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After a period away from blogging last year, I am keen to kick-start this occasional blog reflecting on the realities of advocacy campaigning based on my own current experiences at the British Red Cross and from the training that I am able to lead for NGOs across the world. All of these blogs are my own personal views…..

Recently I had the good fortune to be in Bangladesh running an advocacy and policy influencing training session for an international NGO. We had representatives present from across the region including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Vietnam and Laos.

The first day we covered the basics of advocacy and began to present a framework for advocacy. Right from the word go, whilst there was interest in this framework, there was a much stronger interest in asserting the differences in the external contexts for advocacy across the countries represented on the training course.

This interest was really welcome as on the second day, we invested a lot of time in focussing on the realities of the external environment for advocacy. Initially there was some resistance when we asked them to get into their country groups to define their external environment. There was a common view that they had done this before. But we persisted in our request. To add a bit of extra spice to the exercise, we asked them to present their analysis of their external environment on a flip chart page.

Then the discussions started. While they may have thought that they had done it all before, I was interested to note some of the robust discussions in some of the country groups. Maybe they didn’t all have the same understanding after all? After some time, they started to portray their external environments on a flip chart page.

One person said to me that the exercise had been useful because in their country office they had all assumed that they had the same understanding, but that this exercise had made them see that maybe they didn’t, and that they needed time to come to a consensus.

Having got the flip charts ready, we then encouraged one member of each country team to stay by their flip chart, and the others then to do a tour of the room and explore the other flip charts. It was great to see the country representative trying to explain the realities of their external environment to people from other countries.

For me this experience showed how important it is to base advocacy campaigning on the realities of the world outside, and that assumptions on these realities should be tested and made explicit.

There is such a danger with advocacy campaigning that we are enthused to campaign on an issue, develop a strategy and then launch with little or no reference to the outside world. I do think that curiosity about power and how change happens should be a vital part of any campaigner’s approach.

So I would say be curious about power, make your assumptions explicit, challenge yourself and others to develop a robust view of the external environment – and then build your advocacy strategy on that understanding. I know that sometimes we are just too busy to do this – but we omit at our peril.