Experience has taught development experts that advocacy cannot succeed as a one-person show. Membership associations and networks are an engine to make advocacy work. Allies and partners are needed to drive support for a multitude of issues, build broader legitimacy, sustain ongoing processes and ultimately to spread the word.
Since 2021, Helvetas has engaged extensively in the sharing of knowledge about advocacy efforts and the resulting learning experiences with various projects and partners from the East and Southeast Europe region. These abundant exchanges have shown that endeavours are more successful when partners and allies commit to a strong and unified voice.
The Helvetas Eastern Europe Regional Advocacy Network, a network of practitioners from civil society, private and public sectors, recently hosted a Q&A session on doing advocacy through membership associations/networks. The session focused on case studies from three projects: (1) Moldavian Association of ICT Companies, (2) Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe, and (3) “Save the Blue Heart of Europe: Networking for Vjosa River Albania.”
Representatives from each of the three projects showcased their experience initiating and/or using membership associations and networks. In this article, we focus on the Moldova case of the Optim project, while we draw lessons from all three experiences. The organizations supported by the project in Moldova, which is implemented by Helvetas, have shaped 54 policy initiatives in support of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and information and communications technology (ICT) businesses and created 30 partnerships between national and regional organizations.
Stumbling blocks for advocacy work
Moldova is a small country, and most of the businesses in the country are SMEs. However, there is a huge discrepancy between regions of the country, with approximately 60% of businesses located around the capital and largest city, Chisinau. The advocacy goal of Optim was to strengthen the participation of SMEs in policy making and make the voice of businesses outside Chisinau heard.
The main partners for the advocacy component were the business membership organizations, which have a key role in communication between businesses and government. During the implementation, Optim was faced with numerous challenges. The volatile political context, donor driven organizations and lack of internal capacities of membership organizations have considerably decreased the trust of SMEs for any advocacy effort and their involvement in policy-making. The lack of trust mostly stems from the low success of previous advocacy initiatives, and from the limited internal capacities for advocating and providing relevant support to members.
Many advocacy efforts are intangible, with results sometimes taking long periods of time – making it difficult for businesses to see the value of these efforts. Optim learned that proper communication with members and the provision of relevant and timely support are key elements for keeping businesses engaged and enticing them to pay for membership. If businesses do not trust the membership organization, they won’t pay for participation. If the organization doesn’t have the resources to maintain critical staff such as policy specialists, then they cannot deliver effective support to their members – leaving all parties caught in a vicious cycle.
An agile frame of mind
Optim is not doing advocacy directly. The project applies a more systemic approach by building the capacities of its partners to provide needs-based support for their members and effectively advocating for their needs.
Optim learned that in order to keep an organization financially sustainable, the advocacy component within an membership organizations has to offer more tangible value for members through relevant service development and provision. At the same time, the relevant service portfolio must balance the various advocacy efforts that bear the risk of not lasting.
To mitigate risks and maintain continuity for the project’s efforts toward systemic change, Optim focused on 1) finding committed partners that were highly motivated to bring change; 2) improving trust through transparent communication; 3) supporting the development of relevant services for businesses; and 4) building on the specific focus of the organization.
Considering the volatile political and economic situation, Optim must be agile and carefully manage each partnership by providing relevant and timely support to its partners. It must also facilitate cooperation between them and beyond their scope of interest. To date, the project has successfully managed to improve service provision within six membership organizations and the advocacy function for three of them.
With Optim’s support, the partner organizations have increased their visibility and trustworthiness, enlarged their member networks, and improved their financial sustainability and ability to employ relevant human resources for advocacy, membership community management and member advocacy.
The way ahead: Regional Advocacy Network learnings
Advocacy in the region can be tricky, and there is not a pattern for tactics that consistently work.
As development partners, we join forces with the networks or associations that can help bring change. However, before proceeding, it’s worth exploring two areas that frequently represent stumbling blocks for our advocacy work: do these actors really represent and speak for their constituency? Achieving focus can also be challenging, and we need to continuously ask: how can development actors and projects best accommodate each member’s needs?
Finding a well-constructed balance is key to avoiding internal disagreement, which can slow down a campaign, while compromising can weaken a campaign. Experts need to investigate all details to avoid elite captures of development initiatives. Those engaged in advocacy need to be aware of certain preconditions like clarity of messaging, a deep understanding of issues at hand and to have a clear focus of the intended change.