What explains advocacy success in setting global agendas? Comparing Tobacco v Alcohol and four other Global Advocacy Efforts

August 3, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam researcher/evaluation adviser Uwe Gneiting introduces a new set of case studiesUwe-Gneiting

It’s an age-old puzzle – why do some advocacy and campaigning efforts manage to influence the political agendas of governments, international institutions and corporations but others don’t? What explains the difference in attention, resource mobilization and policy traction of some issues (e.g. anti-Apartheid, HIV/AIDS) compared to others (e.g. the limited success of gun control advocacy in the U.S.)?

The technical response to these questions is that it’s an evidence problem – issues gain traction if there is sufficient evidence regarding their severity, cause and an effective solution. But as has been discussed elsewhere (including on this blog), focusing on evidence alone neglects the role of power and politics in explaining which issues gain attention and policy traction and which ones don’t.

This was why a group of researchers (including me) recently published a set of studies that put forward a more nuanced explanation for the variation in advocacy effectiveness. The way we approached the task was to analyze and compare pairs of issues (we focused on global health) of similar types and harm levels but varying attention (newborn vs maternal mortality, pneumonia vs tuberculosis, and alcohol vs tobacco). We ended up with ten factors across three categories that in conjunction help to explain varying levels of advocacy success (see table below)

Network and actor features Policy environment Issue characteristics



Framing strategies

Allies and opponents





Affected groups

The set of case studies including a more thorough explanation of the explanatory factors can be accessed here. Here are my top three takeaways for advocates and researchers:

Think of networks (not campaigns) as vehicles for change

The first takeaway concerns our unit of analysis for analyzing advocacy effectiveness. It’s a common approach to analyze the most visible moments and actors (i.e. campaigns or individual campaign organizations) as the basic unit of analysis. We found that it is more useful to look at the wider webs of individuals and organizations sharing a concern for an issue that underpin these visible moments and their outcomes and thus enable effective advocacy. These networks nowadays exist around most global issues. Some are clearly civil society dominated; others resemble multi-stakeholder initiatives including broad participation by government institutions and the private sector.  Some serve as information exchange and are loosely organized; others operate more like a single advocacy machine and are governed by a formal umbrella organization.

And we found that they matter – they shape global agendas by providing vehicles for sustained and collective action, highlighting the neglect and severity of a problem, shaping the understanding of it, advancing potential solutions, and influencing powerful actors to take up the issue.

Uwe 1

The secret of effective advocacy networks – overcoming the trade-off between cohesive framing and broad-based coalitions

The second takeaway is that while these networks matter, not all of them are successful. This is because they are only one of several factors influencing global issue attention and prioritization. Comparing the successful with the less successful ones highlighted two common characteristics regarding relationship between networks, the issues they advocate around and their policy environments.

First, they are more likely to produce effects when their members construct a compelling framing of the issue, one that includes a shared understanding of the problem, a consensus on solutions, and convincing reasons to act. Second, their success is shaped by their ability to build a political coalition that includes individuals and organizations beyond their traditional base.

Interestingly, maintaining a focused frame and sustaining a broad coalition are often in direct tension, as incorporating diverse perspectives complicates the creation of a shared and narrow understanding of the problem  – effective networks find ways to balance these two tasks . For instance, the success of advocacy for global tobacco control was underpinned   by the network successfully advancing the wider uptake of its core frame (e.g. smoking as a public health issue, not an individual responsibility issue), expanding its frame to incorporate new network allies (e.g. making the economic case for tobacco control to government representatives) and drawing clear membership limits (e.g. excluding the tobacco industry).

Do advocates shape issues/environments or do issues/environments shape advocates? Towards an interactive theory

The third takeaway concerns the million dollar question – do successful advocates pick the ‘easy’ issues and operate in a policy environment conducive of change or are effective networks able to shape those issues and environments successfully? Our finding (as unsatisfying as it might seem) is that it’s both.

Take issue characteristics – some aspects of issues exhibit more inherent attributes (e.g. number of people affected by an issue; the scientific basis of a certain health condition). These attributes might change over time but are generally difficult for advocates to change. Other aspects of an issue are much more malleable as they are socially ascribed (e.g. who bears moral responsibility for addressing an issue, how an issue relates to certain cultural norms). These attributes are more conducive to being shaped by advocacy networks.

Similarly, policy environments create varying opportunities and threats to successful advocacy. At any point in time, they can include powerful opponents who sees their interests threatened by the network or can offer varying levels of interest by potential allies and funders.  Since policy environments are by nature dynamic, they offer varying windows of opportunities at different times, which can be used and opened by networks.

To underscore these points – take the difference between the successful advocacy for global tobacco control vs. the failure of alcohol control as an example (here is a more in-depth analysis). Clearly, there are a few inherent issue characteristics (e.g. the more direct causal chain from usage to disease, the absence of a healthy consumption rate) that make it easier to frame tobacco usage as a public health issue and to vilify the industry than it is for alcohol. At the same time, these are not static characteristics as they have evolved over time. Consider the history of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. or the fact that the idea of a global treaty on tobacco control was considered highly unrealistic even a few years before its adoption. Furthermore, the alcohol industry has clearly learned from the tobacco industry’s experience in responding to criticism and successfully built a corporate social responsibility image (ironically, the UK’s newly appointed Development Secretary  is a case in point as someone who moved from advising the tobacco to the alcohol industry).Uwe 2

In sum, I hope that considering these success factors for effective advocacy (around network, issue, environmental features) can help us to build better influence strategies. At the same time, we should be careful to not look at these factors too statically. After all, the strategic selection of advocacy issues should not only be based on their likelihood for achieving rapid success but also on their significance and the moral imperative of addressing them – even if the immediate possibilities of progress are slim. History teaches us that going after the seemingly impossible can appear like the most rational strategy in the long-run.