What can we learn from big advocacy initiatives in the Philippines on education, violence against women, reproductive health and freedom of information?

September 12, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Ahead of next week’s Thinking and Working Politically seminar, here’s another case study from The Asia Foundation, which has got some impressive repro health campaignadvocacy results in the Philippines. Room for Maneuver (book and research brief) examines four social policy reforms to try and draw lessons for advocacy work. They are

1. The successful passage of the Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act in 2004;

2. The successful passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act in 2012;

3. The thus far unsuccessful effort to introduce a Freedom of Information Act; and,

4. The politics of introducing and passing the Governance of Basic Education Act in 2001.

Here are some highlights from the research brief:

Analytical Framework

‘The case studies use a conceptual framework that draws on the long-running debate in political science concerning the relationship between “structure” and “agency” to understand the process that shape social sector reform outcomes. Structure refers to both the broad features of the economic, political, and social structure of a society, sector, or reform issue, as well as the formal and informal institutional arrangements that shape (but do not necessarily determine) behavior within a given domain. Agency refers to the intentions, capacities, and abilities of actors (individuals, groups, organizations, or coalitions) to think and act strategically.

Given the importance of “leadership” in policy reform efforts, the cases also analyze the manner in which leaders mobilize people and resources through a variety of forms of coalition building.

Lessons from Social Sector Reform Cases

While the idiosyncrasy of social contexts is a given, there are recognizable patterns that surface repeatedly. The role of conjunctures, largely exogenous moments that change the political landscape, is one example. The human actors who labor painstakingly to enable alternative futures for serious consideration and the coalitions these actors bring to life are another. Inherited rules and institutions, both formal and informal, that safeguard social stability, but can also be employed by vested interests to frustrate challenges are also common elements in the landscape of social change. In each case, local leaders, elites, and coalitions—at times with support from international development partners, and other times self-funded—found the room to maneuver within the structures and constraints to achieve their desired outcomes.

Philippines FOIBased on analysis of the four case studies we have identified eleven main lessons:

1. Reform processes are often long and complex. The effort to pass anti-VAWC legislation began in earnest in 1996 and took eight years of concerted effort to pass. Through the process, there were serious disagreements and divisions among advocates that almost scuttled the advocacy. The legislative battle for a framework for reproductive health lasted over two decades. The ongoing campaign to flesh out the constitutional provisions on freedom of information can be traced back to 1998.

2. Reform processes are typically non-linear. While there are formal steps to approving a law, there are unpredictable events and conjunctures. Perennial power realignments in the political system generally serve to attenuate reform processes. However, such realignments can also throw up new opportunities, and capitalizing on trigger events, windows of opportunity, or reform conjunctures can dramatically improve advocacy’s likelihood of success. In the case of the anti- Violence Against Women and Children Act, sensational episodes of violence against women, however unfortunate and disturbing, were effectively turned into tipping points to advance the cause. Previous efforts to create a comprehensive government policy and program on reproductive health had been stymied by an effective opposition. But the election of a new president supportive of the measure was a key conjuncture that favored reform.

3. Reforms need to be technically sound and politically possible. A crucial part of the reform advocacy is identifying and convincing reform allies and policy champions to use their political capital in driving change. Reform agendas compete over the use of scarce political capital. Building trust and understanding the motivations and interests of political actors is an important element of engagement.

4. Effective coalitions and networks are essential to reform. In each of the successful reform cases studied, strong bonds between civil society reformers and groups within government were critical for success. The coalition supporting the Reproductive Health Bill was sufficiently broad and united to counteract strong opposition during the final legislative process. It was resilient enough to overcome internal disagreements arising from the broad, diverse nature of the coalition membership. The delicate integration and management of advocates of diverse perspectives, especially the partnership between political elites and mass-based organizations, affords reform coalitions both the competence and constituency needed to convince government leaders to intervene.

5. The role of values and motivations in reform coalitions is unclear. The importance of having shared values and motivations among all reform coalition members is unclear. Some advocates believe that successful reform is achieved by establishing a shared set of clearly articulated values that can serve as a basis for coalition unity and longevity. To others, the importance of building a formal coalition based on a consensus of core values is unnecessary. There are many motivations for supporting a reform and participating in a coalition and sincere commitment to achieving a desired reform is more important than having a shared set of values and motivations.

6. Passionate, well-connected leaders drive change. While networks and coalitions provide credibility and support for the reform initiatives, these groups are usually being driven and sustained by key individuals. In the anti-violence against women and children and the reproductive health reforms, leaders were able to broker trust-building and collaboration among various advocates that did not agree with each other on a number of issues.

7. The chief executive is important but there are limits to presidential power. The cases highlight the critical role that the president plays in philippines basic eddetermining the legislative process. The likelihood of a legislative reform bill making it into law increases significantly when the issue is designated as a priority bill by the president. [But] Even with presidential support, passage is not guaranteed. Strong public support for the RH bill eventually enabled President Aquino to secure the necessary legislative majority against strong opposition from the Catholic Church. On the other hand, less clear public support coupled with the President’s own misgivings have meant that passage of the Freedom of Information bill has not been prioritized.

8. Framing the issue in a non-confrontational manner avoids unnecessary controversy. Reframing the issue of population policy as a reproductive health reform rather than a population control issue swelled the ranks of the coalition and garnered enough support to overcome opposition to the bill.

9. Reform strategies require flexibility. While policy reform advocacy needs to be well planned, advocates should also be able to quickly adjust to shifting political realities and change tactics as needed on the fly. Changing realities may call for compromises and advocates need to be ready to compromise.

10. External technical and financial support can be helpful. Policy advocacy can be an expensive battle and reform advocates often work with very limited funds. Support from donors can make a great difference. By the same token, donors need to be sensitive to the needs and preferences of the reformers and not to impose overly onerous conditions on them. Program design should be sufficiently flexible to enable quick intensification of support during unexpected windows of opportunity.

11. Align the stars and connect the dots. Successful social sector reform requires interlinked political, public, and advocacy constituencies to come together. A president is unlikely to spend his political capital on a bill that does not have clear public support or a high probability of passing both Houses of Congress. The experience of the RH reform demonstrates how, when the political, public, and advocacy stars align, even contentious and divisive reforms can be successful.’

Postscript: I ran this past a Filipina activist friend. Her response: 

‘I am not sure about number 8. Framing it also as RH (rather than pop’n control) was controversial and much more confrontational with the Catholic Church. Advocates knew that. I think the RH framing is actually a win for women’s rights advocates – a product of long debates and discussions within the broad network of groups and alliances. The result was a united front, and this framing of rights got the full commitment of women’s rights groups, LGBT groups and those working in rights based issues.

I also wonder whether the role of community organizations and grassroots groups is downplayed. They played a huge role both in the VAWC and RH campaigns. They were the constituency, the faces that showed the impact and the need for the policy. They were the ones who filled the streets and demonstrated and gave the networks/ NGOs the mass support for the measure.’

Success has many fathers/mothers, while failure is an orphan. So let’s see what other participants have to say.

September 12, 2014
Duncan Green