15 June 2011

Advocacy and Impact: 2+2=5

Update: @global_erinH points out that USAID tweeted a thank you to ONE for its support (see at end of post). I don't think it proves impact, but it is worth noting that the campaign was heard.  So that is something by itself.

Update 2: The White House further recognizes ONE.

Ahead of the big GAVI pledge on Monday, ONE wrote a post saying how the White House had heard the message from their twitter campaign. The aim of the campaign was to have everyone send the same tweet to the White House requesting a pledge of $450 million over the next three years to support the immunization efforts of GAVI.
So, two weeks ago, when we asked ONE members to join us in sending our vaccines message to the White House on Twitter we were more than pleased with the results. More than 2,300 ONE members and advocates posted their Twitter message on our national map. Overall, more than 3,200 messages were tweeted across the Twitterverse. These were tweets from everyday activists like you who wanted @whitehouse (The White House’s official Twitter handle) to get the message that we’re serious about their pledge to fund vaccines that could save up to four million children...

While @whitehouse didn’t respond to our outreach via Twitter, we know they got the message and that every tweet from ONE members made a huge impact. Thank you to everyone who tweeted about this critical message.
The promise did end up coming with an announcement from Raj Shah on Monday.
I am pleased to announce that the United States will continue one of the best, most cost-effective life-saving investments we have ever made.

Over the next 3 years, subject to congressional approval, we will devote $450 million to GAVI's mission, which seizes upon the opportunity to save four million lives by 2015. The United States' coordinated support for GAVI complements the efforts of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and USAID in the research, development and use of vaccines.

This multi-year commitment leverages the billions of dollars that other donors have committed to GAVI, multiplying the impact of our funding more than eight-fold.
Being that they were boasting victory before the announcement was made, it is likely that ONE will tell its supporters that the twitter campaign was successful. However, I think it would be misleading to make such a claim. As Bec Hamilton's book Fighting for Darfur shows, advocacy can be a very complex road to navigate. Asking for something, no matter the numbers does not mean it will happen. Considering the current political climate, I am sure a few will be critical of money being spent to vaccinate non-American children. That alone had to weigh on the decision of the administration when making the pledge. Fortunately, it appears that they did not allow such pressures to cause a backing off.

I stand in full support of ONE advocating for the allocation of funds to GAVI. Though imperfect, GAVI does provide a useful alliance of pharmaceuticals and vaccine implementers that can lead to meaningful vaccine efforts. Claims that tweets caused the Obama administration to make the pledge are dubious at best. This serves as an excellent illustration of the problem with causality. As researcher Laura Seay points out,
Whenever I teach students about the difference between causation and correlation, I try to have them do something ridiculous. I might have one student repeatedly flip the light switch while having another jump up and down while another sings "I'm a Little Teapot." Then I ask, what caused the light to go on and off?

Students generally roll their eyes as they answer, "flipping the switch," but the point is clear: just because events happen at the same time doesn't mean they're in any way related. They learn one of the key principles of all sciences: correlation does not imply causation.
Was ONE flipping the switch or just singing "I'm a Little Teapot?" It is likely that they did have some impact on the switch moving, but over 3,000 are not a likely reason for it to have flipped. In fact, we don't even know if the metaphorical light was already on before the campaign started. Yes, it is a good thing and ONE wants to get its supporters excited about the announcement and make them feel like they are making a difference. The question of the scope of impact does matter as it can create better informed advocates who can use their energy as effectively as possible.

Right now it feels like being told that 2+2=5.

Update: USAID thanks ONE

Update 2:
In the lead up to GAVI’s conference, the White House received thousands of phone calls, emails, and signed petitions calling for continued U.S. support for GAVI.  The ONE Campaign issued a statement of support following our announcement, including praise from Bono who noted the President was “in it to win it.”