You may have seen the words “advocacy” or “advocate” turning up in reference to the fight against extreme poverty and the systemic inequalities that fuel it. But what do these words really mean?

There are different contexts for the use of advocacy — for example, in health care you can have patient advocates, who speak up for the rights of people receiving treatment and care. Or you might have heard of a lawyer “advocating for their client” in the courtroom. A common thread in all these scenarios is the association between “advocacy” and the act of speaking up in defence of your own or someone else’s rights with a desire to compel decision makers to share your position or perspective.

Advocacy plays a vital role in the fight to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, whether it’s speaking up for gender equality, for climate justice, for health care and education for all, and more.

Perhaps you’ve seen the term in this context while reading a Global Citizen article, or when taking action through the Global Citizen app. But “advocacy” — and the role it plays in changing the world — isn’t an easy idea to get to grips with.

So we sat down with Liz Agbor-Tabi, vice president of global policy at Global Citizen, to find out more about advocacy, what it is and why it’s important, and how we can all get involved.

Agbor-Tabi has spent her life working to support, defend, and protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Sometimes she’s been in roles where she’s  cared for people directly — such as when she was a nurse — and sometimes she’s been raising her voice on behalf of others by speaking to decision-makers in government, philanthropy and the private sector.

In her current role with Global Citizen, she works as an advocate by collaborating with world leaders to encourage them to put policies in place that ensure everybody’s needs are met, rights are protected; with an emphasis on marginalized groups and people in poverty.

Agbor-Tabi describes herself as a “citizen of the world” having been born in Cameroon and growing up between Cameroon and the United States. After initially moving from being a public health practitioner to being a policy analyst in the health sector, she has spent the past 12 years working to advance social impact across multiple sectors all over the world, including in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the US.

“Advocacy” is a word you hear a lot, but it can be difficult to really get to the bottom of what it means. From your perspective, what actually is advocacy?

You know, in a perfect world, we would have equitable systems, we would have fair and just systems, and everyone would have an opportunity to live a life in peace and with dignity.

But because, as we know, that's not the perfect world that we live in, we need people who can use their voices to demand a different world, a better world — with equitable social and economic systems and one which delivers justice for all. This is the world we want. For me, advocacy is the work that so many people, many of us across the world, engage in daily to ensure that we can move towards making this world a reality.

Being an advocate is an act of service, it is using your voice to influence decision-makers and demanding change that works for the benefit of humanity.

Is advocacy the same as activism, or different? How do they complement each other?

I think there's certainly a need for both activists and advocates.

There's a need to influence decision makers, a need to demand better policies, and to demand systems of governance that are responsive and equitable — and that is the work of advocacy. Equally important, is the work of taking action to ensure that these systems work in a way that the needs of everyone are met — and that's activism.

Both of these working together is the only way that we’re going to be able to achieve a more just, equitable, and fair world. 

How did you start working as an advocate?

Working in this sector has been a natural progression and evolution from my previous roles. I actually began my professional career as an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse and I took care of really ill patients in Baltimore, Maryland, in an inner-city setting.

Part of my job was ensuring that my patients had access to the services that they needed as well as the information and resources required to improve their health outcomes. I was often putting myself in their position and really thinking, “if I was a patient, what would I want someone who was caring for me to be able to demand on my behalf?” This thinking guided the care I provided to my patients and more broadly, how I operated in the community. So, becoming an advocate was a natural progression from that.

My parents would argue that even before I became professionally involved in advocacy and activism, that as a child I always had a loud voice which I used frequently and was never shy about demanding fairness. Somehow, knowing that the other children around me weren't getting a fair share, whether it was over cookies that were being distributed, or toys, or access to things I felt all children should be entitled to, I cared about that.

How can we make sure advocacy is inclusive of the people it’s aiming to help?

I think it's really important that we ensure that individuals and communities that are at risk of or may be facing marginalization or oppression, or who just have “the short end of the stick”, are also part of the conversations around solutions to these challenges.

I think that many of these communities understand their challenges far better than some of us; advocates, leaders, and decision makers. They certainly appreciate these challenges and bring forth a perspective deepened by lived experiences and are poised to envision solutions which many of us could hardly ever understand. So through more inclusive conversations, there's an opportunity to ensure that everyone is part of the solution.

The work of advocacy and activism has to be inclusive in that way. As advocates, it’s vital that we ensure the voices that we represent are part of the discourse and that diverse perspectives are brought to the fore. It’s incumbent upon us and a responsibility for those of us who have seats at a table, to ensure that others are brought to that table too. 

Otherwise, advocacy and activism, in and of itself, can become additional mechanisms and tools of exclusion. 

How is advocacy a key part of Global Citizen’s mission to drive change and end extreme poverty? 

One of the things I really like about the Global Citizen model is that you can become a part of the solution to global challenges regardless of where you live, what your socio-economic status is, and what opportunities you have access to.

We each have a voice and there is tremendous power in lifting our individual voices — and there's even greater power in the collective voice. Through our app, Global Citizen enables a girl in rural West Africa (where I’m from) to use her voice to advocate on issues that are near and dear to her, the issues that she cares about.

This is similar to opportunities afforded to Global Citizens across the world. Our app allows people across the globe, in urban areas, in marginalized areas, in affluent areas to come together and coalesce around a common goal of  eliminating poverty across the world. 

I think it's really an honorable and audacious mission. I also think that it is a critical mission that can only be achieved if we come together as one — and Global Citizen allows us to be able to do that. 

How can advocacy organizations complement the work of organizations on the ground that are providing direct relief and assistance?

I've been a direct service provider at various points of my career, and I appreciate how important that is and I have tremendous respect and regard for the men and women who — day in, day out — are on the front lines providing services and care to the communities most in need. 

That care cannot exist in isolation without the support of the advocates and activists who are spending time demanding resources, demanding policies, and who are demanding the systemic changes that need to be made to ensure that that direct care and service provision can be delivered to everyone in need, everywhere. 

So, ultimately I think the two go hand-in-hand. The delivery of care and direct services is important. Equally important is the advocacy and activism that ensure that the care being provided can come to the fore, and that the work of delivering services to communities in need can be made a reality. 

Do you have any advice for Global Citizens who want to become advocates for the causes they care about, where should they start?

There is an old adage that a mentor once shared with me and it was “lead where you are.” You have a unique voice and the unique ability to make a difference and to engender change no matter where you are. And for those of us Global Citizens who are in a position to raise our voices, to use our voices for the betterment of humanity, it's important not to squander that opportunity. 

The ultimate expression of humanity is daring to care and then using your voice and your talents to do something about that, to take action, to ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to the opportunity for a life lived in peace and with dignity.

Join us in taking action here to help end extreme poverty NOW and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

Global Citizen Asks

Defeat Poverty

What Actually Is 'Advocacy' and How Can We All Use it to Change the World?

By Helen Lock