Published in the inaugural issue of Intersections: MCC theory & practice quarterly 1/1 (Winter 2013)
In recent years, advocacy has been increasingly recognized by MCC’s partners and constituents as a significant—rather than optional or controversial—dimension of our work. As the thought-provoking piece by Alain Epp Weaver and Krista Johnson in this issue of Intersections notes, however, more often than not advocacy is assumed to be a dimension of MCC’s peacebuilding work rather than a tool or form of action that is utilized across all of our program sectors.
While many systems or structures give shape to our lives, MCC’s three advocacy offices in Ottawa and Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York City focus on political or governmental structures. Our advocacy offices work for constructive changes in government policies, recognizing they are not ends in and of themselves, but a means to contribute to specific outcomes identified by MCC program partners, and to achieving the long-term impact ultimately being sought at the grassroots level.
Although it is important to highlight distinctions between the fields of peacebuilding and advocacy, the main purpose of this article is to highlight some important points of connection. Quite apart from the contribution that the pursuit of advocacy can make to helping achieve project outcomes, there are opportunities for mutual learning between MCC’s peace programming and advocacy work. These connections emerged for us in the process of enhancing our approach to planning, monitoring, and evaluating the advocacy work of the Ottawa Office. The paragraphs that follow will briefly outline several common challenges encountered in the evaluation of both advocacy and peacebuilding activities, drawing on insights from Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt’s “The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy” and John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt, and Hal Culberton’s “Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Toolkit.”
In it for the long haul
First, given that peacebuilders and advocates seek to address the root causes of issues and, as such, work for long-term change, evaluation in the short-term is difficult in both peacebuilding and advocacy. While noting that peacebuilders are often forced to work in crisis settings, Lederach and his colleagues insist that “deeper change goals require a long-term approach to deal with historical structural issues and injustices not easily addressed or transformed in the crisis timeframe.” Thus, peacebuilding practitioners “must find creative strategies to be effective in the moment of crisis, and, at the same time, consider changes across decades” (1-2).
Given that political systems are typically characterized by stasis, advocates must also navigate regularly shifting terrain while working with a view to the long-term. Failure to achieve change is often the overwhelming norm rather than the exception, and outcomes can take decades—if not generations—to come to fruition. As such, the evaluation of advocacy should be based on the longest time horizon possible. After all, not only do policies change slowly, but the political process does not end after a new priority or law is implemented—hard-earned changes need to be protected through ongoing efforts. What really matters, as Teles and Schmitt put it, is whether “a policy sinks deeply into society and political routines” (42).
Progress in fits and starts
A second point of connection is that progress in building peace and advocacy for policy change is often nonlinear or non-incremental. In the words of Lederach et al, conflict “can easily and unpredictably spiral into unexpected renewed violence, destroying months, even years of peacebuilding work” (2). Similarly, the political agenda, as Teles and Schmitt note, is typically determined by “random and chaotic routes” (40)—it is often not clear at any given point in time just where things are at in the process of policy change.
Thus, peacebuilders and advocates cannot be guided (or constrained) by the assumption that the path toward achieving a desired change depends upon establishing and then meeting interim goals or benchmarks. There may be long periods when it seems like nothing is happening, and thus there is little to measure, much less evaluate. And yet ongoing effort is crucial in order to be ready for the moment when the situation changes unexpectedly. Indeed, significant changes in the political sphere often resemble a paradigm shift more than evolutionary adaptation.
Who gets the credit?
In addition to working with a long and uncertain timescale, peacebuilders and advocates often have difficulty isolating the impact of specific interventions within the complex political and cultural contexts in which they operate. As Lederach et al suggest, “Sustainable peace requires a convergence of activities, and actors, in different spheres and at different levels, from local to global. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to attribute particular changes to particular processes or projects” (2).
Likewise, the burden for failure or credit for success in achieving policy change must always be spread across multiple actors and many factors beyond the control of individual advocates. Given that advocacy typically relies on collaboration within networks, partnerships, and coalitions, it is difficult to assess the influence an individual organization or initiative has had on any given policy change. In addition, Teles and Schmitt note that advocates must be prepared to “adapt to the shifting moves of the opposition” or a “strategic adversary” (40-41), interaction that introduces yet another layer of complexity to navigating the political terrain.
Sometimes less is more (and all we can hope for)
A fourth point of connection is that both peacebuilding and advocacy interventions often focus on resisting harmful changes rather than instigating positive ones. As Lederach et al. point out, “Many peacebuilding projects include the prevention of destructive or violent conflict as a goal.” “How,” they wonder, do we “measure a crisis that never erupted?” (2)
This is no less true in the world of advocacy, where minimizing the potential damage—rather than maximizing the benefit—of a proposed policy change is a common scenario. Indeed, for MCC, there is often more to critique than to support in government initiatives. In such circumstances, the effectiveness of an intervention is not measured by how much a situation was improved from a known starting point, but by how much less a situation was degraded in relation to an unknown end point.
So what really matters is…
In our view, these shared challenges should not lead us to downplay attempts to monitor and evaluate peacebuilding or advocacy initiatives. The lesson that Teles and Schmitt have drawn is that organizations should move beyond attempting to evaluate individual advocacy initiatives and begin to “focus on evaluating advocates.” In the long-run, they suggest, “the proper focus for evaluation is—long-term adaptability, strategic capacity, and ultimately [the] influence of organizations themselves” (42).
One implication of this insight is that the MCC advocacy offices should focus more attention on building our capacity to, as Teles and Schmitt put it, “nimbly and creatively react” and to “read the shifting environment of politics for subtle signals of change,” rather than preparing to proceed along a linear or predetermined course of action (41). Concretely, this would mean enhancing our tools and processes for policy analysis and strengthening our expertise in the practices of political and public engagement. And it would also mean doing more work on fewer issues, narrowing the focus of the advocacy offices in order to develop the in-depth perspective required to provide a meaningful contribution to policy debates as opportunities arise.
A second implication is that as advocates we need to rely more on the political and civil society actors we deal with on a day-to-day basis to gauge our contributions to policy debates instead of our own in-house perceptions. After all, at its core, advocacy—like peacebuilding—not only depends upon relationships of trust with MCC partners, but also with competing voices, power structures, and those perceived as enemies.
By Paul Heidebrecht, Ottawa Office Director, and Jennifer Wiebe, Ottawa Office Policy Analyst