How Advocacy Evaluation Can Support Human Rights Defenders in Latin America

This perspective was contributed by Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva, Christopher Kuonqui and Jenn Esala.

When do advocacy efforts succeed? How do we know?

Our human rights work can take years to achieve success, and opponents can set work back by decades. Evaluating advocacy efforts, when it is done at all, can feel donor-prescribed, time-consuming, or based on somewhat artificial metrics. What if instead we measured our efforts to bring new allies to our issue? Or measured the positive changes in our relationships with decision makers? What if evaluation provided a way to engage others, inform our own strategy, help us build better partnerships and networks, and even inspire us to continue our work?

In 2023,  the New Tactics in Human Rights program and Evaluation & Research team at CVT co-facilitated an advocacy evaluation workshop in Mexico City. The workshop and subsequent accompaniment were based  on  CVT’s updated Advocacy Evaluation Toolkit, working with 18 human rights defenders from six Latin American countries to strengthen their advocacy campaigns.

The  group of Latin American human rights defenders who participated in the workshop are exceptional changemakers. For example, a pair of Peruvian HRDs from a civil society organization in Lima, DESCO Ciudadano, have made impressive progress at mobilizing women in political processes to shape municipal agendas. Other HRDs from Niños Totonacos, an education focused organization, had made great strides in their efforts to tackle digital harassment in indigenous youth populations in rural Mexico. And a social service and advocacy organization, Mulier Venezuela, mobilized international and national actors to tackle sex trafficking of migrants in the country.

This progress hasn’t come easy. The workshop participants shared how they had overcome countless tactics that their opponents employ, such as: defunding of their initiatives, digital or physical intimidation, and attempts to delegitimize their efforts through social media campaigns. Occasionally, participants lamented autocratic trends in Latin America. “Our civic space is shrinking at an accelerated rate,” said one participant. “We see our country’s leaders taking notes from Nicaragua and Venezuela and trying things on for size here.”

Workshop Context: CVT’s Approach to Advocacy Evaluation

For more than a decade, human rights defenders in the New Tactics in Human Rights network have been pointing to the need  for better ways to evaluate their strategies in the face of such intractable opponent tactics. HRDs around the world also reported that  international and local donors were increasingly requiring monitoring and evaluation plans in reporting and grant applications, but often used frameworks that seemed irrelevant or overly complicated.

Through an extensive literature review, CVT found that many existing evaluation methods were simply not that helpful for HRDs working on long term social change. For one, they were incredibly Global North focused. For another, rigid evaluation frameworks didn’t consider the long timelines or social and political contexts of advocacy work.

In response, CVT developed the Advocacy Evaluation Toolkit (available in English, Arabic and Spanish). The tools include methods for campaign organizers to integrate the evaluation of advocacy campaigns into their strategic planning, connect evaluation to campaign principles and values, self-determined measures of success, and map progress in garnering more allies and shifting opponents. Crucially,  this toolkit is based on extensive input from human rights defenders across the globe, who helped us make it as relevant as possible to activists.  The tools are intentionally designed to be used by activists without technical expertise in evaluation to strengthen their advocacy efforts and adjust as needed through reflection.

While the toolkit was designed to be a stand alone resource, we also piloted a training curriculum based on the toolkit in a workshop in Jordan in 2022. In an iterative learning process, we then made further adaptations to the curriculum, including developing a regionally relevant case example, and translated the toolkit into Spanish for a second pilot workshop in Mexico City in 2023.

Reflections from Latin American HRDs

The workshop in Mexico City gave CVT an opportunity to better understand how our Spanish language toolkit could be useful to HRDs in Latin America. Workshop participants, including 3 organizations who continued to receive mentorship from CVT for an additional six months to implement their evaluation plans,  provided valuable feedback based on their experiences and learnings:  

1. Evaluating principles in campaign processes

The Toolkit adapted concepts from evaluator Michael Quinn Patton’s Principles-Focused Evaluation approach to help focus evaluation on values that matter to us as HRDs. Our principles-focused evaluation reference guide put it this way:  “In evaluation, often the way in which you run your campaign does not get as much attention as the tangible changes that result from your work. However, when you are working to change society, often the methods you use are an extremely important part of the change.”

In the workshop we asked each participant to identify a few key values or principles that guided their advocacy campaigns when determining their evaluation questions, measures of success, and data collection strategies. 

For some participants, focusing on their campaign principles markedly shifted their approach both to evaluation and their campaign activities. For instance, one group that worked with youth held a high premium on collaboration and empowerment. After integrating these values into their granular level evaluation questions and measures of success, the HRDs realized they weren’t including the youth themselves directly in their advocacy processes.

By focusing on collaboration as a guiding principle of our advocacy, we wanted to evaluate to what extent we had succeeded at actually collaborating youth into the advocacy process,” one group said. “We realized we had a lot of programs about youth, but not with youth. [Through using this tool] we realized that youth weren’t really at the table and weren’t integrated in the advocacy process itself.” They saw this contradicted a core principle they had identified and opened up new ways of engaging youth in advocacy. 

2. Mapping Allies and Opponents as a Strategy and Evaluation  

Many participants cited the Spectrum of Allies tool as particularly helpful both as a strategic planning and evaluation tool. We know from our advocacy strategy workshops that mapping allies and opponents can be incredibly useful to campaign organizers. One participating organization focused on migrant rights used the tool to strengthen their stakeholder analysis. They shifted the targets of their advocacy and evaluation from nameless national actors to actual people on the frontline of services to populations on the move. Using the Spectrum of Allies tool helped them zero in on a target group that had more influence on their issue area than they had understood before applying the tool. The Spectrum of Allies also helped the group measure the ways in which a specific provider on the frontlines of migrant services could become more allied towards their advocacy efforts.

3. Shifting Contexts Unique to Advocacy Evaluation

One group said that their biggest learning from the workshop was that “there is nothing more constant than change.” So many things change so quickly due to political winds. Withins month of our workshop, one group had lost their funding entirely, a couple of staff members had left their organization, a political election had changed everything for one group, and security threats had increased for another. With so much change, one group said, we "realized the importance of adjusting our goals and gains when necessary.”

4. Evaluation as a resilience tool: Taking stock of our success 

As human rights defenders, we tend to focus on our opponents’ tactics, but not always on our own strengths. This can lead us to a lack of hope that our campaigns are moving our social issues forward. We wanted our workshop to provide a reflective space for activists  to better understand their opponents and allies in order to hone their own tactics. And most importantly, we wanted people to use our tools to understand, measure, and celebrate their own successes.

Some of the most powerful moments in the workshop occurred when the tools, such as the Pause and Reflect Discussion guide, allowed HRDs to take stock of what they had already accomplished. This is really hard to recognize as an HRD working on complex social change that could take decades to achieve.

As one participant put it, “it wasn’t until I… went through this process to catalog and reflect on our campaigns that I realized how much we have accomplished, even if we haven’t reached our ultimate goal.” For sustainability, it is critical to celebrate these incremental wins and when we recognize these accomplishments ourselves, we can also better describe our progress to key stakeholders, including community members who we want to mobilize and potential funders.

5. The critical importance of reflection as self-care

Many participants recognized the exhaustion, lack of resourcing, and overwhelming burnout their work can lead them towards. This led us to infuse the workshop sessions with purposeful breaks, connection activities, even music that drove home a single purpose: caring for you and your team is not a luxury, it’s fundamental to successful advocacy.

One participant emphasized just how uncomfortable that can be. “It’s like we work in a paradigm of exploitation. People are nice and want to make a difference, but we work in demanding contexts and have inadequate work habits. The way self-care was cross-cutting in the workshop sessions may even have met with resistance at first, but doing the activities obliges one to pay attention to oneself.” 

Another participant shared: “We need to stop, breathe, and celebrate what you have to celebrate. Presenting this to organizations – that they learn this can be part of the work, means that they can demand this from potential donors in the future.”

6. The power of connection: learning from HRDs across borders

Supporting HRDs working on a myriad of human rights challenges across a single region opened up new doors for collaboration and learning. A tactic or approach employed by an organization in Peru proved useful for another confronting similar challenges in Venezuela. Shared principles, ideas and an ethos of work joined organizations working with LGTBQI+ groups in Bolivia and Mexico. And smaller organizations learning from the successes and misteps alike of larger ones - all proved immensely powerful in building a cohort of human rights defenders that not just learned helpful evaluation approaches, but found and shared solidarity in their work across borders.

As one participant put it, “Working with organizations in the workshop was like getting a firsthand mapping of organizations working on human rights in the region.”

7. Co-creating with partners

Several participants reflected on the very approach we took throughout the workshop and mentoring. One participant shared: “It was a very respectful approach to the organizations. Other experiences working with Global North organizations have been very condescending, not understanding our context. Other organizations say they will teach you something, but treat you like a number in the work – it is very hostile and even dehumanizes us. Everyone as an organization at CVT and individually approached everything in the project very respectfully. It feels better, but also helps in the learning process.” 

8. Having practical tools makes all the difference

The Advocacy Evaluation toolkit’s emphasis is on just that: tools. The handbook is replete with handouts, templates, examples, and case studies. Participants widely appreciated this focus on concrete mechanisms to deploy evaluation in their work. One participant shared, “We receive workshops from other organizations. They share what’s important and afterward one can say, ‘nice workshop.’ But without arriving at a tool, it leaves one scratching one’s head on how to apply the learning.” 

9. The value of accompaniment: “Thinking like an evaluator takes time”

In our workshop several participants brought up one of the most important barriers HRDs face in evaluating advocacy campaigns: time. “I like the tools,” one person joked over a lunch break, “now all I need is the time to use them. Can you give me that?

One group that worked with CVT for a longer period of time said that the mentorship process gave them dedicated time and systems to check in on both their evaluation and advocacy campaign together.  “The entire process of creating and revising our evaluation plan and then setting aside time to go over it made me really start to think not just like a strategic planner, but also like an evaluator.” Another group said that setting aside time to evaluate our advocacy effort meant “we went from committed activism to committed and systematic activism.”  

10. Nuance in translation matters

Advocacy and evaluation language can be complex, jargon heavy, and nuanced in any language. Despite our best efforts to prioritize culturally relevant and high quality translation, our translation of the toolkit still needs finessing. Regional differences in Spanish meant that participants from some Latin American countries understood the meaning behind an evaluation term we had used, while others did not. In other instances we simply poorly translated key terms. At one moment during the workshop participants hotly debated a better translation for an advocacy campaign “target,” though we did not reach consensus around a better term than the one we had used in the toolkit.

This points to the work we still need to make this toolkit even more usable and culturally specific for Latin American HRDs. We know we still have a lot to do as we improve the Spanish version of our toolkit and training, and  this group of amazing Latin American human rights defenders have already given us an opportunity to reflect and hone our own approach to advocacy evaluation. This was one of our main goals with the pilot workshop in Mexico City, and we are grateful for the workshop participants’ accompaniment and coaching of us on this part of our process. 

Evaluation is a critical element of effective advocacy. For too long, though, HRDs have been forced to focus on trying to meet donor requirements in a manner that proves extractive of their efforts and data rather than additive to their change initiatives. The advocacy evaluation toolkit and approach takes a step in the direction of co-creation of knowledge, building a systems approach to advocacy evaluation, and to reshaping advocacy in ways that facilitate authentic learning for HRDs. We hope the toolkit, videos, and lessons learnt from early adopters in the Latin America region can be replicated, adapted and applied further in the region and around the world.