Sensibilist or Swivel Eyed? Weighing the arguments for greater radicalism in NGO advocacy

At what point does an advocacy NGO cease being ‘ahead of the curve’, ‘visionary’ etc (choose your own cliché) and instead become simply bonkers, a prophet ranting in a wilderness uninhabited by anyone with a smidgeon of decision-making power? This subject kept cropping up at an Oxfam internal discussion the other day. Unfortunately, I framed the discussion in terms of being ‘sensibilist’ v ‘swivel-eyed’ – it was distinctly odd hearing various colleagues arguing passionately that the organization should become more swivel-eyed (one participant had a powerful image of everyone at Oxfam looking like Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter (see pic). One speaker even seemed to be calling for

The Future of NGO advocacy?
The Future of NGO advocacy?

evidence-based swivel eyes…..

The reason, as usual, was climate change and the argument (see my blog on a recent presentation to the Quakers) that the world may have to accept some form of rationing of growth. The intellectual abyss between scientific and political reality seems to be widening – how should we react? The role of an NGO is of course not simply to reflect the mainstream, but to challenge it, based on our experience on the ground and (in the case of climate change) reading of the science.

There is a tension there – if you are 4 years ahead of the orthodoxy you can hope to influence it, if you are 40 years ahead, you are likely to be dismissed as a nutter. It’s as if some invisible thread of credibility snaps if you stretch it too far. Much of the distinctive identity of different NGOs come from where they position themselves on that spectrum.

But as one veteran of this debate also stressed, it’s not just about content. Tone matters too. The language we use needs to make sense to the people we are trying to influence. Yet in too many lobby meetings I have seen NGOs with perfectly reasonable messages alienate rather than convert decision makers. Ineffective advocates seem oblivious of the flesh-and-blood person sitting on the other side of the table, and merely see ‘the government’ or ‘the corporate’, duly haranguing them in a way that may be cathartic, but is largely pointless. I have serious doubts about the over-used phrase ‘speaking truth to power’, if power doesn’t actually take any notice.

Yet excessive caution is also a risk. Ten years ago, raising the issue of environmental limits on growth would have undoubtedly broken a major taboo and seen us dismissed as anti-developmental cranks (even though the rationing idea is about limiting growth in the rich countries, not the poor ones). But is that still true? The mainstream is constantly shifting, incorporating new ideas and narratives, so there is a danger for any ‘sensibilist’ NGO of waking up one morning and finding that you have been overtaken by events and outflanked by governments, commentators etc – Adair Turner supporting the Tobin Tax, Nicholas Stern talking about limits to growth, the Sustainable Development Commission stressing the widening gulf between well-being and growth. Those developments would imply that NGOs need to become more, rather than less, radical over the next few years, but the resurgence of the right (in European politics at least), may point in the other direction. Tricky business, triangulating between the way the world needs to be and how it currently is.

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6 Responses to “Sensibilist or Swivel Eyed? Weighing the arguments for greater radicalism in NGO advocacy”
  1. Good post Duncan.
    I think there is another problem about some of those who like to ‘speak truth to power’. They assume that what they have to say is 100% true and, therefore, tend to preach rather than persuade. For every far-sighted seer who is 40 years ahead there are 50 misguided prophets.
    And the advocates themsleves are rarely accountable in the same way as the politicians they harangue. So it is not surprising that those with power resent the lobbyists. Transparency and accountability is a two-way street.

  2. Greg Adams

    Thoughtful post, Duncan. I especially like the metaphor of the thread; it’s easy to know when you’ve pulled too far; harder to know when you haven’t pulled far enough.

  3. jo

    Interesting – given your recent post – that the idea of ‘speaking truth to power’ is one that originates with the Quakers,possibly as early as the 17th century, (although this is not supported by documentation)but at least as early as the 1950s, with ‘ordinary’ people daring to go directly to the powerful person or body with their message to attempt to communicate with, in Quaker terms ‘that of god’ in them. Which links nicely to your comment here about the importance of tone and actully communicating with those we seek to influence.

  4. VDiCarlo

    The “invisible thread of credibility” analogy was extremely helpful to this 20-something just beginning to make a way in the tangle of “aid” approaches. It elucidates a need for pragmatism in the non-profit field, which, unfortunately seems to just further entwine politics and humanitarianism. Not always a bad combo, but a shame when a lack of political savvy kills otherwise good ideas.

  5. BR

    I have been in meetings where I could see the government officials visibly glazing over as the tone from the NGO reps became more chastening. I think VDiCarlo’s point about savvy is right; the difference between pushing a point and making it astutely so that it is likely to be received is considerable.

    Having said that though I do think NGOs are in some respects uniquely powerful as drivers of issues into the public consciousness. Not everything gets listened to, of course, but when a campaign catches fire there can be serious results (ie. EITI). This makes it doubly important for advocates to do the requisite thinking through, which sadly is not always the case (see previous FPTP post on the Enough Project’s fast for Sudan on the last day of Eid).

  6. Sharon N

    Thank you for this insightful post. The NGO field has been hit particularly hard during the bleak economy, and much of this is attributed the reasons you have mentioned. In addition, it seems that many similarly-minded NGOs are vying for the same funds, so the specific mission that each NGO has has become particularly important. So, it seems that individuals are more skeptical of NGOs than they previously were, due to two major reasons–limited funds and competition among similarly-minded NGOs. By speaking to the “flesh and blood” behind the table, founders of NGOs need to be really specific about their goals. And, if they are unable to receive funds and are discredited for their attempts, perhaps they should meet with those “behind the table” to see where their goals and the goals of the funders differ, and try to find a way to bridge the gap?

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