Identifying Problems and Actors

When developing your policy advocacy plan, it is essential to identify both the main problem and those who are most directly involved in that problem. This page will provide guiding questions to assist you in identifying (1) the central problem and (2) actors you need to influence in order to address the problem. The next page, Understanding Levers of Influence, will explain how some of your identified actors can be influenced to act or to change policy. This will help you gain a better understanding of the power context when developing your policy advocacy goals.

What is the central problem?

Begin your planning process by being specific about what the human rights problem is. This is not always a straightforward question.

Consider, for example, if asylum seekers with pending refugee applications are subject to arrest and prolonged detention. The problem may be that the police do not recognize that asylum seekers have the right to be in the country. However, it could also be that the refugee status determination agency does not provide adequate identification papers.

The policy advocacy strategy will differ considerably depending on how the problem is defined. Moreover, if you are targeting a symptom rather than a root problem, your advocacy efforts will not lead to systemic change. To better understand the issue, you may begin by considering the following questions:

  • What is the practical problem faced by refugees?
    • Is this a violation of international law? Why?
    • Is this a violation of domestic law?
    • If applicable, is this a violation of UNHCR policies?
    • Is there any other feasible or practical way of defining and understanding the problem?
  • Who are the main actors that cause the problem? Be as specific as possible. If the problem lies with the government, specify the agency or ministry.
    • What exactly are those actors doing or not doing?
    • What are the actor’s motivations or interests that lead to its behavior?

Who are the key actors involved?

The second step in the planning process is to identify which actors need to be influenced in order to address the problem at hand.

Refugee rights issues are often at the intersection of local government and UNHCR policy. For example, consider a country where UNHCR conducts refugee status determination (RSD). Asylum seekers have been complaining that the RSD process takes too long and that they have few rights in the country while their cases are pending. In this case, is the problem that UNHCR procedures are slow? Or is it that the government gives few rights to asylum seekers?

Often, the answer to this type of question is both. In this case, it is useful to consider which actor you are more capable of influencing. While legal theory indicates that the host government has the responsibility to protect refugees, in practice, UNHCR is usually much more likely to act. It may, therefore, be more effective to focus on influencing UNHCR to act in the short term, while aiming for change within the host government in the longer term.