HRH Policy Advocacy Leaders in Action Interview: Marshall Stowell


An interview series with HRH champions in developing countries produced by the HRH Global Resource Center. This part of the series focuses on HRH leaders in policy advocacy.

Marshall Stowell
Marshall Stowell

Marshall Stowell is the Director of Corporate Marketing, Communications and Advocacy for PSI, a global non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health of people in developing countries. Stowell oversees media relations, digital and print communications, advocacy and government relations in the U.S., as well as the upcoming expansion of local advocacy and policy efforts in PSI's field programs.

What is policy advocacy work?

It is working strategically and collaboratively to achieve the support and commitment from policymakers to create laws and regulations that will help reduce the global burden of disease. It requires groups from grasstops to grassroots, from policymakers down to individuals and thought-leaders. Much of it is informational, such as educating members of Congress and their staff on the importance of global health. It includes working in coalition with organizational partners, working on letters and communications to educate members of Congress, agency officials, and other relevant stakeholders on the benefit and need of continued support and funding, and having dialogue around the issues that are important to the people that we serve on the ground.

Is policy advocacy work primarily done in Washington?

I think it is done in a lot of ways. There are groups like One, for example, that do a terrific job of grassroots advocacy. When they organize hundreds of thousands of people to send notes to members of Congress and the administration about matters that are important to them, the people in those positions listen to their constituents, so policy advocacy could be done from D.C. to Des Moines. When we have people visiting from the field who have been affected by the health issues that we address, we try to bring them to the Hill so that they can speak with congressional offices about their daily life, their experiences, the impact their work is making to reduce the global burden of disease in their country, and how the support from the U.S. government has provided the opportunity to achieve significant results for the populations we serve, and what that means to them.

How is policy advocacy work enacted? Is it primarily through legislation?

It is done through addressing and ensuring the continuation of or changing existing policies, and through new or reintroduced legislation that affects the outcome of the programs that affect the populations we serve. We do not advocate for PSI; we advocate for the health of the people we serve. For us, this is best done in collaboration with other organizations that are addressing similar issues to make sure that Congress is passing laws that are favorable to the needs of the people. I think that as government leaders and as taxpayers, people want to know that groups like PSI and others are working together to solve problems.

What are challenges to policy advocacy work?

One of the challenges is when organizations do not work collaboratively and the messages become mixed or muddled. When people are not speaking in unison, then groups are not making it easy for lawmakers to understand the relevance to them and their constituents or the health impact that is being delivered. Just staying on top of a lot of information is another challenge. Changes in [policymakers’] policy positions and committee assignments means there is a lot of work that goes into tracking new members, their committees, and the issues that interest them.

You have mentioned the idea of the average American citizen telling his or her representative that global health is an important issue. How do you get them involved in your policy advocacy work?

We do this type of work as part of a collaborative. For instance, we partner with the United Nations Foundation's "Nothing but Nets" campaign, which is more of a consumer-facing campaign that is geared for an everyday American to get behind malaria and to fundraise for mosquito nets. As part of this partnership, we took a bipartisan Congressional staff delegation and a celebrity ambassador, Mandy Moore, to Cameroon last year. A nationwide distribution of insecticide-treated nets is a complex thing, so it was a chance for Mandy and the Congressional staff to really understand what was happening. When we came back, we worked with “Nothing but Nets” to send messages out about the importance of what was happening in Cameroon, about what grassroots advocates could do from fundraising to communicating with their state representatives about this type of work.

Are the people on the ground able to communicate to you changes that they feel are needed through policy, or is it primarily through the data that you gather?

It might come directly from our field offices who are working on the ground every day but also through data, and through coalitions discussing issues of common interest. Things become very clear as you begin to discuss them and look at the root causes of problems, and that is when policies can really help address problems. When you address something like child marriage in a country, all of a sudden, a lot of the health burden and health issues that face girls are less severe than they were before because a girl can stay in school, and she is not getting pregnant at an age before her body can handle it.

Has there been a refocus in policy advocacy work over the past few years with the changing economic situation, and have you had to change your focus to justify why foreign assistance needs to continue?

I think the messaging changes; the focus does not. The messaging has to be reflective of the reality. At the end of last year, you would be remiss to not have understood that cuts were going to be made given the economic situation, so asking for an increase in foreign aid would not have been the smartest move. Other factors that influence the messaging might be the Millennium Development Goals, situations where the international community may latch onto a health area or an intervention like safe drinking water, or if advances happen in HIV. Those things would affect the messaging and the education that we would provide. For instance, one thing that was important for PSI to inform lawmakers about was the positive benefits of voluntary medical male circumcision in reducing HIV. There is a 60% likely reduction in heterosexual transmission through this intervention, so it was important for us to communicate the success and the meaning of this to lawmakers and to the media.

How do you see the future of policy advocacy work?

I see the future involving more and more social media and the power to activate a base [of people]. Look at the Arab Spring and what happened through social media. For groups that are interested in advocacy, being able to activate a base organically and allow people to participate will become increasingly important. When you give someone a voice, they feel empowered when what they are saying is being heard and acted upon, and social media certainly provides that opportunity for people.

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