People power: the White Ribbon Alliance model for citizen engagement

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 14 December 2015 08:15 GMT

Ray Mitchell leads a campaign planning workshop with WRA members in Afghanistan in March 2015.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The most important role advocacy organisations can play is to encourage and support citizens to be unreasonable,” explained Ray Mitchell, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at White Ribbon Alliance (WRA). “And not take ‘no’ for an answer.” As a global nonprofit harnessing citizen voices and activism to try to ensure that all women realize their rights to be safe and healthy before, during and after childbirth, achieving lasting change is no easy task.

In an interview with Mitchell, we discussed his organization’s advocacy model of citizen engagement, how best to contextualize local campaigns for change, what drives policymakers to action, and why educating and empowering citizens to demand progress themselves is vital to progress.

Ray Mitchell is an experienced campaigner who has spent the last 30 years with both UK and international organisations, including Amnesty International and the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Tell me a little bit about the WRA model of citizen engagement and why it's important to involve the community when trying to reduce maternal mortality?

White Ribbon Alliance’s entire way of working is built on the idea that citizens are the most effective agents of change. This “theory of change” defines our work in a number of ways. 

First, we rely on the people in a country, those closest to and experiencing the issues with maternal and newborn care, to identify which problem should be addressed most urgently, because advocacy must be focused if it is to be effective. What we have found repeatedly, is that the people closest to the problem are also best qualified to identify how to fix it; they are fully aware of the political context, the barriers, the opportunities, and they can develop a robust strategy to achieve their goal of fixing the specific problem and reducing maternal and newborn mortality. 

We believe that lasting change in any society comes about when enough people join forces to demand that their government adopts and implements the right policies, and provides sufficient resources – money and people – to deliver those policies. Therefore, White Ribbon Alliance plays the crucial role of bringing citizens together, providing them with the information and support they need, and creating opportunities for them to act together to influence their governments and other decision makers. The Alliance is an important catalyst for change, but it is the people who have the power to demand change from their elected officials.

How does this approach differ from country to country, and what kind of successes have you had over the years?

The strength of our advocacy is that “one size does most definitely not fit all”. Each country, where WRA has a National Alliance, works with citizens and civil society partners to define their own strategic objectives and to campaign together to achieve them. As a result, citizens may be involved in very different ways in different countries. This can range from quite simple actions, such as signing a petition, to much longer-term, more intensive activities. An example of the latter can be seen in Uganda, where our National Alliance has enlisted citizens in three districts of the country to monitor the provision of emergency obstetric and newborn care by their local health facilities. In order to do this, the citizens were trained by WRA Uganda in key processes, such as budget tracking, and liaise directly with the district health teams to address any gaps or shortfalls in the services.

In most cases, our National Alliances will employ a variety of advocacy activities to allow as many citizens to be involved in the campaigns. What all of the different activities have in common is that, when combined, they have demonstrable impact on decision makers and have contributed to significant improvements in maternal and newborn care in the countries where we operate. A recent advocacy campaign resulted in Nigeria’s government endorsing respectful maternity care at all levels of their health system – a huge step forward in reducing the disrespect and abuse experienced by some women when seeking care at their health facilities.

Another success has been achieved by WRA Tanzania where their advocacy efforts have pushed the government to meet its commitment to provide emergency care for mothers and newborns in one of the most affected regions of the country. In these and many other campaigns, the role of citizens and the pressure they brought to bear on their governments was absolutely essential for success. 

What has surprised you the most about these campaigns in terms of why, or why not, they have taken hold in certain communities? 

It no longer comes as a surprise to me, because it is so common in all the countries where we work, but the reaction of many people when invited to demand that their government does something is to question their own right to do so. “People power” obviously relies on citizens recognizing that they have power, especially when they work together, but, in many circumstances, they have been convinced that it is better not to question their leaders, nor to ask for positive changes that would make their lives better. As a consequence, many of WRA’s campaigns have an element of encouraging citizens to get involved and breaking down this passivity as a barrier to action. 

A poignant example of this was seen in Tanzania in 2015 when an elderly man was presented with a petition to sign in support of our campaign for life saving emergency services for mothers and newborns. After it was explained to him what the petition was about, he became very emotional and expressed his regret for not realizing earlier in his life that he could hold his government to account in this way. The good news is that, no matter where we have encountered this barrier to citizens taking action, it has not once been insurmountable, and our ongoing engagement with citizens is constantly building a sense in different societies that it is their right to hold their governments accountable and indeed it is their responsibility to do so.

Beyond maternal health, what kinds of lessons have you learned about activating citizens to hold their governments accountable that can be translated to other issues in public health, education or otherwise? 

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that just because “systems”, be they health, education or otherwise, are complicated, that doesn’t mean advocacy also has to be complicated. In fact, to enable as many citizens as possible to be involved, advocacy needs to be the complete opposite: as simple and as accessible as possible. Far too often the refrain of those responsible for a failing system is that “it is very complicated” and therefore, difficult to change. Citizens, however, are by and large not concerned with the intricacies of a system. What they know is that something is not working and they want it to work better. Those responsible for the system will urge citizens to be reasonable and understand that the complexity is the issue. Advocacy’s role is to encourage citizens to be unreasonable and not take ‘no’ for an answer.

I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s quote that “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. The most important role advocacy organisations can play is to encourage and support citizens to be unreasonable, and to direct their anger and concern to where it can have most impact.

Finally, with the United Nations adopting a new set of global goals for sustainable development this past September, what role should citizens play in this broader agenda and how can we better elevate their voices? 

In 2015, White Ribbon Alliance and its partners have organized Citizens’ Hearings around the world so that citizens could respond to the ongoing discussion and development of the sustainable development goals. The rallying cry was “Nothing about us, without us!” and this describes very succinctly the role that WRA believes citizens should, and must, play. There is a role for advocacy organisations like us to communicate the voices of citizens to those in power, but there is also a crucial role in providing platforms for citizens to speak directly in their own voices to those who make decisions that affect their daily lives.

Governments have a responsibility to listen to their citizens and to respond to what they hear, and they must put in place a variety of accessible, inclusive processes to allow this to happen. If the sustainable development goals are to have the impact that we all hope they will, governments and citizens must work together to achieve them.