Doing Advocacy

Doing Advocacy

What is Advocacy?

Advocacy is both a tactical and a strategic process. It is strategic because there are always clear goals and clear outcomes. In advocacy it is essential that clear change goals are established early on. What is the social or political change that is required? In human rights and social justice work, the desire change may be something like the withdrawal of oppressive legislation in, for example, the area of migrant rights. More positively, it could be social change through positive legislative provision for the rights of migrant children. Sometimes, this may mean checking to see whether the state in question has ratified a relevant convention and has made the necessary changes in domestic law.

Advocacy is tactical because the person doing the advocacy work has to consider how best to influence the change process. Sometimes that may require lobbying at the local and national levels, and sometimes it may require lobbying at the international level. Advocacy is essentially a ministry of influence and persuasion. Persuasive argument, constructive relationships and credible data are the key factors in developing an effective advocacy approach to a strategic issue.

Become an Expert

Advocacy for social justice and human rights is not for hobbyists or amateurs. To be an effective advocate or human rights defender, you must know your particular area of social justice or human rights interest exceptionally well. You must become over time a specialist in your chosen area of social justice advocacy. You must become a credible voice in the selected area. You cannot be a generalist, although it is important to have the bigger as well. If you are doing advocacy in the area of children’s rights, for example, you must have expert knowledge of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the degree to which the Convention is implemented in your selected target country or state, and of the situations where the rights of children are denied or abused.

Know the Human Rights Mechanisms

To be an effective social justice advocate at the international level, as well as at the local and national levels, an articulate knowledge of all the relevant human rights mechanisms is essential. This does not mean that one has to be a human rights lawyer. But it does mean that the human rights defender or social justice advocate must knowledgeable about relevant human rights standards that apply, as defined by international covenants, treaties and declarations.

Effective advocacy also involves close study and knowledge of the various human rights mechanisms that are available under international law. This usually involves a familiarity with and an ability to deploy mechanisms such as special procedures, complaints procedures at the level of the Commission on Human Rights, and access to treaty body structures.

Know your Objectives

Remember that you are potentially the expert in your chosen area. You are the person who knows the situation on the ground. You are the person with the local knowledge and data in regard to abuses and denials of human rights. But you must be very clear about your objectives. As a social justice adocate you are a social change agent. So, therefore, you must be clear about the precise social change that you wish to bring about. If you work in the area of education, for example, you need to be clear about the kind of social justice or human rights situations that you wish to change in education. Your objective might be as sharply defined as lobbying for the removal of particular user fee regimes in your local/national education system.

Finding Channels for your Information

If you are a human rights defender or a social justice activist, you may have to act discretely. Sometimes, the most effective approach is to channel your data or information through other persons or organisations. This may be necessary on occasion for your own safety.

Equally, other organisations may have access to media, to decision-makers, or to international mechanisms to which your own organisation may not have easy or ready access. In that situation, it is often more effective to avail of the services of a partner organisation or well-disposed international bodies.

Be Prepared and Show Up

Sometimes organisations appear on the scene at the last moment. This is not a good use of personnel or resources. You cannot be effective if you remain at a distance from the advocacy process. Those who are experienced in advocacy are well aware that achieving results takes time, patience, and ‘showing up’.

Showing up means participating in committee meetings, public sessions, and informal meetings. Participation in all preparatory events is an important contribution to influencing documentation during the drafting stage. Sometimes, your presence at meetings and in the informal settings offer opportunities for off-the-record briefings or private contacts that facilitate favourable final outcomes.

Find the Access Point

Remember that the international mechanisms belong to the states and the governments. For this reason developing personal access to key diplomatic channels is an essential element of advocacy strategy at the international level. Never approach a diplomatic representative without prior research and preparation. Sometimes a diplomat’s career bio will provide some initial point of access: a school attended, a paper delivered, a common sporting interest, etc.

Do not presume that a diplomatic party is aware of your organisation. On the first contact take the time to explain who you are and what your organisation does. Later follow-up on issues will be easier if this initial briefing investment is carried out. There over 3,000 NGOs affiliated to ECOSOC; you cannot expect a diplomatic representative to be familiar with more than a handful of the major players.

Courtesy and Dialogue

Leave your outrage outside the door! When meeting with a diplomatic representative, even of a government that has been guilty of brutal and egregious breaches of human rights, it will ease matters considerably if the normal courtesies are observed. Dialogue is more likely to bring about changed perspectives in the longer term. A full-frontal assault, even when moral indignation suggests this, is likely to result in alienation and hostility.This defeats the whole purpose of engaging in dialogue in the first place.

Courtesy and politeness are more likely to achieved the desired outcome in the longer term. Remember that diplomats follow their instructions closely; privately they may have profound disagreements with their government’s policy. This may well provide the basis for influencing positive change in the longer term.


Time invested in the preparation of accurate and knowledeable documentation will always be repaid. Ensure that you document all relevant information and data. The provision of synthetic documentation on an issue to a representative of either a state party or an intenrational body can advance an advocacy position considerably. Preparation of good documentation is an essential element of an effective advocacy strategy.