Our guest blogger is Mr Dave Thomas of Christian Aid Ireland, one of World Development & Relief’s sister agencies.

One day I went out into my garden and heard a rustling sound coming from the flowerbed. It sounded like a small animal was struggling and thrashing around. I looked closer and found a small bird with a piece of string, used to tie up our Rose bushes, caught around it’s leg.

I immediately fetched a few crumbs of bread and a little bowl of water and proceeded to feed and water the bird each day for the rest of its life.

Actually, that’s not true.

What I did was immediately fetch a pair of scissors and carefully cut the string so that the bird could fly away.

I tell you this story to illustrate the motivation behind advocacy.

People are often moved by compassion when they see and hear stories about the need in materially poor communities. However, sometimes our responses can be a little like feeding the bird. They may meet a need, but they miss the real issue.

We might hear that children are not attending school, so we build a school, but miss the fact that the government spends three times as much on the military as it does on education and so no funding is available to pay teacher’s salaries.

We might hear that families are struggling to feed themselves, so we give them a sack of grain, but miss the fact that climate change is causing rains to become increasingly unpredictable resulting in crop failure.

We might hear that women are dying in childbirth, so we build a health clinic, but miss the fact that many husbands still consider their wives to be possessions and aren’t willing to pay for transport to the clinic so their wives can give birth there.

Bishop Desmond Tutu once said that,

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

That is the approach of Advocacy. It is about first finding out why people are poor, what are the underlying root causes? What are the strings preventing them from flying? Once we identify those strings we can start to plan ways to cut them or to support the communities to untangle themselves.

Advocacy requires a change of mind-set. Rather than viewing people as the powerless recipients of our charity, we need to see them as people with the potential to thrive and to provide for themselves. Our desire should not be to watch them gratefully gobbling up the crumbs of bread that we offer, while we pat ourselves on the back, but to set them free and watch them soar.

In practical terms advocacy means speaking up on behalf of someone else. We adopt their cause and take up their case, as Isaiah wrote,

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Isa 1:17 (NIV)

However, it requires research to understand and identify the root causes of poverty, assess how they can be tackled and who is best placed to seek the necessary change. This research leads to policy positions being agreed, around which we can then advocate for the changes that are needed. It’s not quick, but it can be transformative when done correctly.  In terms of international development this could mean that we support people to do advocacy themselves on behalf of their own community or that we advocate on their behalf.

In India, Christian Aid supports an organisation called Ekta Parishad. In 2012 they organised a huge march of around 60,000 people, mainly Dalits and tribal Indians, from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to Delhi. In India Dalits and tribal Indians are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable groups in India. They often face discrimination and exclusion as a result of the caste system which places them at the bottom of the social ladder. Ekta Parishad worked with communities who were facing eviction from their land because of schemes such as mining, wildlife sanctuaries, industrial development and nuclear power. Many were being moved off their land by force or paid minimal compensation to leave their homes and the only livelihoods they knew. The majority of India’s landless poor are indigenous people and Dalits.

Ekta Parishad’s president, Rajagapol, said

“No charity, no amount of other development activity is going to remove poverty from the earth unless people have control over land and livelihood resources.”

Ekta Parishad could have provided alternative livelihoods for displaced families or emergency food aid for those who could no longer farm their land. However, they saw that unless they tackled the root cause of the poverty and insecurity faced by these communities they would never be free, so they chose to march.

The aim of the march was to call for a new land reform policy that would guarantee access to land and livelihood resources for all, regardless of wealth or caste, and a law establishing the right to shelter. On the 3rd October 2012, the marchers set out on their planned month-long march towards Delhi. However, less than a week into the march the government called a meeting with the leaders of the march and on the 11th October, they publicly signed an agreement in front of the marchers accepting their demands. The new deal gave backing to the provision of agricultural land to the landless poor in the poorer districts and urged states to protect the land rights of Dalits, tribals and “all other weaker and marginalised sections of society.” Ekta Parishad are continuing to work to ensure that these commitments are kept.

This example shows the impact that an advocacy approach can have. Ekta Parishad could have simply helped a few communities but, by tackling the root causes of poverty, that in this case were land rights and caste-based discrimination, they were able to secure land rights that will have a positive impact on millions of people. Rather than providing hand-outs they inspired thousands of people and equipped them with the knowledge and skills to speak out on this and other difficulties they may face in the future. They enabled communities to access land and so become self-sufficient rather than making them dependent on aid.

Sometimes the systems and structures that trap people in poverty are ones created and sustained by our own governments. For example, the International Monetary Fund estimates that between $100-$300 billion USD is lost to developing countries, each year, as a result of tax dodging. This is far more than they receive in aid and ought to be helping to provide essential services for poor communities, such as education and healthcare.

In part, multinational companies are able to dodge paying their taxes because of a lack of transparency in the global financial system. This makes it easier for companies to shift money between different parts of their business around the world, particularly using tax havens where the tax rate is extremely low and the levels of secrecy are very high. Many of the most popular tax havens are UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies such as the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

Christian Aid has campaigned for the UK government to urge their Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to put in place financial transparency measures such as making the true ownership of companies registered in those jurisdictions publicly available. This would make it much easier for tax authorities to scrutinise companies’ finances to ensure they are paying the correct amount of tax and ultimately that would provide increased revenue for governments in poor countries.

If this all sounds very complicated, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Once we start to investigate, we soon discover that the things that cause people to become and remain poor are complex. Often people are trapped in poverty by a tangled web of local and global issues such as discrimination, tax dodging, climate change, corruption and gender inequality. Supporting people to begin the hard task of unpicking that tangled web is vital for setting people free from poverty.


Dave Thomas  

Education and campaigns coordinator, Christian Aid Ireland