Analyzing the Political Space and Its Impact on Your Advocacy Strategy

One of the strategic analyses that advocacy strategy planning teams often use is assessing the external environment and how open it is for advocacy work. This assessment is of great importance. It helps advocacy organizations and groups explicitly articulate and assess their political fears (risks) and hopes as a team before taking any serious actions. An important advocacy dimension that groups should assess in the environment where they are working is the available political space. By political space, we mean both the ability to express one’s opinion about the prevailing political system and political leadership and the availability of effective channels to influence the political system. Naturally, some political societies and systems are more open and tolerant to criticism than others. For instance, some regimes might tolerate criticizing the prime minister and cabinet ministers but never criticizing the president. In other cultures, it is taboo to criticize prevailing ideologies, such as secularism in Turkey until earlier in the 21st century, communism in China, or powerful religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar in Egypt. In addition, often, it is much tougher to criticize the “Ministry of Defense” or the “intelligence agency” than to criticize many other authorities. In terms of political space, we can divide countries into three main categories: closed, narrow, and open. The following table provides a brief comparison among the different political space (PS) categories:

PS Category Illustrative Characteristics Advocacy Objectives Advocacy Strategies
Closed (e.g., North Korea, Myanmar , Belarus, Syria & Saudi Arabia) ● Single party rule that might also have other marginal cartoonish parties
● Disagreement with the government deserves punishment
● The state controls the media
● Interaction with foreigners is risky
Provide opportunities for citizens to participate in the decision-making processes in relatively safe areas that authorities support. Cooperate with the authorities to make policies and systems, Provide services in areas accepted by authorities such as getting ready for natural disasters, or organize a campaign to address a health crisis, e.g., COVID-19.
Narrow (e.g., Egypt, Thailand, and Iran) ● Multi-party system
● One party prevails
● A mix of state-owned and private-owned media
● Citizens and media can criticize cabinet ministers and provincial governors.
● Criticizing heads of state is risky and relatively rare
Build up ordinary people’s self-confidence and ability to effectively participate in the policy-making processes in several relatively safe areas. Establish the principles of participation, transparency, and accountability in the decision-making processes. Use legitimate different advocacy strategies, including cooperation with and confronting authorities as long as people are willing. The focus will be on sectoral (health, education, housing, etc.) areas and/or local areas (e.g., provincial and local levels.)
Open(e.g.,France,SouthAfrica,andCanada) Multi-party system
● Parties rotate power
● Citizens and media can openly criticize the authorities and any official at any level, including the head of state.
Exercise people’s rights, especially marginalized and disadvantaged ones, in effectively participating in making and monitoring policies at all levels Use all known legitimate and peaceful advocacy strategies that broaden the space for participation of marginalized groups and enhance the democratic and just environment.

The examples provided above are based on the currently available reports. Closed political space does not only exist at a national level. It sometimes exists in very traditional societies within a given country. Women and some ethnic groups, for instance, are often not allowed to participate in the decision-making processes in many societies, even if the national political space is narrow or, to go farther, an open one. Some reports came from Iraq that, even though the country is currently in narrow or even open political spaces, women cannot always participate in the decision-making process in their communities. When dealing with such cases, advocacy work should use the strategies that apply to this specific group. In the case of women in traditional societies, just encouraging women to address commonly accepted areas in which women can cooperate with the current leadership could count as an achievement.

Indicated strategies are only illustrative of what advocacy might achieve. Some groups might still legitimately take some high-risk measures against closed or narrow political space environments if they accept such risks.

ACT-ON [1]Adapted from Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, Chapter 2. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.

David Cohen of the Advocacy Institute developed this tool. ACT-ON is a variation of what many people know as the “SWOT Analysis, but with an activist’s touch.” Where SWOT stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats,” the ACT-ON variation stands for “Advantages, Challenges, Threats, Opportunities and Next Steps.” In the psychology of advocacy, Cohen believes there is power in the words we choose to advance our work. Instead of “Weaknesses” in the SWOT model, we choose “Challenge. W ? We can work to overcome challenges in our advocacy effort. While SWOT ends the process on a negative note (Threats), ACT-ON ends with Opportunities and Next Steps, again with an eye toward what is possible, and actions (Next Steps) that move the process forward, leading planning and analysis into action. ACT-ON is a tool best used to conduct an initial ‘big picture assessment and see the potential areas for intervention. In addition, it can provide a good bridge between the environment and the problem itself.

A Tool for Assessing your Environment and Creating an Initial Strategic Plan



Go back to your circle of colleagues. Apply the ACT-ON to your situation and explore what it tells you and what actions it might direct you to do


Together with assessing the environment in which our advocacy will occur, we need to analyze the problem we are dealing with and its associated issues. Again, we strongly recommend not using a single analytical tool to analyze the problem and issues.


What to Analyze?

Many factors are important to note and consider in your analysis of the problem and its associated issues. These factors include, but are not limited to:

● What are the root causes of the problem?

● What is the problem? What are the issues associated with it?

● Who is affected?

● How widely does the problem affect people/

● How deeply does it affect people?

● What are the existing (or lacking) positive or negative regulations and policies? Are the application and enforcement mechanisms working well? Do the cultural norms, traditions, and attitudes support the status quo? Which elements in the culture are against the status quo?

● How can we adequately and precisely describe the problem from these three angles?

● Who are the stakeholders that are (or should be) playing a role in the problem?

Some of the strategic analyses used to analyze the problem and its associated issues include:

● The Problem Tree analysis

● From Problems to Issues

● Triangle Analysis

● Naming the Moment

Problem Tree: Analyzing the Problem, Root-Causes, and Consequences

Rottenly, we confuse the problem, its root causes, and its consequences. The problem is expressed in how people see it, whereas the root causes are what causes this problem to happen. To elaborate on these distinctions, please examine the following cartoon.

Figure  SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 11: Cartoon Courtesy of Transparency Morocco
Ignoring the Root Cause Is a Sure Path to Failure!

The above cartoon shows how often we work on a marginal issue that will not tackle the root cause of the problem. Of course, the problem will worsen, and we will get exhausted. The Problem Tree, which many of us are likely too familiar with, is a useful tool that helps us distinguish between these three distinct aspects: the problem, root causes, and consequences. The following diagram of the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt Problem Tree [2]Nader Tadros, 1997. A  Report on FGM Coalition Building in Beni-Suef and Fayoum, Egypt. illustrates how we can use Problem Trees to separate the problem, root causes, and consequences.


Figure 12:FGM in Egypt Problem Tree. Nader Tadros, 1997.


1 Adapted from Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, Chapter 2. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.
2 Nader Tadros, 1997. A  Report on FGM Coalition Building in Beni-Suef and Fayoum, Egypt.