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June 1, 2020

Advocacy and development: Part - I


June 1, 2020

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

In addition to accountability, one of the factors that contribute to the failure or success of policies – including development policy – is advocacy. Sometimes advocacy is confused with lobbying so let’s be clear about the two terms. Lobbying includes activities that ask policymakers to take a position on some legislation.

Lobbying may also include any discussion with policymakers, whereas advocacy may include all activities that a group, institution, or person initiates to influence policies. Depending on your preference, you may consider advocacy as a broader term that may include lobbying. Some academics include even public demonstrations and filing court cases in public interest as part of advocacy.

Since here we are more interested in development policy, we start with discussing what development policy means to us and what are its features and parameters. Ideally, development policy should be a written document about activities that aim to reduce poverty, implement and protect fundamental rights, and promote sustainable development.

Development policy has a lot to do with economics, education, health, human rights, law, politics, sociology, and many other fields. Normally, authoritarian states try to confine their development policies to economic and macroeconomic domains. Similarly, their definition of education is also limited to mundane terms such as increasing enrolment, building schools, reducing dropouts. They prefer not to indulge in discussion about the quality of education itself. Their definition of quality education is high achievement in test scores rather than developing critical skills in students. Similarly, health may be just about new hospitals, rather than asking questions about why some segments of society have the best health facilities and others don’t.

A narrow definition of development policy will only talk about government policies, whereas a broader definition may also locate development policy at international development organizations – both bilateral and multilateral – at donor agencies, at INGOs and NGOs and even at business concerns that are interested in human and social development too. In broader terms, advocacy may focus on one or all locations of development policy. Of course, advocacy requires some policy dialogue that may involve all of the above. Ideally, advocacy should be active and overt, but in some cases it is low-profile and covert too.

Interestingly, development policy may not be just one comprehensive document; it may be a collection of multiple policy briefs and papers such as policies on education, food security, health, hunger, infrastructure, labour, poverty, power, water and sanitation; and many others may all be parts of development policies. For our convenience, the UN has been at the forefront by crafting global goals for sustainable development (SGDs). These goals give us a comprehensive outline of indicators and targets to develop our policies to achieve a certain minimum level of development by 2030.

But for that we need advocacy to persuade our governments for proper legislation that can make sure the achievement of global goals. Support for a particular policy does not only require just legislation; it needs proper allocation of funds that may not be easy without changing our defence, domestic, economic and fiscal policies. That’s where the main problem lies. Most governments across the world have committed to the SDGs but they look for donors to get funds rather than reviewing and revising their other policies that can divert their non-productive expenses to development.

The main challenge for advocacy is that most governments – or rather states – like scientists and technical experts but not human rights activists, lawyers, political scientists, and sociologists who may ask for a fundamental shift in other policies so that a development policy can be implemented. These people act as advocates for policy changes not in isolation of other policies. For example, most government officials and state functionaries like it when an educationist suggests building more schools; but they don’t like it when you suggest incorporating human rights in school curricula.

The problem with most development policies is that they try to avoid controversy, and play around policies that do not involve precision and proper role allocation. Essentially it is a political process, but governments, states and even donor agencies and countries do not like policy advocates who are political animals. In that sense, the charge that development policymaking has been rendered depoliticized and toothless is correct to some extent. In many development circles – both national and international – a discussion that involves politics is considered inappropriate and some policy advocates pride at being apolitical or politically neutral.

For advocacy in development policy, providing scientific and technical information is useful for policy deliberations, but an objective social picture can be drawn when all relevant problems are identified, going beyond immediate professional expertise. The challenges and conflicts in society are multifarious, needing multilevel advocacies. Just consulting with medical experts for building a hospital may not be enough. Many funding officers at international development agencies – and project managers at national and subnational levels – deal with problems in isolation. Then intelligence and security agencies get involved, making development a security rather than a social issue.

In countries such as Pakistan, development advocacy involves substantial risks if your advocacy is raising some fundamental questions about lack of development in your society. Policy advocates try to raise accurate and relevant questions, but the government and the state want you to be politically neutral, hence canceling the very purpose of advocacy. Advocacy can be challenging and controversial, and it can also be sham and sugarcoated. For example, climate change is a major issue, and even in the US with President Trump in power, docile advocacy may not work.

As mentioned earlier, advocacy can be subtle, and it can also be vocal, depending on your class, group, institution, or personality; but one must have a preferred policy choice. Advocacy may result in conflict that many national or international organizations try to avoid, and tend to adjust with the policy preferences of the host governments. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the bare essentials are not compromised, such as fundamental and human rights; in that, one cannot be policy neutral. To a great extent, advocacy for various development policies is directly affected by defence and foreign policies of both the donor and host countries and agencies.

Any country’s available resources for development are influenced by what kind of relations that country has, and wants to have, with other countries. Global development advocacy must focus on this aspect too, and just having a primary focus on development policy in isolation of other policies is not going to produce any sustainable development, though we can show some progress that may not be sustainable development. Development advocacy must discuss a variety of issues in addition to debt relief or swap, poverty alleviation, or just access to health and education. Many non-government and nonprofit organizations working on global development have worked in developing countries for decades. But when they get involved in public education and advocacy programmes they are either cowed or thrown out, as happened in Pakistan when the state institutions developed a dislike for some development organizations and their working agenda. To continue their work they needed the support of the public and government, in terms of funding as well as policy change. But unfortunately there was no advocacy in their favour and they were compelled to leave and shut their offices.

Advocacy for development policy entails efforts to engage and inform the public on development issues. In that sense advocacy is about educating and nurturing activists, intellectuals, government officials, public representatives, and state functionaries, who may change their attitudes towards the true meaning of development and facilitate policy changes. In the next part, we will focus on Pakistan.

To be continued

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