My Reflections on the Policy and Advocacy Lab

My Reflections on the Policy and Advocacy Lab

What comes into your mind when you hear the term advocacy? In my case, whenever I explain my work to people, they always ask if I am now a politician. I have come to realise that most people associate advocacy with politics. Then again, everything is political. Prior to joining SIVIO Institute, I envisioned advocacy as something to do with high profile individuals sharing petitions online, activists staging demonstrations outside government buildings and media sharing their stories. In retrospect, my thinking was influenced by the fact that these are the most visible actions at policy engagement. However, this is barely a representation of everyday individuals who take part in policy advocacy on various platforms without cameras in their face.

At SIVIO Institute I am responsible for coordinating the Policy and Advocacy Lab. As someone who was coming from a Community Nutrition background, I struggled to comprehend how my experience would fit in the grand scheme of the advocacy lab. Of course, I have been involved in policy and advocacy before. My advocacy has always been “issue” specific with a particular focus on marginalised groups such as women. I have engaged different stakeholders at community level and on social media to raise awareness on issues affecting women. Even my MSc dissertation focused on maternal health service delivery for marginalised religious women. Interestingly, at this stage I barely understood that what I was doing was actually advocacy; probably just an issue of semantics. Joining SIVIO Institute improved my advocacy and I began to understand the concept behind what I was doing all along. Since joining the organisation, I have had the privilege of working with 15 advocacy practitioners from other organisations spread across the country. It has been an eye-opening experience on how we can bring citizens’ voices back into the policy making space.

So, what exactly is the Policy and Advocacy Lab?

When was the last time you were engaged on a problem that was affecting your community? The question sounds so simple but for most people the realisation is that they never participate in any policy formulation processes. In the most recent report by SIVIO Institute on Citizen’s Perceptions and Expectations carried out across Zimbabwe, 60.18% of the survey respondents indicated that they have never been involved in policy formulation process, whilst 39.82% confirmed that they have been a part of some consultation process, mostly around the performance of local government and consultations for improved service delivery[1]. It is not surprising that in Zimbabwe, there is usually a top-down approach in policy formulation, assessment and refinement. Citizens have been left out in conversations for too long. Studies have shown that policies have a better chance of success if we include the voices of the people, but this is not the case in our country, the process has mainly been expert driven and monopolised by technocrats. Economic policy reforms have not adequately created socio-economic benefits for the general population. Coupled by government failure to meet its promises, there is a high level of mistrust and discontent from citizens. The Lab’s premise is that in order for policy to be successful there is need for platforms where citizens are included and actively engaged in the policy processes.

The Policy and Advocacy Lab (PAL) is one such platform where professionals from different walks of life ranging from the humanities, biology, engineering, commerce, law and development work; who are not policy makers, but instead are involved in advocacy and interact with communities as policy advocates. The participants in the Lab are using a collaborative  creative space to try and tackle complex challenges in the formulation and implementation of government policy. We have also infused deliberative democracy practices in ensuring that the lab does not produce another cohort of top-down experts but rather collegial community leaders who recognise that communities have ideas and also assets to resolve some of their problems. The main idea is to improve advocacy actions by nurturing collaborative arrangements with communities. These collaborative spaces contribute towards jointly identifying policy problems, new research methods that engage citizens as active agents on the gaps in existing policy and provide comprehensive advocacy solutions. The interactive nature of the PAL allows individuals to connect with the communities to identify the root cause of policy problems. Often, experts hardly engage with people at grassroots level. While everyone cannot come to be a part of all policy discussions and all problems cannot be effectively addressed overnight via consultancy, it is important to think of the voices being left out.

What have we been doing?

The Advocacy Lab is an 8-stage process.

Naming the problem.

This stage includes the identification of the problem behind the problem which we call naming the problem. The naming process is very political. Usually experts would give technical names to problems that alienate others who are not steeped in the discipline of language being used.  Citizens on the other hand tend to use everyday language to name what they think is the problem. Furthermore, if the problem is inadequately named it may lead to the wrong solution or even alienating actors who would have been critical in resolving the problem. We asked participants in the lab to jointly name a problem with members of communities where they work. Given the lock-down conditions many of the lab participants leveraged technology to host town hall like meetings.

One interesting aspect of this stage is that it is an on-going process. As the lab progresses, participants always refer back to this stage and ensure they have named the problem and not the symptom of the problem.

Mapping stakeholders and gathering concerns

We aimed to develop an understanding of individuals or groups of people affected by the policy problem and the extent to which they are affected. This was an important stage because we understood the need to keep citizens at the centre. We engaged stakeholders affected by the problem through mapping of affected communities and listing concerns regarding the problem. It was at this stage that we considered the possible policy actions and potential trade-offs required. We also sought to understand the extent of the problem. Is it unique to one community (or social group)? Critical questions used include; (i)Who else is affected by the problem, (ii) is this a national problem or its only isolated to a certain region, and (iii) who has the authority to resolve the problem (local or national government)?

Learning about the history of the identified problem

In many instances, policy practitioners (advocate and even policy formulators) rarely consider the history of the problem. Together with the lab participants we developed rapid appraisals to understand the history of the problem and the different measures (including policy) that have been deployed to resolve the problem. It was also at this stage where we sought to understand the agency within communities to effectively address some of the problems.

Exploring existing measures to tackle the problem

We take cognisance of the fact that we are not dealing with a brand-new problem. Its impacts may have accentuated. Again, we went back into communities and asked the following; (i) what has been done about the problem to date, (ii) what have communities done in responses to the problem, (iii) what have been some of the lessons from the previous attempts?

Learning from others in the region,

Whilst some problems are unique and localized, the majority of the problems that we confront such as climate change, dealing with pandemics, and corruption are quite common in other countries as well. The lab participants managed to carry out research on other countries to identify what worked well and what did not.

Framing possible policy actions,

The challenge of policy advocacy goes beyond poking holes at an existing policy but instead to devote significant attention in designing well thought out coherent policy actions. These should be informed by the lessons and evidence from the preceding stages. At this stage, communities understand the name of the problem and the lab participants engaged them to start thinking about possible policy actions while also considering the advantages and disadvantages of each. These conversations have resulted in creating frameworks for addressing the problem including actions that need to be considered in dealing with the problem and identifies adverse consequences.

 Identifying the best possible methods of communicating new policy ideas problems

The work of policy advocacy has to delicately balance persuasion and confrontation where necessary. Participants in the Lab are currently on this stage and with the information collected during the first 6 stages, we are starting to plan for advocacy.

Carrying out concerted advocacy actions

We will be working alongside lab participants in rolling their ‘concerted advocacy actions’. It’s not a big bang but we are just laying the seeds for a new movement of community focused policy advocacy


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