How To Do Advocacy Research

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Young activist listing points from a youth discussion
Longeni Matsi, 14, of Namibia lists issues being discussed during a workshop on the final day of the Children's Forum, held in New York City, before addressing the UN General Assembly at the WFFC+5 plenary meeting at UNHQ.

The first step in an advocacy process is to gain a deeper understanding of your issue. This is where you will use your skills as a researcher. The more you understand your topic and the issues surrounding it, the better equipped you will be to take action. 

Here are some things you need to gather information on:

  • History and Background
  • Social Context
  • Political Context

 

History and Background 

It is unlikely your issue came out of nowhere, so you need to understand the history that led to the current situation and place your issue within the historic context of where you are from.

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A young female delegate attending the opening session of the Children's Forum
More than 400 children met for a three-day Children's Forum at United Nations Headquarters - this young delegate is one of them

Remember, in order to ensure sustainable change, you need to find the root cause of a problem and knowing the history will help you do this. Some of the questions you can ask are: 

  • What is the issue?
  • When did this issue begin?
  • What are some of the things that led to, or may have influenced, this issue?
  • Who was involved in this issue?
  • What are some of the social impacts of this issue?

In addition, reflecting on the history of something also helps you to understand how people feel. Most issues affect people at a personal level and it is likely there are many different opinions and feelings about your issue. Understanding the history and background, and specifically how it relates to your community or area, will help you to understand the different opinions and systems that people have developed over the years – the social context.

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Young activists in Mozambique
The voices of young people must be heard! One way this is done is through U-report, also known as SMS BIZ in Mozambique. U-report is UNICEF’s free digital youth engagement tool, which is now active in 53 countries, benefiting more than 6 million users worldwide.

 

Social Context 

Understanding the social context of your issue is extremely important. For your cause to be successful, you will need support from people at different levels.

Remember, in many cases, there may be strong emotions about a topic. What seems like a simple issue to you could represent something much bigger to someone else. There may be people strongly for, or against, your cause. Researching the social and cultural dynamics and understanding how different people relate to your topic will help you navigate the situation. 

Some questions you can explore are:

  • Who are the authorities involved, such as government representatives, school boards, community leaders, and what has been their engagement so far?
  • How are decisions made within the community?
  • Who in the community is involved, either positively or negatively, in the issue?
  • How do these people relate to each other? Are there good relationships in the community, or is there tension between groups?
  • Does religion and/or culture play a role in this issue?
  • What engagement has there been about the issue in the past?
  • Am I putting myself at personal risk? Are there any security or safety measures I need to take into account? 

Pay particular attention to the last question. No matter how important your issue is to you, advocating for it should never put you, or any other person, in danger. In order to keep yourself safe at all times, you need to manage risks. Make sure you understand the power dynamics, as well as the cultural and political context, of your country. You have the right to be protected from harm, so be aware of people and places you can turn to for help, if needed.

Remember: bringing about change is central to advocacy.

To do this you need to gather support and build relationships. Forming alliances and working with other passionate young people around your issue is an extremely important and powerful tool in advocacy. While researching the stakeholders involved, look for any existing youth-friendly platforms, such as youth organisations or groups, that you could join or collaborate with.   

Another way to build relationships is through intergenerational dialogue, where people of different ages share their experiences and ideas about how to grow the community. A possible ‘sweet spot’ of youth participation would therefore be where the wisdom of those who have come before us would be joined by the views and voices of children and youth. Always engage with people respectfully and kindly, bearing in mind their perspective and context.

 

Political Context 

Every situation, whether it is a school project or community initiative, has a political context. This refers to the processes and structures in place that define and guide your topic, as well as the people who control these.

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A young radio reporter and climate advocate speaks to global leaders
Getrude Clement, a 16-year-old radio reporter from Tanzania and UNICEF climate advocate speaks at the opening ceremony for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

First, develop a general understanding of your context by answering these questions:

  • Who are the ‘rule-makers’ and how are decisions made?
  • How can people engage with the decision-makers? For example, are there public meetings, community gatherings, or events you might be able to attend? Do you need to write letters or put together a formal submission or petition?
  • How are voices represented within the community? Are there any local structures that represent the community?

Second, gain a deeper understanding of your context by reading and understanding the existing policies or rules relating to your issue. Africa is a continent rich with well-developed policies, but unfortunately, weak implementation.

Have a system for saving and organising your documents – you will probably need to refer back to them at some stage and having a good system of organisation will save you a lot of time in the future.

Take notes while reading documents and keep track of different ideas – the process of investigation and learning is on-going and keeping a record of your ideas and activities will help to clarify your understanding.

In an era of "fake news", you have to make sure that your research is credible. Have a look at these five facts to ensuring credible information.

 

Interested in doing advocacy? Read more about how you can champion change through advocacy here! And make sure to check out our full Youth Advocacy Guide.

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