There’s a lot of talk in the aid biz about ‘getting out of our siloes’ – the traditional division of labour between ‘long term development’, ‘humanitarian’ and ‘advocacy’. I’ve seen this most starkly in some classic campaigns like Make Poverty History or Make Trade Fair, which seemed to have very little connection to Oxfam’s work on the ground.
We want to change that by adopting a ‘one programme approach’ that abolishes the distinction between running projects and trying to change the broader system. One surprisingly effective way to overcome such divisions is to introduce a new word that doesn’t belong to any one camp – in our case it is ‘influencing’, which is now all over Oxfam’s organigrams and strategy documents like a rash. So I’ve been looking for examples where such joined-up influencing is actually happening, and come up with a bit of a typology of the situations in which it seems most likely to appear – feel free to pull it to pieces.
The Credibility of Boots on the Ground: It’s a lot easier to get the attention of senior officials or ministers if you have ‘skin in the game’ in the shape of programmes on the ground. In the Water and Sanitation programme in Tajikistan, our existing work on WASH gave us the credibility to ‘convene and broker’ a range of government departments, donors, private sector organizations and CSOs and come up with some really important institutional and legal innovations.
It can work the other way too – campaigns can open doors for programmes: In Vietnam I once, literally, got red carpet treatment from the government because they liked our report on the accession terms being demanded for its entry to the WTO. Our advocacy on global burden-sharing around the Syrian refugee crisis has led to high level access to the Jordanian royal family and opened up some space for our programmes.
Pilots and demonstration effects: Proving that what you are advocating for actually works on the ground can be a powerful way of convincing policy makers to take a look. In Vietnam, we involved the local government in a programme to introduce child-centred methodologies in areas where ethnic minority girls were dropping out of school. The results were so spectacular (and Vietnamese officials so open to evidence-based policy making) that we ended up helping to revise the national teacher training materials.
The link between programme and advocacy seems to be particularly obvious in humanitarian work. In Liberia 5 INGOs with major Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes helped set up an advocacy coalition with local NGOs to influence the country’s transition from emergency relief to long term development work. They used a combination of research, public campaigning and multi-stakeholder dialogues to drive WASH up the public agenda ahead of the 2011 presidential election – political parties revised their manifestos to sign up to the campaign, and President Sirleaf publicly committed her government to making WASH a top priority.
Capacity Building: In the DRC, we have worked with partners to set up and support ‘citizen protection committees’ to engage in advocacy with the local state and other armed actors.
As Erinch Sahan discussed yesterday, we’re also promoting a one programme approach in our livelihoods work. Supporting and strengthening producer organizations is often the first step to them advocating for better deals from government or the companies that buy their stuff (or supply them with inputs). In Sri Lanka, our local partners worked with 1,300 women in the coir (coconut fibre) industry to develop entrepreneurship skills, and then worked with them to influence private sector buyers, banks and the government to revitalize the coir industry and support small-scale women producers. The women’s incomes tripled.
Critical Junctures: Sometimes, you don’t know how all that long-term capacity building work is going to pay off until something happens. In Pakistan, when the government passed a new law on the Right to Education in 2010, years of investment in education, women’s leadership groups and other bodies created the footsoldiers for an impressive campaign on its implementation.
New threats: policy makers are particularly open to (even desperate for) answers when something new comes along. Take Ebola. The programming we have done around community engagement and active contact tracing influenced (albeit belatedly) the government of Liberia’s and international agencies’ approach to tackling the epidemic – an exclusive focus on medical treatment won’t work and it is critical to build trust with communities to change risky behaviour patterns and pro-actively find people who may have or be at risk of contracting the virus.
Or Climate Change. Words like ‘resilience’ span the siloes just as ‘influencing’ does. In Armenia some programming around climate change adaptation for women involved in fruit production (adapting to out of season frosts, hailstorms and more erratic rainfall) opened up the political space for Oxfam and its partners to advocate for rethinking national rural policy. The resulting economic and resilience policy could almost have been written by Oxfam.
There are plenty of other examples under all the usual NGO themes (livelihoods, humanitarian, essential services), but this gives you the general idea. But they are the good examples, the positive deviants – what’s stopping the rest of us from following suit? Conversations with a range of Oxfam colleagues point to some of the obstacles:
Organizational structures: people are still organized into and identify with their tribe within Oxfam – by function (humanitarian response, long term development, research, advocacy, MEL etc) or theme (health, education, WASH). Often the divisions are greater in HQ than in the field (where people have to multi-task more). The sub-tribes tend to have different aims, values and cultures (to caricature, advocates want to see changes in law, policy or spending decisions, while programme people want to see changes in people’s lives; humanitarian and livelihoods people like to do it themselves and see tangible, attributable results, whereas governance, essential services and campaigns are protesters wanting to shake up the whole system).
Financing: as long as funding for the 3 siloes is separate, it will be harder to join up
MEL: we need monitoring, evaluation and learning to include influencing as part of its design – what’s the best combination of process, brevity, accessibility and rigour for persuading decision makers?
Don’t we do this already? The examples here show that we sometimes are, but I would argue that many of them are in spite of Oxfam/the aid business, not because (often down to inspired project leaders, for example). How do we shift to actively encouraging this approach?