From Problems to Advocacy Issues

Advocacy organizations and groups often face many problems. Problems are what people see in the first place, whereas issues are related to the root causes of the problem. Issues are more related to the root causes of the problem. Identified issues are the beginning of solutions.

For instance, seeing a significant hike in the number of people with cholera cases reported in a community is a problem. Another problem is reporting that only four out of ten kids finish 6th grade in a specific province. Each of these problems has a host of issues explaining why such a problem exists. Identifying these issues is the first step towards solving the problem. Take the example of the increase in cholera cases. The potential issues may include:

● Lack of effective health education programs

● Inadequate personal hygiene habits

● Medical facilities are too distant from rural communities

● Clean potable water is not available

● Recent cuts in the health budget reduced health services, including the number of available mobile clinics

● Prevailing poverty prevents people from having water pipes extended to their homes

● Overall hygienic conditions of the rural communities are much below acceptable standards

There are probably more issues associated with the cholera example above, but let us take the above. Each of the mentioned issues could provide a partial or a full solution to the problem of people dying of cholera. One organization, or even one coalition, can hardly tackle all such issues simultaneously. They need to exercise judgment on which issue to start with.

In working on your advocacy efforts, you need to keep the image of the problem alive in your campaign, as this is the image that ordinary people see in the first place. If you lose this image and start talking only about the issues, ordinary citizens may perceive your talk as too abstract and, even worse, detached from the problem as they see it in their daily lives. A combination of keeping the problem image alive and talking about doing something about the important issues associated with this problem should help you keep the process going. Continuing with the cholera example, keeping the image of the suffering people will help your efforts build and involve a bigger constituency for your efforts. Identifying some of the issues will help you provide a clear path for solving this problem.

If one of the key issues you identify with the health budget, you will need budget advocacy.

To illustrate the distinction between problems and issues, please examine the following cartoon and write a problem statement and issues associated with the problem


Figure 13: Problem & Associated Issues.
Technical Idea: Iman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo.

The Problem Statement
The basement is flooded with water.

Possible Associated Issues

● Quality of education issue: those men are not trained in critical thinking and addressing root causes.

● Being busy with treating the symptoms issue: as we do in many of our organizations and programs, we often address the symptoms of a problem rather than its root causes.

● Waste of precious resources issue: Water, which is likely a precious resource, is wasted.

● A construction code issue: Installing a water connection to a building with the lack of or inadequate sewage system.

● Unenforced construction code issue: perhaps there is a good construction code that was not enforced.

● Shifting the problem issue: Those men dumped the water on other neighbors.

● Other issues


It is better to use this exercise after analyzing the environment and assessing the risks and opportunities.

Brainstorming all possible issues associated with a problem could be an overwhelming exercise. The question for us is how to select the issues you will be working on. To do that, you will first need to work with your colleagues to develop a set of issue selection criteria. Us ally, these criteria appear in the following two categories. Please remember that these criteria are

Problem-Related Criteria Organization/Coalition-Related Criteria
Will addressing this issue solve or contribute significantly to solving the problem? Does this issue fit within the organization/coalition mission?
Can we build a constituency around this issue? Does your organization/Coalition have the expertise to tackle this issue?
Will addressing this issue help in addressing other problems? If needed, does the organization/coalition have the needed geographical outreach?
Can we do something about this issue at present? Does your organization/coalition need financial and non-financial resources to tackle this issue?
Will addressing this issue help ordinary citizens realize their power and encourage them to tackle tougher problems? Can you build a consensus around this issue in your organization/coalition?
Will addressing this issue be widely felt? Has the organization considered the risk that could be associated with this problem?
Will addressing this issue be deeply felt?
Is there a natural and organic link to the policy?

Following is another example of a tool adapted from the Mid West Academy that some groups have used to select the issues to tackle.

Midwest Academy Checklist for Choosing a Problem and Issue [1]Adapted from the Mid West Academy.

A good choice matches most of these criteria. Use this checklist to compare issues or develop your criteria. A “yes” answer scores “1.” A “no” answer scores “0.” Problems/issues with higher scores have the potential for multiple positive results. (Adapted from Midwest Academy)

Problem/IssueA Problem/IssueB Problem/IssueC Will resolving the problem/ issue?
1. Result in a real improvement in people’s lives?
2. Give people a sense of their power?
3. Build strong & lasting organizations and alter the relations of power?
4. Raise awareness about power relations and democratic rights?
5. Be winnable?
6. Be widely felt?
7. Be deeply felt?
8. Be easy to communicate and understand?
9. Provide opportunities for people to learn about and be involved in policies?
10.Have clear advocacy targets?
11.Have a clear time frame?
12.Be non-divisive among your potential constituency?
13.Build accountable leadership?
14.Be consistent with your values and vision?
15.Provide potential for raising funds?
16.Link-local issues to global issues and macro policy context?

Triangular Analysis: An Advocacy Strategic Analysis Tool

The Triangular Analysis is a tool that Margaret Schuler (1986) developed to help social justice workers perform a strategic analysis of the issues they are working on (VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002) [2]VeneKlasen, Lisa, and Miller, Valerie, 2002.  A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics:  An action guide for policy and citizen participation. World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA. . We consider the Triangle Analysis one of the most 8 important strategic analysis tools to use throughout our advocacy campaigns. The Triangle Analysis looks at three different aspects of the issue we advocate for: content, structure, and culture.


Refers to mechanisms, processes, and institutions (usually of the state) that implement and enforce law and policy such as courts, police, ministries, schools, e c. The structure examines how efficiently and effectively laws and policies are implemented. Culture encompasses shared values, attitudes, behavior, sentiments towards political participation, history, sense of rights, etc. Culture plays a big role in decision-making. In addition, many cultures find it difficult to challenge or question those in power who usually make key decisions.

Content refers to the constitution, laws, policies, budget appropriations and allocations decisions, international treaties, customary laws, etc


Laws and policies do not exist in a vacuum. The dynamics between several factors influence their shape. In the Triangle Analysis, we look at the policy-making process from three angles:

Content – Regulations When your community or group faces a problem, you first need to examine whether there are regulations (or what we refer to here as Content) that affect, positively or negatively, this problem/issue. This content may include existing laws, policies, decisions, court sentences, international law, constitution, etc. Careful study of all of these elements is wise before making a hasty judgment on them. Sometimes, you will find contradictions between two or more of these elements. In addition, many laws or decisions that exist address the issue, but they may have serious loopholes through which the law becomes ineffective or favors the powerful over the powerless. For instance, a close examination of the budget law might reveal that the budget scheme might be favoring a small influential minority or do not reflect what politicians have promised the people. Determine if you can live with these loopholes or exceptions or whether they are unjust tools used against the poor and disadvantaged. Sometimes, the law or decision is so out-of-context or unrealistically tough that it is almost impossible to apply. St dying this part of the triangle will likely give you one of three choices for your strategy:

● The content is adequate, and you ought to make sure to keep it as is in your campaign. You will also need to examine the other two angles as described below.

● The content is seriously flawed, and you need to have it overhauled or amended.

● The content is good but has one or two critical elements necessary to address the problem/issue. Yo r efforts should include introducing this new content without affecting the other good parts of the existing law.

We should mention a word of caution here. The re is often an intuitive tendency yet faulty assumption that lawyers exclusively do the content analysis. This assumption is faulty because it undermines lay people’s ability to analyze and criticize legislative and legal processes and documents that affect their livelihood. In real life, we are always almost surprised at the ability of ordinary citizens to analyze such processes and documents with fresh and important perspectives, especially when their lives are directly affected by these laws and legislation. So e of the consequences that might happen if we go with the assumption that it is exclusively a lawyers’ and economists’ job include the following:

● Further excluding people from participating in the process, and consequently, diminishing their power further;

● Emphasizing the image that disadvantaged and marginalized people cannot understand and criticize legal and legislative;

● Continuing the same old message that the legislators, economists, and lawyers do not need to involve citizens in the law-making matters; and

● Depriving the process of valuable insights that those people can bring to the advocacy and people’s power.


We can always think of content (laws, decisions, or policies) that was never applied or has been idle for so many years. A simple example could be the parents who ruled that children can only watch one hour of television a day. Whether this rule (content) is applied or not is another issue. In addition, laws, decisions, or policies may not take effect for many reasons. For instance, effective application of these laws (etc.) needs trained personnel or funds that are not available; maybe those responsible for applying the law are not interested in doing so, and no one holds them accountable. You need to examine if the laws (etc.) are not in effect and the reason(s) why they are not

Political Will

Political will is critical not only to create or amend content but also to implement it. Much of the political will results from pressure from elites and power holders. The Advocacy for People’s Power model seeks to have ordinary citizens create the pressure for the needed political will at the expense of the pressure created by elites and power holders. As noted in the Selective Political Will case study, political will existed to amend the legislation but not apply the new legislation. Surprisingly, most parties had a tacit understanding that these laws were not for the actual application.


Culture is a critical piece of the analysis that is often forgotten or undermined. Culture is where the attitudes and opinions of the public are. When you sway the public attitudes and opinions, you change the culture [3]The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, claims that 80% of the results happen because of the work of 20%. If we apply this rule to public opinions, the most 20% of the population vocal … Continue reading . The Culture dimension adds crucial depth to our 9 analysis. Relying solely on analyzing the Content and the Structure yields superficial results and leads to a shallow strategy. Working on the cultural aspect, where you deal with people’s beliefs, norms, and traditions, is way harder than changing laws and policies, but it is more lasting. Governments and power holders pay much attention to the socialization process through basic education and the media.

In examining the culture angle, you need to answer challenging questions such as, “What is in the culture that helps perpetuate the problem?” “What belief systems support the status quo?” “Where in the culture can we find support for the change we need to achieve?” “In a traditional society, how much can ordinary citizens question the decisions of those in power?” Examining these questions should help you link this analysis to the Invisible Power discussed in the Fourth Chapter.

Figure 14:  Technical Idea: Iman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo.
Examine the Content, Structure & Culture in This Cartoon!

The Triangle Analysis is very useful for our advocacy work for many reasons, including:

● It helps us sharpen our advocacy strategy to identify where we need to focus our work. For instance, if we have good content (policies, laws, etc.), we do not need to spend our efforts calling for having a law that already exists but is rarely applied. We would rather spend our efforts advocating for the authorities to apply the existing good content. Using the same logic, the more the issue is organically related to prevailing beliefs, the more our advocacy interventions will target public opinion leaders rather than legislatures (Content) and executives (Structure).

● It shows us that advocacy does not always target the official decision-makers. The thrust of your advocacy work will often target some strong public opinion leaders or cultural leaders who can change people’s attitudes towards your issues.

● It reminds us of the importance of involving the people (culture) in your advocacy work to apply legislation and policies effectively.

● It broadens our horizons by liberating us from thinking of advocacy as only addressing the official decision-makers or public executives.

Naming the Moment – Drawing a Problem Timeline

Drawing Timelines, which we sometimes refer to as “Naming the Moments.”[4]Adapted from Barndt, Deborah, 1989, in VeneKlasen, Lisa and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A new Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation. Would … Continue reading , is a 10 useful tool to understand the history of a problem or issue and see where the trend might lead you. You draw an actual timeline showing the turning points for your issue covering the past 20 to 30 years. On this timeline, you identify the different times you saw a change – positive or negative – happening to your problem/issue. Wi h these points located on the timeline, you try to analyze what caused these changes? And what can you do to repeat (or avoid if it is negative) this change? In addition, reading the timeline might help you identify the trend and how to best deal with this anticipated trend in the future. For your advocacy work, the timeline could help you align changes to the development of the problem/issue you are working on.

Follow are the steps in creating such a timeline:

1. Pick a base year for your analysis. Usually, the time range would be between 15 to 30 years, but it can vary from one case to another. It is preferable to pick a base year with no significant changes to describe the situation before significant events.

2. Brainstorm the changes that have affected the status quo of the issue you are working on from the base year until the current year.

3. Identify 5-7 significant turning points from the ones you generated. Put the positive changes (the ones that boosted your issue) above the timeline and the negative ones below the line.

4. Analyze each of these turning points by answering questions such as the following:

a. Why do you consider these incidents “turning points”?

b. What are the factors that made them boost or setbacks?

c. Reading the history, can you predict the trend of the problem and the situation with your issue?

d. Reading the history over the past 15 to 30 years, how can you replicate the boosts and avoid the setbacks?

5. If needed, replicate the above procedure over the last one or two years to get a closer look at the current dynamics.


1 Adapted from the Mid West Academy.
2 VeneKlasen, Lisa, and Miller, Valerie, 2002.  A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics:  An action guide for policy and citizen participation. World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.
3 The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, claims that 80% of the results happen because of the work of 20%. If we apply this rule to public opinions, the most 20% of the population vocal about a specific issue will affect 80% of the public opinion.
4 Adapted from Barndt, Deborah, 1989, in VeneKlasen, Lisa and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A new Weave of Power, People & Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation. Would Neighbors, Oklahoma City, OK, USA.