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What skills, approaches and resources are needed by successful advocates?

If you’ve ever tried to promote an issue you care about, you’ve engaged in advocacy. Advocacy is about influencing attitudes, opinions and actions to bring about change – whether internally within your own faith group or externally in the wider community. What are the most effective ways of doing this?

The webinar on Tuesday 27 April addressed this issue, with an introduction and moderation from FaithInvest’s Director of Movement Building, Lorna Gold. Lorna discussed how the Faith Long-Term Plans are engaging faith communities across the world in planning for a sustainable future. She asked: 'How we can organise ourselves and our assets in order to build that future?'

To watch the webinar, click below.

This is an auspicious time for faith communities to come together, due to crises of inequality, environmental degradation and the COVID-19 pandemic, Lorna said: 'We don’t need more empty promises, we need solid plans.'

Advocacy, according to the dictionary definition, is ‘the act of pleading for, supporting or recommending: active espousal’. Lorna said: 'We want to demystify what advocacy is about. What more can be done to make the most of the work we’re doing through the plans? How can we leverage our plans to make bigger changes globally? What are the skills, approaches and resources we need to be successful advocates?'

'We talk about advocacy because it brings about change' – Karine Baghdasaryan

Our first speaker, Karine Baghdasaryan, manages a portfolio on community development projects, including social centres under the auspice of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Karine said: 'The most difficult thing in the world is to change ideas and approaches. We talk about advocacy because it brings about change.'

She explained that the church is the most reliable and respected institution in Armenia, and the Armenian Church does amazing work around introducing projects to raise interest regarding environmental issues and address environmental challenges.

The work includes organising flash mobs, letter writing campaigns and discussion groups with clergy over environmental concerns. There are also tree planting, gardening and waste clearing activities that communities can get involved in, and painting classes in local parks. Children can exhibit their artwork in the community and their parents are becoming advocates as well.

Other notable projects include sales and exhibitions featuring items made from waste products like plastic bags and bottles, and the introduction of green energy. Solar panels have been established at at least three social centres, and local seminaries are running ‘green theology’ classes.

This is an example of change occurring on individual and communal levels. Churches and faith groups are becoming leaders on environmental issues. Karine said: 'We started with simple and easy things, and the result is interesting, inspiring and useful.'

'There’s no guidebook on how to work with the UN on advocacy, but it’s certainly possible' – Gopal Patel

Gopal Patel, Director and Co-Founder of Bhumi Global and Vice Chair of the UN's Multifaith Advisory Council, was our next speaker.

Bhumi Global is a non-profit organisation that works to educate and mobilise Hindus around the world on environmental issues.

Gopal began by explaining: 'Faith advocacy at the UN is something that many of us have not thought about before. It’s not straightforward and there’s no guidebook on how to work with the UN on advocacy, but it’s certainly possible.'

Last September, the UN convened a summit on biodiversity, and there was a strong faith contribution in the form of a statement signed by 60 organisations. A new coalition of faith groups is also working on the forthcoming food systems summit, where all five different ‘action tracks’ speak to environmental concerns.

Bhumi Global has helped form a coalition called the ‘Faith and Food Coalition’, which has organised a number of dialogues, and is planning to issue faith-based principles on food.

Gopal went on to say: 'Faith groups are engaging with the UN on vital issues – food is such a central issue and food systems are currently so wasteful.

'Historically, faith groups at the UN have focussed on issues of freedom of religion, human rights and peace and security, but now are involved in environmental issues. 2014/15 was a significant tipping point where faiths became more involved.'

Various clusters and informal groups are emerging to talk about very specific issues, such as the Faith and Food Coalition, and a significant number of faith groups are engaging with the UN, pivoting and focussing on the environment. There is a broad spectrum of size, scope and tradition in terms of the groups involved.

There are a number of key moments and processes where faith groups can have a voice and advocate for issues they’re passionate about, including the Convention of Biological Diversity COP15 and UNFCC COP26. Gopal also explained that there are different ways to become accredited, including through ECOSOC and the UN Department of Global Communications.

The advantage of engaging with the UN is that there a number of opportunities: to organise events, issue statements and responses to policies, partner with other groups, and engage with UN entities and member states.

Gopal concluded his presentation by saying: 'It’s important to plan in advance if you want to engage with these processes. It’s complicated, but it is possible for faiths to engage as much as they would like to. I would encourage everyone to consider this as part of their long-term plans.'

'Five countries contain 70% of the world’s remaining rainforests' – Dr Charles McNeill

Dr Charles McNeill, Director of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, was our final speaker at the Advocacy webinar.

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) is an international platform for religious leaders and community groups to work hand in hand with indigenous people to protect rainforests. Five countries currently contain 70% of the world’s remaining rainforests.

Dr Charles began by outlining advocacy efforts in Colombia, something he described as an 'interfaith effort'. The five areas of this advocacy include:

  • educating and awareness raising;

  • establishing local chapters in areas with highest rates of deforestation;

  • influencing government legislation;

  • influencing private sector behaviour; and

  • advocating for ‘defending the defenders of rainforests’.

In 2018, with a view to influencing the upcoming municipal elections, IRI Colombia worked to shape local policy to influence national policy. They put together public debates, and each candidate for mayor had to sign statements to say they would commit to protecting indigenous communities and rainforests if elected.

Now there are more than 36 chapters launched across the country. Dr. Charles said: 'This is powerful faith-based advocacy, through training religious leaders to stand for indigenous people’s rights, meeting regularly with ministers and the president to push for rainforest protection, creating parliamentary fronts to unite policymakers and exert political influence, and setting up virtual training schools.'

On April 6, the House of Representatives passed an important bill criminalising offences against biodiversity, which means financing and taking part in deforestation. Interfaith leaders were lobbying on the congressional floor, showing just how powerful faith groups can be.

In Peru, a similar situation is occurring in terms of faith groups encouraging political dialogue, creating local chapters, running media campaigns, offering training for journalists and serving on working groups.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to the Congo basin, where the world’s second largest rainforest grows. Recently, historic legislation was passed on indigenous people’s right to their land. They have suffered from discrimination and human rights violations for decades. The IRI was lobbying for this legislation, and this is another recent example of advocacy at a national level.

Dr Charles said: 'This is happening in Indonesia and Brazil too. There is a vast collection of educational materials and teaching tools being disseminated through educational and advocacy programmes of faith groups worldwide.'


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