How has Oxfam’s approach to Influencing evolved over the last 75 years? New paper

January 23, 2019 4 By Duncan Green

Oxfam ‘Greek Week’, 1943

Oxfam has just published a reflection on how its approach to ‘influencing’ has evolved since its foundation in 1942. Written by Ruth Mayne, Chris Stalker, Andrew Wells-Dang and Rodrigo Barahona, it’s stuffed full of enlightening case studies and should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand how INGOs developed their current interest in advocacy, lobbying, campaigns etc. Some extracts from the exec sum:

‘The paper defines influencing as ‘systematic efforts to change power relationships; attitudes, social norms and behaviours; the formulation and implementation of official policies, laws and regulations; budgets; and company policies and practices in ways that promote more just and sustainable societies without poverty’.

Influencing has been part of Oxfam’s change model from its foundation in 1942. But, as Table 1 illustrates, its approach to influencing has evolved over time.

Future Directions

INGOs are facing a series of challenges that have been described as an existential threat. Externally these include shifting global power relations, the fragmentation of civil society groups around myriad single issues and changing funding landscapes. Internally their integrity as change agents is challenged by institutional demands such as growth, funders’ priorities, brand visibility, and reporting. They are also criticised for being cumbersome, slow, and – like most large institutions – unable to ‘white-water raft’ through turbulent times. There are currently three main proposals for how INGOs might respond to such challenges:

  • Stay big and grow as the only way to remain relevant, and provide a counterbalance to the powerful vested interests of market concentration by big business, and to global elites;
  • Become more agile by downsizing, going local and supporting spin-offs in order to support partners and develop, test and spread local solutions;
  • Act as a hub to facilitate global networks that build power from below and link local, national, regional and global efforts as part of a global movement for change – an approach currently being pursued by much of the Oxfam confederation.

Size, agility and networks all matter greatly to organizations’ futures. But care is also needed not to inadvertently jettison INGOs’ established strengths. For example, Oxfam’s history of tackling the structural causes of poverty has generated a set of influencing competences that are as important as ever. These include: its global reach and relationships; its ability to catalyze international solidarity; its holistic multi-level and multi-pronged influencing capacities and strategies; and its ability to make visible the human impacts of macro policies, among others.

Davos Week 2019

Such competences remain essential, but the rise of chauvinism and authoritarian populism also highlights the urgent need for new approaches and strategies. INGOs could help build a powerful constituency for change in both the South and North, while still being consistent with their missions, if they could:

  • Coalesce around a positive shared vision and narrative aimed at creating a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable world. This will require much closer and longer term collaboration with and between both domestic and international movements and with development, human rights, labour, single issue, identity and environment groups, than has been seen so far.
  • Jointly prioritize and assign a proportion of institutional resources to collectively address with allies the key structural causes of current system challenges – such as power and gender imbalances, corporate (lack of) regulation, or the capture of governments by elites. This will require greater use of multi-level, multi-pronged influencing strategies to tackle visible, invisible and hidden power;
  • Broaden communications and public engagement strategies to engage a much wider section of society, rather than mainly focussing on existing active supporters. This would mean complementing the traditional focus on the poorest and most vulnerable, with strategies that address the anxieties and wants of wider sections of society affected by precarious employment, stagnant wages, the withdrawal of essential services and environmental destruction, South and North;
  • Balance critiques with increased effort and investment to identify, model, promote and communicate solutions that can benefit wider sections of society. I/NGOs will need to stand ready to hook solutions to windows of opportunities as they emerge;
  • Increase efforts to cultivate long-term active citizenship and organizations in the North as well as the South, rather than simply mobilizing people to support pre-defined branded campaigns. Doing so effectively will need a combination of new creative online and offline (face-to-face) participatory methods and support for training and mentoring;
  • Increase understanding of, and support for, grass roots associations, women’s rights organizations and social movements (while taking care not to impose agendas or inadvertently co-opt them);
  • Spend more time directly and actively listening to, learning from and finding common ground and shared solutions with a more diverse range of individuals and organizations;
  • Continue to strengthen the legitimacy, accountability and the internal cultures and practices of NGOs and CSOs, as important goals in their own right, and also to ensure the social mandate to operate. The stakes could not be higher. If I/NGOs can learn from past success and failure to strengthen their influencing strategies, they can help to channel the current wave of public disenchantment towards humane, just and sustainable solutions; if they don’t, others will inevitably do so in more regressive and chauvinist directions.’