What does advocacy mean?
Advocacy comes from the Latin advocare, referring to a person called upon when one needs aid. In the Middle Ages an advocatus would generally act as a representative of a feudal ruler, or an institution such as the local abbey.
As society evolved, so did the concept of advocacy. Today, advocacy still has the same meaning – a person called to stand for another – but instead of being the spokesperson or legal delegate of a powerful ruler or the church, modern advocates usually plead for or defend specific causes and rights.
People engaged in advocacy can be human rights defenders who want to change unequal societies, environmentalists who plead for climate action or persons who speak against child labor. In fact, any citizen can (and perhaps should) be an advocate for something. Every day, activists demonstrate on the streets to advocate for a cause they believe in. People often unite to speak with one voice. Through these collective efforts, grassroots movements, campaign groups, watchdogs and civil rights organizations are created.
In a different context, advocacy can also mean the work of a lawyer who defends a client before a court. This blog however focuses on the understanding of advocacy work as the fight for social change.
Why is advocacy important?
Advocacy, understood as the fight for change, matters because our societies face many challenges. Across the globe, children are forced to work instead of going to school, violating their right to education. Refugees experience traumatic events and hardships and are denied their right to asylum. Millions of plant and animal species face extinction. And there are countless other inequalities and cruelties worth fighting for.
For each one of these challenges, there must be civic engagement: groups of citizens who care and put their time into addressing the issues. They conduct research, acquire knowledge and become experts in the topic because their pleas must be supported by reasonable and well-founded arguments. They can then raise awareness, educate and mobilize the population.
Advocacy work also entails talking to politicians and other decision makers to ensure that public interest issues are on their agenda. When elected officials listen to what citizens are saying they are more likely to take decisions that are in the public interest.
Furthermore, when politicians know they are being watched, they are more likely to take action that is in the interest of the population. Effective advocacy can thus be a driver for positive change. Unfortunately, many politicians only tackle short-term challenges and ignore the bigger picture
How is advocacy different from lobbying?
Advocacy and lobbying are sometimes used interchangeably. In fact, lobbying is one form of advocacy. Lobbying is an activity conducted by individuals – the lobbyists – who try to persuade politicians to support their cause and shape laws in a way that suits their interests.
The word lobbying is derived from the practice of meeting with lawmakers in the lobby of a building frequented by the latter, such as the upper or lower house of representatives.
As opposed to advocacy, it carries a rather negative connotation. When people talk about lobbyists, they usually refer to people who work in large corporations, who meet elected officials or their advisers to convince them, for example, to vote on a particular law or misrepresent certain issues. This happens often at the expense of the public interest. And indeed large corporations, from the automobile industry to big tech companies, spend millions each year on lobbying.
Many perceive lobbying as perpetuating social inequalities: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The wealthy can use their influence to push their agenda through elected officials. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), lobbying is a central element to the shrinking trust in governments.
One key concern is the so-called revolving door practice, – when a civil servant goes into the private sector and vice versa – which can lead to the misuse of insider information or the violation of conflict of interest rules. A notable case is of former president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, who, after his term ended, took a job at the investment bank Goldman Sachs. The EU has since tightened the rules to prevent revolving door hires and public scrutiny has increased.
As a results lobbying has, understandably, gained a bad reputation. Fortunately, more and more governments are introducing lobbying regulations to improve transparency and restore citizens’ trust. In Germany, for example, a new mandatory lobby register entered into force on January 1, 2022.
Furthermore, people can also lobby lawmakers for a good cause. Meeting politicians is per se not a bad thing. It is important that elected officials are confronted with different viewpoints and opinions to understand the full picture before taking a decision.
Advocacy officers also conduct lobby work. They lobby for change, ask politicians to support their cause. For many advocacy officers, lobbying is an important part of their job.
What types of advocacy are there?
As mentioned earlier advocacy encompasses a large variety of activities, with lobbying being just one of many.
People who defend a cause and want to persuade politicians to change or create new laws must be able to provide convincing arguments, backed up by proper research. To persuade lawmakers to adopt certain measures, you should have some proof that your proposed solutions will bring a positive change.
Different kinds of research can be conducted, depending on what the advocates want to achieve. The goal may be to find information that will provide more substance and credibility to their arguments. In this case, conducting original research or having recourse to an expert may be the right approach.
If the goal is to devise alternative ways to address the issue, researchers may test different programs to see which one bears fruits. For example, adding healthier items in school menus and school vending machines may have a positive impact on child obesity. The results of the research can be shared with school directors and health services.
Education and raising awareness are important parts of advocacy work. Citizens are more likely to take decisions that are in their own interests, such as supporting a particular candidate for office or voting for a piece of legislation in referendum, if they previously acquired relevant knowledge.
Furthermore, many issues go unnoticed, in particular those faced by minority groups. We humans are often blind to issues that do not affect us. How can the majority population learn about the daily struggle that minority groups are dealing with if no one talks about it?
Advocacy officers can write articles and opinion pieces in the media about the cause they are defending and keep citizens up-to-date on a legislative process.
Educating people about their rights
Law is not taught at school and few people are legal practitioners. It is not surprising that many people are not aware of their rights. This is unfortunate, given the significance this knowledge can have in some situations. Knowing your rights when facing police officers can save you a lot of trouble.
There are many organizations specialized in helping people understand their rights. In the EU, for example, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) educates citizens about their basic rights and freedoms and take stand against the misuse of power by public authorities. In the United States of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) developed education material on the rights of immigrants, protesters, students and photographers, and on citizens’ rights when they encounter law enforcement officials.
Knowing one’s rights is a precondition to be able to advocate and speak up for oneself, which is another type of advocacy: self-advocacy.
One of the most effective forms of advocacy are campaigns that inspire people to mobilize and take action. Activists, grassroot organizations and campaign groups that want to trigger change can employ different tactics: write letters to elected officials, conduct petitions, organize demonstrations and boycotts, or use social media for digital advocacy. To convince the public to send letters, sign petitions, join demonstrations or like and share the social media campaign, advocates must appeal to citizens’ emotions, be creative, and be able to persuade the public that change is possible. To reach their audience, they can use traditional and online media, advertisements, leaflets or billboards.
The previously listed types of advocacy provide a good foundation for mobilizing people. Research provides advocacy officers with the necessary expertise to give their campaign credibility. Public education informs citizens about societal issues. And helping people understand their rights awakens their inner activist.
Advocacy at community level
Advocacy does not necessarily have to be on a large scale. The case of parents pleading with school directors to improve the nutritional value of food and drinks on school menus and in vending machines to reduce child obesity is a typical example of advocacy at community level.
While the magnitude of the advocacy effort at community level is lower, the idea is the same. Advocates must develop arguments grounded in research and facts, they must inspire and mobilize sufficient people that back up their cause and they must talk to the persons who can take the decisions.
Litigation, or legal advocacy, is another key tool that civil rights organizations and human rights lawyers can use to advance social change. They can file complaints with relevant authorities when they identify gaps in existing laws, citizens’ rights violations or systemic abuses. In a democratic society, the authority has to investigate the case and it may result in lawmakers taking action to reform the law.
How can you get involved in advocacy work?
If you are concerned about a specific issue in our society, if you feel passionate about a cause and you can’t stand idly by anymore, you may want to consider becoming an active advocate.
One way to do so is by donating some of your time and volunteering at an organization that is already working on the issue that you are passionate about. You can, for example, distribute leaflets that raise awareness about your cause or participate in a fundraising event.
In the event that no one is working on the issue, you could also decide to create your own grassroots initiative and organize a campaign. This type of civic engagement is much more time consuming but essential to keep a democracy running.
If you have less time, you can support other activists and campaigners by signing their petitions and open letters. You can share their campaigns on social media, make online donations, and protest with them on the streets.
At a minimum, we should be able to speak up for ourselves and those around us, in particular those who lack the resources, connections and influence to defend themselves. Speaking up and fighting for our and our fellow citizens’ rights is the first step towards a better society.