Empowering Change: The first of its kind Advocacy Academy in Bulgaria and its role in strengthening Democracy

April 17, 2024 Marina Filcheva
Empowering Change: The first of its kind Advocacy Academy in Bulgaria and its role in strengthening Democracy

By Marina Filcheva

Program Manager, Advocacy Academy

Center for Information, Democracy and Citizenship at AUBG

In recent years, Bulgaria has been witnessing a surge in grassroots activism and advocacy efforts aimed at addressing social, political, and environmental challenges. Whether they have been referred as such, is a different matter since the term is still being confused with lobbying and thus even understood in a negative sense. In the very few occasions that a stakeholder (mainly from the business community) has managed to influence any policy changes, it has often happened behind public eyes.

Bulgarians are increasingly vocal about issues that matter to them. However, while passion and enthusiasm are abundant, the skills and knowledge needed to effectively advocate for change, be it in Bulgaria or at European level, have often been lacking. There have been lately some advances made in advocacy – mainly executed by BESCO – the Bulgarian Entrepreneurial Association. However, recognizing the limits of their outreach, which is mainly directed towards the business community, a new initiative, has emerged: the first Advocacy Academy in Bulgaria. It is aimed at closing the existing gap in business-civil-society-government dialogue in Bulgaria.

Building Alliances Across three Worlds

A flagship project of the Center for Information, Democracy and Citizenship (CIDC) at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in partnership with BESCO, and supported by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE – Washington DC), the Advocacy Academy aims to provide comprehensive training in policy advocacy for government, civil society and business leaders. Areas covered include strategic communication, policy analysis, community organizing, and coalition building. The program is steered by two academics with research and practical track records in the field of advocacy, Prof. Jean Crombois from AUBG and Prof. Katia Hristova -Valtcheva from the New Bulgarian University.

The Academy is designed to equip leaders from three different worlds: government, business and civil society sectors, with the tools, skills, and confidence needed to become effective advocates for various causes in Bulgaria and in the EU. This approach has been rarely taken due to the very different perspectives, views, and cultures of the variety of participants, shaped by the different institutions they work in. This makes the initiative unique. It is aimed at forging strategies for improving dialogue between government, civil society and business and building a long-lasting network of advocacy experts.

Participants will learn how to navigate complex political landscapes, engage with stakeholders, and influence decision-makers. At the heart of the Advocacy Academy’s approach is that everyone, independently whether from the government, business or civil society, has the potential to be an agent of change, which becomes so much easier and effective if they act together, communicate in the same language.

Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

Central to the success of this first phase of the Advocacy Academy program is the emphasis on experiential learning. Participants will not just be passive recipients of information, but will be actively engaged in hands-on exercises, case studies, development of real-world advocacy campaigns, debates, etc, facilitated by international experienced advocacy practitioners. This practical approach not only reinforces learning but also instils confidence and resilience in participants as they navigate the complexities of advocacy work.

“The Advocacy Academy is where passion meets purpose,” says Dr. Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob – Executive Director of the CIDC. “Our mission is to foster a deeply engaged citizenry that understands not only the value of democracy but also the means to achieve its promise and protect its future from decadence.”

Building Solidarity and Passion for Civic Engagement

In a world where apathy can often seem like the norm, the Advocacy Academy is a powerful antidote, igniting a passion for civic engagement among its participants.

“The Advocacy Academy is the missing tool of the civil sector, business and even the administration, with which to create functional organizations, strategic legislation and proactive leaders for the Bulgarian political reality”, commented Nedyalko Dervenkov, Executive Director of BESCO.

The program aims to foster a sense of community and solidarity among participants. It incorporates eight academic modules and a weekend retreat in the mountains. Through collaborative interactions and networking opportunities, individuals from diverse backgrounds will come together to share experiences, learn from one another, and build lasting connections. This sense of solidarity not only strengthens the impact of advocacy efforts but also contributes to the creation of a more inclusive and resilient democratic society in Bulgaria.

Contributing to a Stronger Democracy

The emergence and potential success of this Advocacy Academy in Bulgaria represents a significant step forward in the country’s democratic development, laying the groundwork for a more engaged and empowered citizenry. The Advocacy Academy has the potential to catalyze broader social and political change, leading to a more just and equitable society for all Bulgarians. By simultaneously equipping individuals from government institutions, business and civil society organisations with the skills and knowledge needed to advocate for change, the program will help inspire a new generation of leaders committed to building a better Europe and beyond.

“The Advocacy Academy is not just about creating advocates; it is about building the foundation for a stronger, more vibrant democracy,” says Dr. Margee Ensign, President of AUBG. “Through education, engagement, and empowerment, we are helping to shape a future where every voice is heard, and every action counts. We are thankful to CIPE for their generous support and to BESCO for their partnership”.