Advocacy practices for development of early childhood policies in Bulgaria, 2022 – 2024

In this article, Trendafil Meretev, Projects and Advocacy Manager at For Our Children Foundation, the Bulgarian national co-coordinator of the First Years, First Priority (FYFP) campaign, presents their experiences and lessons learned in early childhood development (ECD) advocacy between 2022 and 2024.

Setting the scene

In recent years, the situation in Bulgaria has been characterised by political instability, which has also affected the functioning of institutions. It has been difficult to make long-term policy decisions, which is a barrier to consistency and sustainability. We have gone through a series of national parliament elections with a succession of interim governments and short-lived elected parliaments. Additionally, new political parties have appeared in this period and have taken an active place in political life­ — especially “Continue the Change” and “There is such a nation/people”, which are currently represented in the parliament. In June 2024, the next parliamentary elections will take place. Doing advocacy in such an uncertain political environment is a difficult task and requires specific approaches and efforts.

What we did

1) Dialogue with political parties that share our values

We leveraged the emergence of the new party “Continue the Change” and in 2022 participated in their poll to explain the important role of civil society organisations in the policy-making process — how much expertise they have, how they are undervalued, and how they can be useful. We then invited them to a meeting where we notified and encouraged other representatives of the civil sector to get involved. This was followed by a series of meetings discussing child and family policies and the idea of ​​an early childhood development strategy was re-initiated — a process that had been started and stopped by previous leaders for purely political reasons.

Lessons learnt:

  • It is important to use all opportunities to highlight the expertise and knowledge of civil society organisations.
  • Union makes strength. Two or more organisations are stronger and more influential than one; change requires a coalition culture and a willingness to cooperate. In Bulgaria, the FYFP campaign has not been implemented in isolation from other advocacy events. On the contrary, we have tried to combine it with other initiatives related to the topic and in partnership with other organisations, networks, and stakeholders.

2) Active representation in working groups and policy-making processes for children at the national level

Thanks to long-term efforts and requests for participation in policymaking, representatives of civil organisations and networks were able to get involved and be well represented in all national working groups for children and family policies. This includes the European Child Guarantee, Strategy for the Child, early childhood development strategy, early childhood intervention, and foster care. In these working groups, experts from the civil sector led in the development of the structure, analysis and content of the national documents. We must emphasise again the coalition nature of the work. All interested parties were involved, such as NGOs, agencies, educational institutions, UNICEF, civil networks, representatives of the World Bank, municipalities, and experts from the state administration.

Lessons learnt:

  • Participation in national working groups is a very good opportunity to defend and justify causes, opinions, proposals, and ideas.

3) Identifying and working directly with experts (our advocacy champions) from institutions and political entities

Over the years, several representatives of the public authorities (parliament, ministries, agencies) stood out who have supported our requests and proposals and with whom we have worked very closely. We keep them informed, invite them to events, participate in events organised by them, express opinions and positions, and rely on them as a bridge to other important connections.

Lesson learnt:

  • Having support from inside key public institutions is a successful approach and great influencing mechanism.

Significant results achieved:

  1. Development and approval of a plan for ECD for 2024 by the Council of Ministries.
  2. Continuation of the working group for the development of a strategic document for ECD, with the idea of ​​having a new strategy to the end of 2024.
  3. The inclusion of early childhood intervention in the strategic documents is a guarantee that serious attention is being paid to this topic at the national level, giving hope that children who need support from an early age will receive a more equal chance for development and realisation.
  4. We have won the trust of stakeholders involved in the decision-making process, which is an important prerequisite for the success of our advocacy actions. More and more representatives of parliament are talking about early childhood and the need for national policy and institutional entities to coordinate the process.
  5. We have noticed increased attention from stakeholders to the topic of early childhood development.