How can you do influencing work in one party states?

Fascinating conversation during a recent visit to East Africa about how we work in Rwanda and Ethiopia, both arguably effective but authoritarian states, with little time for ‘people on the streets’- style campaigning. Does that mean it is impossible to influence the state’s authoritarian statepolicies and practices? Definitely not, but you need to do things differently, in terms of how you think, your model of change etc. The discussion echoes similar ones with our staff in Russia and Vietnam. So here are some off-top-of-head thoughts about NGOs working in (for want of a better word) one-party systems.

1. One party states can be more open to robust evidence than multi-party ones. Disturbing, I know, but these governments often appear more interested in hard evidence than their more democratic counterparts. Petitions and emails won’t do it – you need data, though individual impact stories can work quite well too. Let’s not get too starry-eyed though, there will be areas that are off limits, and you need to know what they are.

2. Research will have more influence if it is done by an organization the government trusts – such as the parastatal Academies of Social Science in Vietnam and China and major Moscow-based universities. In any system, the messenger matters as well as the message, but these governments seem to specifically use such parastatals as channels to gather new knowledge.  Such research institutions are also often hungry for connections with external agencies so you’re pushing at an open door.

3. Your political economy analysis had better be good: understanding how decisions are taken in Addis or Moscow is absolutely critical. Personalities, relationships (both personal and professional), the histories, cultures and incentive systems of different leaders or ministries. Until you have a confident grasp of these, your influencing is highly likely to go wrong (always with the risk of backlash).

4. The importance of symbolism, pride and sovereignty. Traditional NGO name-and-shame tactics are as likely to lead to a counter-productive backlash as a breakthrough.  Instead, offer things that work. Find the Achilles’ heel that the government recognizes as a weak spot and focus on that. They can be surprisingly grateful for suggestions.

5. Alliances with non-state actors: in terms of citizens, most authoritarian regimes are keenly aware of issues of legitimacy, if not of direct accountability, and acts of citizenship are far from absent even when elections are either not held, or perfunctory. Building alliances with other actors (academics, churches, private sector) is just as important as in more open state systems.

6. Online campaigning and coalition work often offers more space for activism than marching on the streets. Cultivate an avatar with a particular niche, or enjoy safety in numbers working as part of a group that is harder to divide and conquer online. The use of anonymous websites, facebook groups and twitter accounts for example can be effective in creating public concern beyond the immediate community being affected. These tools can help raise awareness and motivation for people to act on the ground.

7. Persistence matters. You need a slow, steady, drip drip drip of information, invitations to roundtables, offers of secondments for mid-level officials who are the doers and internal influencers of their bosses, but not the deciders. 

8. Play to your advantages – use an international front person when talking with international organisations re the policies of the state in question. Go local when dealing with ministries – you will get further if you avoid antagonising national sensitivities.

Feel free to add your own thoughts

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8 Responses to “How can you do influencing work in one party states?”
  1. Nice one, again, Duncan.

    For me the the most critical point you mentioned was ‘understanding (or lack thereof) of socio-political’ realities. Very often, the viewpoints of governments and NGOs are very different as are their constituents. Not understanding this can lead to unfructuous advocacy or indeed a backlash.

    Just a small comment on point 8 – going local. Some times just ‘local’ is not good enough; even the ‘choice’ of the local makes a huge difference. My experience in Afghanistan indicated that foreigners talking to local government yielded better results. This was very strange to me coming from India where the opposite was true. On exploring further I was told by Afghan colleagues that when a local speaks about policy or governance, the words and intent is often tainted (or taken to be so) with ethnicity. That made any serious advocacy by locals difficult. Ergo – foreigners.

    Would like to hear your thoughts on advocating in failed states – where not only issues but even the target of advocacy shifts with time and there are conflicting interests at play.

  2. Mtega

    Interesting ideas. But you seem to implicitly assume that influencing work in such contexts should be limited to technical policy changes and that more radical changes to governance and accountability systems are off-limits.

    Don’t rights matter more in such contexts rather than less? Isn’t that what “From Poverty to Power” is all about?

    Or have I misunderstood?

  3. James Ian MacKay

    I’m with Mtega on this. Accepting the status quo raises some crucial ethical issues for western donors and aid community who are long on pro-democracy rhetoric but often short on action. You quoted Sam Hickey some time back on your blog, who made the incisive observation that ‘ at what point do we deem governance that is ‘ ‘just-about good enough’ to be short-changing their citizens?’. It is a powerful observation. For me, the main issue is whether these one-party states are sustainable over the long-run, or whether they are simply storing up major social and civil problems which will explode in the future. Governments that work like this deliberately adopt divide-and-rule policies (e.g. keeping ethnic or religious tensions at burning point), so as to make their own position stronger. If they loose power, chaos results, and all the developmental gains are undone. They know this, we know this, and so we accept the status quo. But is it the right way to approach this? And is it just for the citizens in these countries? There are no easy answers to these questions, certainly, but surely North Africa has alerted us to the dangers of engaging with technocratically pro-developmental regimes which are actually starkly authoritarian. Seen from the perspective of Tunisian or Egyptian citizens and I guess we don’t come off looking too good. Let’s hope we don’t make the same mistakes south of the Sahara.

  4. Interesting points Mtega and James. Perfectly valid but I have a slightly different take on this one. For the record, I too believe that good governance and accountability is the foundation for all development. After all the Industrial Revolution did kick off in the UK after the authoritarian rule by the monarchy was curbed by the parliament leading to an environment where businesses were not hostage to whims and fancies of the monarch.. anyway…

    In single party, authoritarian systems of the present, there are limitations to the actions that NGOs can legitimately take. These limitations come from permissions to operate (scope normally limited), laws of the land (however unjust you may think they are and the very real issue of fear in the minds of the local staff (an expatriate can only (hopefully) be expelled – the local worker risks much more).

    Given these limitations there are some actions that NGOs would find it difficult, if not impossible to do – working with citizens on governance and accountability in any manner that can be perceived as hostile can be a strict no no. If one persists the option that you may be left with is – work for alleviating poverty within the limitations or get on your high horse and leave (incidentally also leaving the poor to their own devices). You will both admit that it is a difficult choice to make as there are perfectly moral issues on both sides.

    Which is why, as the blog proposes, you work on technical policy changes… because, at least you have a chance to influence from within.

    Lastly, from a purely personal and emotional point, I don’t think that any ‘external’ actor, NGO or government, has the mandate to change governance of a country.. Once again a contentious issue and don’t want to go into that now..

  5. Clare Coffey

    Perhaps one idea to add to the list: exploit pockets of pluralism where they exist. I recently returned from Cameroon where there is only one party in town as concerns central government. But in some areas, there was politics at the local level. This can be exploited and built upon by NGOs, with benefits potentially reaching far beyond the area concerned.

  6. Alex

    “I don’t think that any ‘external’ actor, NGO or government, has the mandate to change governance of a country” – Agreed.

    “For me, the main issue is whether these one-party states are sustainable over the long-run, or whether they are simply storing up major social and civil problems which will explode in the future.” – what makes you think you know better than the govt itself?

  7. silver

    point6, the online campaign, im not sure this would work, if you say generally as a strategy for one party state. they usually have strict sensorship on their internet, so it looks like that’s more accessable for NGO to do online campaign, compared to protesting on street. but the fact might be not.

  8. I’m confused as to why any of your suggestions are any different to the approaches that NGOs take in two-party or multiparty states. The implication is that the counterfactual is true in multi-party states (they like it when you mischaracterize their politics and use name and shame tactics!).

    Not that they’re a bad guideline! I’d just say that this is something that NGOs should consider regardless of where they’re working. Although, if you have any suggestions as to why (and in which places) their approach should be different for multi-party states, I’d sure love to hear it.

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