees but on the issue of regulation adherence, the dispute still holds. There is difficulty that is associated with the clarification of subjective issues that are under contention.
Consistent with this is the fact that natural systems are more conductive to policy-oriented learning than subsystems that are social or political. However, in this case there are both dimensions involved in that the boundaries are natural but the control that is enforced at this point is more of a political nature (Fischer et al, 2007.) Due to this integration of the political and the natural dimensions there are aspects that can be quantified and other are purely subjective. This can be represented by the demographics that are instituted in determination of the age for foreign marriage partners to curb immigration and the various checks that are required to acquire full citizen identification.
An issue worth mentioning in ACF is there is a wide spectrum from which the advocacy coalitions can arise. The advocacy coalitions can include journalists, researchers and agency officials and other non-government organisations (NGOs) if there is the interaction occurring as they all pursue their common objectives. In every policy subsystem, there are usually more advocacy groups than are depicted. For example, there is the union of British shoppers that is opinionated in regards to the policies that are arising from the integration of the immigration system into the UK Border Control (Sabatier, 2007.) That is the reason for the importance of an all round consideration in analysing the policy subsystem to include information from professionals such as the actors, for the emergence of all the relevant advocacy groups. The advantage that stems from this is the ability to obtain all the accurate picture of the composition and stability (Sabatier, 1993.)
There are other aspects of the ACF that can be used to analyse the immigration overhaul in the United Kingdom. First, in examining the individual belief system and structure there is the assumption that the actors make judgments and analyse the information that is contained in the policies in respect to time and computational constraints. An example that can be given was issue of incorrect numbers that were provided by the UK Border Control regarding the number of refusal cases that were brought forward for reconsideration. Only the independent monitors who were in a position to review the statistics from the previous year were able to realise that the numbers were from a previous year (Mcdonald, 2009.) Thus, the belief structure that emerges after analysis is dependent on the ability to understand and the time that was available to learn.