Advocacy - Influencing Leaders

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"Advocacy is the action of delivering an argument to gain commitment from political and social leaders and to prepare a society for a particular issue" (DE JONG 2003).

Advocacy involves the selection and organisation of information to create a convincing argument, and its delivery through various interpersonal and media channels (e. g. public speaking, project visits, petitions, engaging celebrities, radio and newspaper). Here, we will focus on one of the essentials of advocacy: influencing and involving important leaders, because political support together with support from community leaders and religious leaders can give a water-related project or campaign a powerful boost.

Advocacy as a Tool to Involve Leaders on All Levels

Creating awareness and gaining the commitment of decision-makers for a social cause is very important to influence policies and practices that affect the lives of people – particularly the disadvantaged. Therefore, the goal of advocacy is to make the issue in concern a political priority and to achieve change in policy and practice. For example, local communities may not be aware of a change in an important water or sanitation policy and therefore may not be claiming the rights to which they are entitled, in which case advocacy work could be directed at changing levels of understanding about existing policy.

To gain the commitment of leaders, advocacy work consists of a set of tools including meetings with the relevant decision makers, public speaking and involving the media to reach the general public.

In the first instance, advocacy may be carried out by key people in international and national agencies, as well as special ambassadors, but is gradually taken over by people in regional and local leadership positions, local NGOs and by the print (e.g. posters and flyers) and electronic media.

Advantages Disadvantages
- Advocacy can lead to a change in important water-management policies

- Involvement of leaders can boost campaigns and other awareness raising tools
- Leader support can change community norms and values for certain measures
- Religious leaders might help to decrease traditional barriers
- Involvement of leaders will increase public attention to the water and sanitation topic

- Effectiveness and impact often hard to measure

- In countries with a repressive regime, speaking out on advocacy issues may endanger personal safety
- Advocacy on higher levels (regional/national) is time-consuming and expensive
- Focus on political leaders and government may lack of real grounding in community settings

Why Should You Try to Influence Leaders?

Photo: Advocacy Sourcebook, WSSCC

Strategic networks and involvement of political, religious and local leaders are basic requirements for a successful project, because leaders can play a role by openly supporting the process in the media, by changing certain water-management policies, by emphasising the topic in meetings with other leaders, or by addressing communities directly.The involvement of leaders will increase public attention to the water and sanitation topic and it will also influence social norms directly. Community norms and values can change through the support of leading community figures for certain measures. There is a need to involve those leaders who are especially regarded as credible, trustworthy and popular among the public.

Importance of Political and Religious Leaders

The decisions on water management and sanitation development objectives and the allocation of human and financial resources are often taken by or influenced by political leaders in governments at all levels. These leaders must recognise the role that water and sanitation plays in attaining their objectives. And one should not forget the direct influence that politicians have on their constituencies. They are well known, have all the media coverage they want and are often taken quite seriously because of the status of their position. There is a need to get politicians personally involved in the resolution of serious water and sanitation related problems.

Religious leaders are crucial when it comes to circulating the messages concerning water and sanitation-related issues by many aspects: They have the ability to influence the attitudes of their constituents towards water, the moral choices they make, and their behaviour – all of which affect the use and management of water. In addition, they can motivate and mobilise groups of people in different roles for common purposes and help educating the young about the critical role played by water in achieving social and development goals. Moreover, they can act as role models by using water prudently and efficiently or by adopting certain hygiene measures in their own religious communities and institutions.

Things to Consider Before Applying Advocacy Tools

In some countries, particularly those with a repressive regime, speaking out on advocacy issues may endanger personal safety, either of those who speak or of those on whose behalf they are speaking. This must be taken into serious consideration when planning advocacy work, and the consent of those who may be at risk obtained before any action is taken. Working in alliance with other organisations can help in these circumstances to reduce the risk to individuals. Another alternative is to work anonymously through external organisations (for example those with an international profile), which can put pressure on decision-makers without endangering themselves.

Concerning religious issues, it is important to be careful when involving religious leaders. The high regard in which the community holds them may also be an obstacle if they do not want to cooperate with you.

Common Tools Used for Advocacy

  • Interpersonal meetings are the most effective and participatory advocacy tools, but with limited human resources, the potential number of people reached is limited and further expansion is costly
  • Lobbying (working closely with key individuals in political and governmental structures) to influence the policy process
  • Meetings, usually as part of a lobbying strategy
  • Negotiation, to reach a common position
  • Combining of lobbying with communication instruments such as press conferences and press releases
  • Project visits, to demonstrate good practice
  • Reaching the public via newsletters, e-mail and internet, flyers, petitions or canvassing to influence leaders
  • The media reach the general public and contribute to setting the agenda for politicians and policy makers.

It is important to understand that advocacy should be a part of a wider communication process that encompasses other awareness raising instruments. On its own, advocacy cannot achieve much.

To continue reading check out the complete guide, Advocacy - Influencing Leaders, on the SSWM website.

Field experiences

The following projects use advocacy methods.

Akvorsr logo lite.png
RSR Project 823
Child Friendly School
WASH Project I
RSR Project 1330
WASH services & capacity building Liberia
RSR Project 1366
Rural Boreholes and Rehabilitation 1
RSR Project 1367
Panta District
Rural Water Project 1

Advocacy links

This book provides detailed information about drawing up advocacy action plans that aim to improve the water supply and sanitation situation. The document presents concrete examples of advocacy work in practice and it provides many tools, tables and diagrams, which advocacy workers may like to reproduce, adapt or distribute for their own advocacy campaign.
This report discusses the key findings and recommendations emerging from a pilot Citizen Report Card (CRC) on water, sanitation, and sewerage services in Karachi. The CRC, pioneered by the Public Affairs Center (PAC), Bengaluru, provides public agencies with systematic feedback from users of public services. CRC gains such feedback through sample surveys on aspects of service quality that users know best, and enable public agencies to identify strengths and weaknesses in their work.
This document includes a section for advocacy, presenting an overview of many ideas and initiatives with emphasis on practical suggestions and clues. It is not a guidebook for planning your advocacy work but it might be a great knowledge source and starting point for your activities.
This 4-page advocacy guide has been developed to inform and support the planning and conducting of advocacy work for sanitation in a country or region. Although it focuses on sanitation, this document presents a sound general overview of the key steps and elements for planning advocacy activities.
This guide for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for all (WASH) campaign offers practical guidance on advocacy work related to water and sanitation. It aims to explain the different advocacy tools, provide practical examples of advocacy work, and provide information on key policy actors and processes and how to influence them at local, national and international levels.


This thematic overview paper of the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre gives access to the main principles of advocacy for water, environmental sanitation and hygiene, based on worldwide experiences and views of leading practitioners. Furthermore, this document provides direct links to more detailed explanations and documented experiences of critical aspects of the topic on the Internet.