Improving the Advocacy Agenda

I recently read “Explaining the Advocacy Agenda,” a 2014 article by Charlie Carpenter, Sirin Duygulu, Alexander Montgomery, and Anna Rapp. The article studies the advocacy network surrounding human security issues, looking for insights into why certain issues are adopted by advocates. To frame the article, the authors write, “Organizations in such networks appear to be highly selective in the issues they choose to champion and the populations whose grievances they choose to frame as human security problems. For example, landmines and cluster munitions have been the subject of widespread campaigns, but explosive weapons and depleted uranium have attracted less opprobrium. Internal wars are an important concern for conflict-prevention analysts, but gangs and urban violence are on the margins of the global security agenda. While HIV/AIDS is championed as a health issue, other communicable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea, despite the number of lives they claim, get limited attention.”

They study issue selection through several methods, including surveys, hyperlink analysis, and- for me, most interestingly- focus groups. The authors divide reasons for issue adoption into five categories: issue attributes, entrepreneur attributes, adopter attributes, broader political context, and intranetwork relations.  Ultimately, they found that entrepreneur attributes and adopter attributes were not as influential as the others, and also conclude that advocacy networks both respond to structure and exercise agency.

While not a major focus of the paper, I found some of the discussion on issue attributes particularly interesting. The authors say that the appeals of issues include particular effects on individuals, including Keck and Sikkink’s idea of deprivation of basic rights and physical harm as being especially salient. However, the authors also write that “advocates emphasized the problem’s inherent measurability” and its “quantifiable evidence.” I think it’s pretty clear that quantitative evidence can provide powerful, macro-level support for advocacy proposals. Duncan Green has written about “killer facts,” and though he leaves this point more implicit, these are almost all quantitative. Yet this focus on quantitative evidence closes off a number of issues that don’t lend themselves to measurability. To give one example, although issues of dignity and shame are central to the experience of poverty, they are rarely the focus of advocacy efforts. I would guess a major cause of this oversight is that they are very difficult to measure.

The authors also note that advocates’ views on issue selection differed in discussions in the abstract and discussions on specifically proposed issues. When discussing specific hypothetical issues their organizations could adopt, advocates were more likely to bring up relationships with other organizations. The authors find that “meritorious issues may be eliminated if they conflict with partners’ preferences.” The result is that advocacy is often the result of inertia, following on the precedents set by advocacy organizations largely because that is what advocacy organizations are understood to do, whether or not they are covering the issues where they could have the most significant impact. This importance of inertia certainly matches my experience in the atrocity prevention sphere.

Still, while intranetwork relations can serve to stifle innovation in issue selection, it also provides opportunities. The authors write that “intranetwork relations can facilitate diffusion of an issue once it is adopted by an organization central to that network: practitioners reported that issues quickly proliferate within the network most closely associated with the organization that legitimized it.” Thus, there is a large responsibility on BINGOs (Big International NGOs), and I would also think UN agencies, to help adapt the advocacy agenda.

One last danger with the importance of intranetwork relations is the predominance of NGOs in issue selection. While the reaction of other NGOs to the adoption of a new issue may be a primary consideration, the views of people affected by the issue are certainly less prevalent. Figuring out how to more effectively incorporate these voices into issue selection is an enduring, pressing, and too frequently ignored challenge.