From onboarding politicians to crafting a story: Tips for a better advocacy narrative

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, minister for international development and the Pacific, at the Australian Council for International Development 2017 National Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by: ACFID

MELBOURNE — Action and advocacy are the keys to long-lasting change. Such was the message at the Australian Council for International Development 2017 National Conference, held in Melbourne on November 1 and 2.

Attendees from the government, NGOs, and aid agencies heard talks ranging from an inspiring speech by Lily Thapa on her work advocating for widows in developing countries, to politicians discussing what influences them to advocate for official development assistance. The conference was full of lessons and insights that can assist the advocacy work of NGOs globally. Devex presents some of the key takeaways.

Storytelling is an important part of advocacy

Telling the story of her journey from widow to advocate for widows in developing countries, Thapa was a clear inspiration for the audience. “Powerful” was the consensus of participants discussing her keynote address with Devex.

Thapa talked about her firsthand experience of discrimination and harassment, and how that propelled her powerful work fighting for the rights of widows across South Asia. In doing so, Thapa demonstrated an important message for all advocacy campaigns: personal accounts put a human face and name to development challenges, making them more difficult to dismiss.

Advocating for developing countries is a joint effort

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the minister for international development and the Pacific, urged development players across the board to work on better educating taxpayers on the benefit of development assistance.

“The Lowy Institute’s 2017 poll found that, as with previous years, Australians as a whole were largely unconcerned by reductions in our aid program,” Fierravanti-Wells told the audience, explaining that similar results were recorded elsewhere, including in an Australian National University survey. “So therefore, we have a responsibility to demonstrate to all Australians what the benefit is of our Australian aid program.”

Advocating on the value of Australia’s aid program — and on behalf of a stronger aid program — means truly responding to the concerns of people who question why taxpayer money is spent overseas, Fierravanti-Wells said.

“Over the last 12 months, I have used every opportunity to explain how Australian aid benefits Australians, not just those in receipt of it,” she said. “I am the first to admit that my efforts alone are by no means, and certainly, are not enough. We need many, many minds and many voices on the job.” The government, NGOs, research, diaspora communities, private sector, and more must work together to speak of and demonstrate the benefit of spending taxpayer dollars internationally, she said.

A joint effort at advocacy can also mean a joint channel of communication. “One way we can improve the Australian public’s engagement with the aid program is through a more joined-up approach to communicating about our collective efforts, including in response to humanitarian crises,” Fierravanti-Wells said.

“We know from international experience that by providing a ‘one stop shop’ for public engagement and contributions, joint funding appeals for humanitarian crises can increase revenue generation, diversify the donor base, provide opportunities for enhanced private sector partnerships and enhance public understanding and perception of what humanitarian agencies do,” she explained.

For politicians, advocacy in the field needs to be turned into action

Theo Clarke, chief executive of the Coalition for Global Prosperity, explained that from the experience of the United Kingdom, parliamentary trips are a productive way of convincing politicians of the value of foreign aid. Within Australia, Save the Children has been encouraging politicians to visit developing countries and see firsthand the local challenges and the impact of Australian aid.

Three Australian MPs discussed with the audience their own experiences abroad, and how it influenced the way they think about foreign aid.

“You don’t understand a country or politics unless you get to be there,” Peter Khalil, a Labor Party member of parliament, told the audience. A visit to Myanmar in January that focused on the embattled Rohingya minority allowed him and his group to return in Australia and advocate for action “with sufficient understanding” of the issues and challenges.

Tim Wilson, a Liberal Party member of parliament, said his visit to Lebanon and Jordan showed that the Australian government was “getting good value for money” from its aid program. “It was extremely encouraging,” he told the audience.

But a field trip alone is not enough to transform politics. “What happens next is critical,” Lisa Chesters, a member of parliament for Labor, told the audience. She said it is key for participants to continue talking back in Parliament and “encouraging each other to be bold.” She urged NGOs to keep parliamentarians accountable to continue speaking up, and she said providing steps of action can guide the next phases of their advocacy.

Save the Children’s review of their parliamentary program echoed the importance of a second stage extending on the trips. “Trips on their own are not enough,” Sarah Carter, manager of the Australian Aid and Parliament Project with Save the Children, explained. Alumni need to continue to be engaged on issues to avoid falling back to their old ways of thinking on development assistance.

Encourage advocacy from within politics

Clarke told the audience that advocacy from outside by NGOs is important, but warned that it has limitations. Advocates from within political parties, however, wield greater influence on colleagues. “When you’re lobbying within your own party, you have a really strong voice,” she told the audience.

In selecting potential internal advocates, she said NGOs should be selective when deciding which politician to invite on field visits. Targeting up-and-coming politicians or those who may have the ear of key decision-makers is recommended.

Chesters advised advocates not to overlook the less prestigious players. Passionate, quiet people on the backbench can be a critical champion for development assistance. “Some always get overlooked,” she said. And Wilson said politicians in opposition may have more opportunity to be a louder voice, with less ministerial responsibilities distracting from the development cause.

The world has changed — and advocacy needs to move with it

A panel consisting of new and seasoned advocates, pushing for a variety of social changes, explained that despite a changing world bombarded with negative imagery, change was possible through advocacy.

But it required new tactics and new methods.

“Asking nicely is just not working,” Isaac Astill, a campaigner for Stop Adani, told the audience. As part of his campaign to prevent the Adani Group from building a large mine in Queensland — which is expected to have dangerous environmental impacts, including on the Great Barrier Reef — Astill said the new theory was to be everywhere and “a nuisance.”

Within a short timeframe the group has influenced large banks to stop supporting the project. Now they are pushing for political change. “There is no clear pathway to victory,” he said. But visibility and a strong support network, he said, are clear aspects of creating an impact that could be the key to a successful advocacy campaign.

Devex is supporting the ACFID National Conference as a media partner. Follow the conference on November 1 and 2 using the hashtag #ACFID2017.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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