Localization in Advocacy? Don’t hold your breath (and look outside the aid system)

July 3, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Johns Hopkins University and the Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health are doing some thinking on the future of advocacy, especially on health-related issues, but of wider relevance.

The first of three papers is now out, on Local Ownership, Sustainability, and Grant-making. Two other briefs in the series are in the pipeline, on the need for and types of advocacy and on advocacy monitoring, learning, and evaluation.

Taking the topics in the paper in turn:

Local Ownership: Localization of advocacy seems to be faring just as badly as localization of humanitarian response: ‘Donors have long wanted to shift programs to local ownership. But the shift has been problematic. Programs are still largely donor-driven.’

Within this, an interesting point that when it comes to chipping away at harmful norms and practices, ‘donor-driven’ is not always synonymous with ‘wrong’. There’s a working with/against the grain issue here:

‘The more dependent a country or organization is on donor support, the more likely that it will defer to a donor’s priorities. Donors do not always get their way, however. The amount of funds may not be enough to sway the recipient, or the donor’s preference may conflict with the country’s politics or socio-cultural beliefs. Or the donor may make compromises out of a desire to work in a geography under the recipient’s influence.

Indeed, donor values and missions often are fundamentally incompatible with those of potential recipients. For example, donors who champion LGBTQ rights know that finding, say, Ugandan officials or local NGOs willing to accept a grant on these issues is highly unlikely. So, they do not even try. This self-policing by donors is pragmatic and common.

If donors had funded only what recipients considered priorities, the gains realized in global health, and especially reproductive health, would be much more modest today.

At the same time, however, donors may consider a priority so important that they bypass or overcome resistance in the host country. Thus, donor-driven initiatives on topics initially considered off-limits have eventually been accepted by countries. For example, in the 1970s many sub-Saharan African countries had anti-family planning policies. Donors and UNFPA convinced governments to change policies and begin to support family planning services, primarily through international NGOs (INGOs).

Today, all sub-Saharan African countries have family planning programs. Similarly, in the early days of the HIV/ AIDS pandemic, donors found many host country governments unwilling to mount HIV/AIDS prevention programs, and so donors turned to like-minded NGOs. If donors had funded only what recipients considered priorities, the gains realized in global health, and especially reproductive health, would be much more modest today.’

The blockers to localization in advocacy are similar to those in other areas: Donors wanting to keep control of the money and seeing risks everywhere; INGOs keen to maintain their position in the funding pipeline; lack of core funding for national organizations meaning they can’t build up the capacity to raise and manage big donor grants. The word racism is entirely absent, but could have been included as underlying some of these blockages.

The paper concludes that given the obstacles and lack of progress, ‘A more realistic and pragmatic option is some form of co-ownership, a partnership that builds on the expertise of local actors, addresses mutually agreed upon priorities, invests in organizational capacity, and defines the roles and responsibilities of the two parties.’

The other two issues – sustainability and grant-making, reach even more depressing conclusions. On sustainability (meaning organizations carry on doing advocacy after the grant ends), donors’ preference for funding specific time-bound projects means organizations cannot build up their core capacities:

‘Although sustaining advocacy after funding ends is an aspiration among donors, they need to make long-term investments and encourage other donors to make similar commitments.’

On grant-making (boring but crucial):

‘Donors use a wide range of funding mechanisms. However, the alignment between types of grants and project objectives has been mixed. For example, a donor may aim to eliminate female genital cutting, an objective requiring many years, but fund only a three-year project to address the problem.’

The paper then comes up with a list of ‘considerations and options that may help donors’ funding mechanisms better reflect their priorities’, including longer-term funding, paying more overhead and indirect costs, funding capacity-building, being more flexible and supporting coordination between organizations as a useful exercise in itself.

Which I thought was a pretty disappointing way to end – identify the problems, then come up with a wish list of how to fix them. Surely a paper on advocacy should use advocacy’s own tools? Where’s the power analysis and the stakeholder mapping of the aid system and its decision makers? The discussion of the choice of advocacy strategies (insider? Outsider? Combo?) that would get those decision makers to take localization seriously? The discussion of how critical junctures like the current pandemic or Black Lives Matter could act as windows of opportunity or threat?

And somehow implicit in the paper is that ‘advocacy’ is something outsiders do or support in poor countries. But just as it turns out that local humanitarian action has been going on all along, but just hasn’t registered with the international aid system, the same is undoubtedly true on advocacy. It’s called social organization and politics…..

Hope the remaining two papers address these gaps, but not holding my breath.

July 3, 2020
Duncan Green