One of the lectures I most enjoy giving is to the LSE course on Economic Diplomacy, (part of its International Political Economy MSc), where most years I trot along and ramble on for half an hour about International NGOs (INGOs) and advocacy. The questions and discussion that follow are invariably fascinating (for me anyway). The course has now been turned into a book, The New Economic Diplomacy, with chapters from negotiators and academics on the theory and practice of economic negotiation. If you’re involved in advocacy, it’s well worth taking a look. Here’s some excerpts from my chapter, co-authored with Phil Bloomer, which used Oxfam’s climate change campaign as a case study.
There are a number of doubts and ‘challenges’ (as problems are now known) about the evolution of INGO advocacy work. The shift to a more variable geometry of campaigning, combining shifting combinations of national, regional and global advocacy, is a proper response both to the increasingly multipolar distribution of power, and the recognition that national decisions continue to dominate many development issues (the importance of global processes has sometimes been exaggerated in the past).
But it also creates some real tensions: global campaigns move rapidly from one event or policy target to another. In contrast, national campaigns often move to a slower rhythm, spending years painstakingly building alliances between dissimilar groups. Such tensions were epitomised by the 2005 ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign, which declared victory and closed down after some significant achievements on aid and debt relief at the Gleneagles summit in 2005, even though the anti-poverty coalitions it had worked with in many developing countries saw their jobs as very far from over.
Most effective INGO campaigning either involves asking for more money (aid, debt relief, climate finance), or is focussed on ‘stopping bad stuff happening’ (e.g. premature trade liberalization via the WTO). Often, it follows a basic campaign recipe of clearly defined ‘problem, solution and villain’. Positive, propositional campaigning is much harder – alliances easily fragment over what level of reform is sufficient; political and ideological differences surface over what kind of world the INGO seeks. Nowhere is this starker than on climate change, where huge differences persist on the kind of ecological, economic and political models required to avoid catastrophe.
Despite the recognition of the reality of multipolarity, the 1970s division of the world into rich ‘North’ and poor ‘South’ remains deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of many INGO staff, as well as in the rhetoric of developing country governments. This makes it particularly difficult for INGOs to speak out over conflicts between developing countries, where disparities of power and influence can lead to deeply lop-sided agreements on a range of issues. In the case of climate change, Oxfam struggled with divisions within the G77 umbrella group of developing countries, a problem that will only grow greater as the emissions of emerging countries such as China grow, along with the damage to the most vulnerable countries.
A similar tension occurs on naming key southern governments that are failing their poor people. INGOs like Oxfam are adept at criticising rich-country governments for their failings on climate, aid, trade, debt, but often shy away from criticism of other governments’ appalling record on poverty reduction or climate adaptation. This is partly because of issues of legitimacy, partly due to sensitivities around not occupying the space of national allies and partners, but also partly because of concern about the future of Oxfam’s country programmes, which rely on government acceptance. Nevertheless, this can lead to INGOs not being effective in challenging the greatest blockers to poverty reduction at a national level.
A further consequence of multipolarity is that INGO tactics that have evolved to influence largely open, accountable governments may be of little value when targeting more closed systems, especially those in countries where space for civil society is limited. How to influence Chinese policy in Africa, or Gulf countries that fund land grabs in Africa?
INGO campaigns continue to privilege the economic and the technocratic, over the political. Insufficient attention is given to power analysis, with many campaigns instead exhibiting ‘if I ruled the world’ advocacy, divorced from real world distribution of power, and decision-making processes. There are institutional reasons for this – an overly political stance carries high risks for many INGOs, whether legal, financial and physical, as well as the more subtle reputational risk of losing the ear of decision makers.
Linked to this focus on the economic and the technocratic is a weak understanding of models of change. Pushed partly by the world of fund-raising and programming, large INGOs inhabit a ‘planners’ world’ of 5 year strategic plans and continuous and predictable change. The larger the INGO, the more Byzantine the processes for adapting and changing those plans. This can lead to a degree of inertia that makes it hard to react to opportunities for influence, such as events, shocks, changes of government etc. A good example of this was the lack of agility many organisations, including Oxfam, showed in moving fast to link the global financial crisis with the need to promote a transition to a low carbon economy, the so-called ‘Green New Deal’. There were a small number of fleet-of-foot organisations that were capable of making this rapid shift. But for many larger organisations, it took too long to turn the super-tanker around.
Of course, agility is now facilitated greatly by digital communications technologies. These offer both opportunities and challenges to large INGOs. Viral campaigning and communications offer massive potential for citizens’ empowerment and participation, but compared to the past, these are much more on citizens’ terms than Oxfam’s. This demands that INGOs like Oxfam reduce control of their campaign messaging and let their constituencies play with and adapt the campaign to suit themselves and their on-line communities. This implies a profound shift in its campaigning approach, away from one of ‘pushing’ campaign messages out to supporters, and ‘giving’ them campaign actions to take; towards ‘facilitating’ supporters to campaign in their on-line networks and for them to design how they want to go about it.
Where is the world of INGOs headed? The growing obsolescence of the North-South frame will only deepen. INGOs must adjust if they are to be capable of persuading the G20, rather than the G8, of their cause.
The sustained rise of citizens’ power and digital communications means that INGOs must work in effective networks and coalitions across countries and regions, supporting national voices that relate to their campaigns. The rise of continental organisations like the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) and other international networks of like-minded NGOs, along with agile, global, digital organisations like Avaaz challenge the financial and political dominance of their large northern colleagues.
With growing maturity, recognition, and influence will come greater demands for public scrutiny. INGOs that get involved in campaigning need to ensure they are transparent and accountable, something that is only fitfully occurring at the moment in many organizations.
Finally, the recessions in many of the richest countries mean that INGO income is down or flat, either through less generous public donations, or through cuts in government funding. For INGOs that became dependent on the latter, the implications can be severe, though perhaps healthy in the long term. Either way, fiscal austerity will restrain the expansion of INGOs, and perhaps the civil societies of the BRICs and similar will grow to take some of that space. In the long term, that is surely inevitable anyway.
But overall, INGOs and other non-government actors will continue to complicate and complement (though seldom compliment!) the work of diplomats and decision makers, who will need to invest in both understanding them and learning how to work together for common goals.