Soapbox Corner: NGOs are spending more time talking and less time doing. Excellent!

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Since their emergence from the post-World War era, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have played numerous roles in ‘development’, from emergency services, to ‘gap-fillers’ for the state, to democratising agents. Indeed NGOs have and continue to function in so many contexts and at so many levels that generalisation is highly problematic. Nevertheless, some trends can be identified in terms of their changing strategies for development.

Most NGOs were founded on a commitment to bring about social reform. Indeed NGOs are strongly associated with the idea of ‘alternative development’ that in effect acts as a challenge to the existing development orthodoxy of the powerful. Therefore NGOs’ attempts to engage with policy makers, and to advocate on the global stage, clearly have as long a history as their development activities in the field. Nevertheless advocacy or ‘talking’ activities have historically been marginal to NGOs’ developmental efforts and certainly subordinate to such field activities as service provision- the ‘doing’ activities.

However, over the years NGOs have evolved different ways of working that have reflected shifts in development thinking and the changing global context. A clear trend from localised humanitarian relief and community level projects to an engagement with more national and global causes and effects of poverty can be perceived. In more recent years, dating particularly from the NGO ‘boom’ of the 1980s, this trend towards global level strategies has been ever-more marked. Within this period ever-increasing attention has irrefutably been paid to the role and use of advocacy- instinctively global in its outlook- in poverty reduction. Evidence for such a shift can be found in the huge proliferation of public-facing campaigns, for example, Plan International’s Because I am a Girl campaign. In fact global campaigns comprising of NGO coalitions, such as the Make Trade Fair and Jubilee 2000 campaigns, have also steadily increased in number and strength alongside more private lobbying and research efforts. Moreover, most UK NGOs have significantly increased spending on advocacy since the early 1990s.

The interrelated reasons for this growth in ‘talking’ spring from both inside and outside the development sector. They include: the impact of globalisation; changes in development thinking; and the rise of Southern NGOs.

More talking, more impact

Determining the impact of (the rise of) NGO advocacy or field activities on development is notoriously problematic. However, broadly one can say that the increase in advocacy represents a positive shift since it is only in the direct challenging of structural barriers to development- precisely as advocacy allows you to do- that any long-term and sustainable progress can be made.

Advocacy is generally perceived to be the fast stream of change representing a form of scaling up that is multiplicative and thus potentially having a greater impact on development. The rationale for this sentiment is twofold. Firstly, establishing a general climate of international cooperation- through public campaigning, private lobbying and development education- will mean that the need to secure aid will be less controlling, leaving NGOs able to concentrate on development issues proper. Secondly, without challenging the global structures that maintain poverty and inequality, NGO’s ‘doing’ efforts will continue to be undermined by wider issues beyond their control. Indeed for any real impact on development to be made, it is necessary to ‘fix’ structures rather than to continually deal with their effects. This idea was clearly (and controversially) recognised by Julius Nyrere, years ago, when he requested that British NGOs “take each and every penny that you have planned for Tanzania and spend it in the United Kingdom explaining to your co-citizens the nature and causes of poverty”.

Certainly a large number and diversity of successes have already been achieved through advocacy activities. For example specific policies have been introduced such as the production of a code of conduct for the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, the drafting of an international essential drugs list and the banning of landmines.

More significantly, wider approaches and attitudes of global actors have arguably been influenced. For example, environmental concerns have been mainstreamed on the international agenda, corporate social responsibility has been introduced, and the language of ‘participation’ has been adopted by the World Bank. Thus some have argued that the value of reforms brought about through advocacy is much greater than NGOs’ entire financial contributions. Moreover, as advocacy efforts have become more sophisticated, politicised and targeted, ever greater achievements are being made.

In all cases, in order to foster positive outcomes (only), NGO advocacy work must be accountable and legitimate. The best way to ensure accountability and legitimacy is through the proper gathering and mobilisation of multiple forms of evidence and knowledge. Indeed it is vital that all advocacy work is grounded in real experience and evidence.

And more strategic talking would be even better…

However, NGO advocacy activities still present relatively few challenges to the global system; thus the level of real impact of advocacy on development is debated. Whilst specific policies, projects and language may have been changed, the ideologies of the powerful institutions, on which all else depends, have not. Indeed it has been suggested that ‘talking’ has only met real success on the level of specific policies and where no real challenges have been faced.

This state of play is not surprising since, by definition, NGOs are peripheral to the system that they are trying to change. However, this outcome derives as much from inadequate NGO efforts in this area to date as from their position within the system. Beyond the failure to adapt organisational structures and to invest in improving NGO capacities in this area, NGOs have particularly failed in development education. Firstly, delivering the wrong message has gradually alienated public support for development and secondly, not enough effort has been put into this work within their own constituencies. In the long-term this flaw may prevent NGOs from being able to focus increased efforts on advocacy, due to a lack of support and funding for this less visible form of work. Thus it could continue to restrict the real potential of advocacy on development.

In moving forward, NGOs need to fundamentally invest further in their new strategy towards greater advocacy; this will require extensive organisational restructuring and increased commitment to evidence and knowledge management and mobilisation. Ultimately it will require more strategic communications work across the whole sector and undoubtedly the mainstreaming of evidence-based decision-making and policies.

To conclude, the growth in ‘talking’ has already had a positive impact but holds potential for considerably more. More time and resources now need to be invested in developing NGO capacities in this area so that advocacy activities have a deeper impact in the future. In doing so, and to help safeguard against a negative impact, it is vital that NGOs link their local and global agendas, grounding their advocacy in real experience, in turn ensuring that this work is legitimate and accountable.

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