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Defining the problem

Last edited: January 03, 2012

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The campaign issue is the specific problem addressed by the campaign. Describing and framing the campaign issue in a concrete and accurate manner is a key step in strategic planning, and a precondition to setting specific, realistic campaign goals and objectives.

Violence against women and girls (VAW) is a complex problem, affecting entire societies in different ways. It is important to decide what aspects of VAW to focus on – for example, the form of harm (e.g. rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation/cutting, sexual harassment), the specific context where VAW occurs (e.g. home, school, prison, war, political violence), or the type of perpetrator (e.g. soldiers, intimate partners, traditional healers, peers). The more specifically the problem is defined the better informed the campaign design and monitoring, and the more likely its success. The scope of the issue also needs to be defined – it may be a local issue, e.g. a school teacher known to sexually abuse girl students without being punished; or an issue that affects the whole country, e.g. the absence of  national legislation or policy to stop violence and sexual abuse in schools. It can be punctual and urgent, e.g. a court decision unjustly punishing a specific rape survivor for her ordeal; or a permanent problem, e.g. national courts routinely ignoring criminal law provisions punishing rape. It can be political, e.g. relevant government ministries failing to implement a national action plan to end VAW, or societal, e.g. large sections of the population believing that violence is a normal part of women’s lives.


Distinguishing between “simple”, “complicated” and “complex” campaigns 

Campaigning for results requires distinguishing between the desired results in the simple, complicated and complex situations faced by a campaign. Many challenges are simple: there is ample agreement about what you want to achieve and certainty about how to go about doing it. That is, the relationships of cause and effect between what you want to do and what the results will be are known. This is especially true of the relationships between campaigning activities and campaign outputs. Often, you can calculate with confidence the time and money you will need to invest in order to produce a piece of research, create a website, administer a survey, set-up a database, produce a newsletter, organize a press conference, or run a workshop. You can plan with relative certainty that you will achieve your results as planned and budgeted.

When, however, there is disagreement about the best campaigning strategy, as may be the case when you are to campaign in a different place, time or other circumstances, or in a new activity, the challenge will be complicated:  You are uncertain of the relationships of cause and effect but they are knowable if you can first experiment and test what has worked in other circumstances or locales. Here, rather than applying good practices, what you need is to innovate using best principles of how to do, for example, research on a new topic, with novice researchers, in a different language and culture than previously experienced.

You face a complex situation when the relationship between what you will do and its effect is unknowable until the results finally emerge. These are circumstances when reaching agreement about action tends to be a political negotiation because there are diverse opinions on the best course of action or different judgments about what will work and not work, and often both disagreement and uncertainty are high. The principal results-based management challenge presented by complexity is not so much to plan what you will achieve – to predict the unpredictable – but to monitor what actually emerges so that it informs future action. This is not easy because it involves understanding how a campaign contributed to outcomes when the contribution is indirect, partial and many times unintended or unexpected.

Typically for advocacy campaigns, the environments in which they work, as well as the campaigns themselves, are complex. Thus, the outcomes – changes in the behaviour, relationships, activities, policies or practices of individuals, groups, organizations and institutions that the campaign attempts to influence – are highly unpredictable. The relationships of cause and effect tend to be nonlinear and multi-directional. Thus, the outcomes may be plausibly linked to the activities of the campaign although the relationship is indirect and even unintentional. In addition, the campaign’s contribution to the outcome is usually limited; other actors and factors contribute too. And, frequently campaigning success rarely is replicable because achievements are highly dependent on context and the campaign itself changes in the process.

For campaigns, even when the relationships between activities and outputs are simple or complicated, generally there is enormous uncertainty about what will be the campaigning outcomes and the impact.  Much of what a campaign will do is decided month to month and what will be achieved is uncertain. This is true not only of campaigns but of all efforts for social change. In a study sponsored by McGill University and DuPont Canada, the authors conclude, “…to know step by step, in advance, how the goals will be attained [is] an approach doomed to failure in the complex and rapidly changing world in which social innovators attempt to work…. In highly emergent complex environments, such prior specification is neither possible nor desirable because it constrains openness and adaptability.”

In sum, in a campaign there are simple, complicated and complex challenges and grey areas in between. Known and knowable cause and effect relationships will be evident between some of your activities, and the resultant processes, products and services that are under the campaign’s control. Most importantly, the causal relationship between activities and outputs and the results that matter most– outcomes and impacts – will be unknowable until after you achieve the results, if they ever are. The clearer and more accurate you are in distinguishing between the simple, complicated and complex dimensions of your work, and acting accordingly, the greater the success you will have. (Ricardo Wilson-Grau, personal communication inspired by Quinn Patton, 2010, and Westley, Zimmerman and Patton, 2007).


Practical tips for setting the campaign issue

  • Try to name the campaign issue in one sentence and in a concrete and accessible way, e.g. “few survivors of domestic violence in our country dare to seek help when they need it”, or “many community judges in province X disregard national law when dealing with domestic violence”. State what it is, who it is about, where and when it occurs.
  • If the issue is rather broad, e.g. “too many girls in our community suffer or die from harmful traditional practice”, try to frame the problem more precisely – what is the harmful traditional practice referred to? If it cannot be decided at this point, the following planning steps will help to add precision.
  • The broader the campaign issue, the more people are likely to be affected in many different ways and the more complex it might be to campaign on the issue. Research can help narrow down the issue. Build on existing research, but verify the quality and credibility of the reports consulted, and use different sources so as to get a more complete picture. Reports by reputed research institutes including government statistical offices, think tanks, UN agencies and reports submitted to UN monitoring bodies, such as the CEDAW committee, tend to be more credible sources than news reports.
  • Propose a solution to the issue identified. How can the problem be overcome? Who needs to take what action so as to change the situation for the better? How can the campaign most effectively contribute to the necessary change?