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Why should NGOs attempt to influence development policies through campaigns, advocacy and other means? What constraints and what challenges do they face in undertaking such work?
This paper is trying to identify some of the reasons that ask for NGOs’ engagement in influencing policy-makers’ agenda.
The paper is organized in three chapters. In the first chapter I discuss why should NGOs attempt to influence development policies; in the second chapter are identified some of the constraints and challenges that are faced by NGOs in their advocacy and campaigning work. The last part of the paper contains conclusions to the topic discussed.
The need for advocacy arises from social needs.
There are many reasons that justify NGOs attempts to influence policy-makers’ agenda.
First reason is related to the fundamental civil right, generally accepted in all democratic regimes; and this is the right to freedom of expression. Through advocacy and campaigning people make use of their right to freedom, by associating, by expressing their needs, by making to be heard their ideas and opinions, especially in the social public policy areas.
Advocacy – part of a larger agenda
Evans (1996) states that voluntary organisations were traditionally involved in both providing services and campaigning on behalf of their beneficiaries. The basic services provided by NGOs’ activities regard health and education, food and housing providing, heading for helping the poor and the social excluded ones, responding to day-to-day problems.
But an NGO has more functions than service providing, according to a large number of authors.
“The mission of the voluntary agency to articulate the interests of neglected minority groups and populations at risk may take on greater significance as the social services … overshadowing the service-provision functions of voluntary agencies” (Kramer, 1081, p. 231).
Najam (1999) as well specifies four types of roles for NGOs work: service delivery, advocacy, innovation and monitoring (quoted in Lewis, 2000, p.109).
What difference can advocacy make?
Some authors consider that advocacy is more important than any other function of a NGO. It is the case of O’Connell (quoted in Kramer, 1981, p.212), that considers advocacy to be “the quintessential function of the voluntary sector”. In the same spirit, Sherry considers that voluntary associations should “continually shape and reshape the vision of a more just social order, to propose programs which might lead to manifestation of that vision, to argue with them with others in the public arena, and to press for adoption and implementation. For voluntary associations to do less than that is to abdicate their civic responsibility” (Sherry, quoted in Kramer, 1981, p. 212).
Bates and Pithkeathley (1996) believe that “campaigning is an absolutely vital part of the work of the charity sector … Dedicated and passionate people saw a social injustice, often from their own experience, and set about doing more than just alleviating the problem by opening a school or feeding the poor. They turned a private trouble into a public issue to bring about changes in the law and in public opinion” (Bates and Pithkeathley, 1996, p. 92)
Campaigning and advocacy are instruments of the participation in social development, concept that, according to Oakley et al (1998), puts in the central spot people and “their right to be involved in development decisions and actions which might affect their livelihoods” (Oakley et al, 1998, p. 15).
The importance of advocacy and campaigning is emphasized by Kramer (1981) when he nominates the groups that make public policy in England, among them being “pressure groups”, which are closely connected to executive civil servants. The fact that “the government clearly accepts the role of voluntary organizations as advocates for particular constituencies” (Kramer, 1981, p. 49) show that pluralistic aspect of policy making requests the participation of NGOs by advocacy and campaigning.
In USA “lobbying by pressure groups is expected, and it is out of the interaction between them, the bureaucracy, and the legislature that laws are fashioned” (Kramer, 1981, p. 71).
The basic definition for advocacy, which is a “device to influence the balance of the needs/rights of the group in the favor of the needs/rights of individuals, especially those on the social margins” (Brandon quoted in Bateman, 2000, p. 17), expresses the main philosophical problem that advocacy deals with: human rights.
NGOs should attempt to influence development policies because in this way they bring their contribution to social integration, and democratic pluralism. NGOs can contribute on improving people’s lives by advocating for the particular needs of cultural or social minorities. By advocacy and campaigning work NGOs undertake an active citizenship role, transforming communities from passive consumers of public services and public policies into active citizens who are able to evaluate, to judge, to compare to their real needs and, finally, to decide if they accept or not the status and level of the services and policies intended to them.
Constraints of advocacy work
According to Kramer (1981), advocacy work is directed towards: influencing legislation or regulation, improvement of governmental service programs, securing governmental funds and securing benefits for clientele. The difficulties met in following up these results constitute the constraints of the advocacy work.
When NGOs commit themselves to advocacy, they place themselves in an intermediate position, with the community they emerged from on one side, and administrative and political power holders, on the other side. The power holders can be the State as well as the large corporations.
Because of this middle position, the communication is extremely important for advocacy work. In order to be effective in their advocacy, NGOs need to handle good quality message. The quality of communication is one of the constraints that affect advocacy results.
Bates and Pitkeathley (1996) consider that the message transmitted should be clear, without being simplistic. The specificity of the message helps on understanding and focusing on the advocated issues.
The relation to mass-media becomes extremely important, with large consequences on results of campaigns. In USA press releases and appearances on TV or radio are part of the every-day campaigning process.
“As can be seen in many situations, journalists have not only the power to ask questions but to demand answers. Using media more consistently needs to be a political strategy” (Reading, 1994, p. 91).
Trying to identify in literature what other constraints affect advocacy, I found out that many of what is “traditionally” perceived as constraints for advocacy, in fact proved not to be universally true.
It is the case of the beliefs noted by Kramer (1981): “advocacy is believed to be constraint by bureaucratization, professionalization, a federated structure, or service delivery” (Kramer, 1981, p. 230). But the examples found in the worldwide experience prove sometimes the contrary. It is cited the case of federated organization in the Netherlands, with large influence on government; or the case of large bureaucratization voluntary organizations (receivers of public funds, with highly professionalized personnel) in USA and England, which were amongst “the most active improver agencies” (Kramer, 1981, p. 230).
An interesting discussion related to the constraints and challenges of advocacy work regards the constituency. With a large number of constituents, the influence exerted on policy makers can really be effective. When the advocated issues belong to a small community, the influence could be inessential. The chances of being heard and taken into consideration by policy makers are greater when NGOs get into coalitions. NGOs’ alliances, regional or international, proved to make the network makes more influential.
The coalitions can have and a negative aspect: as part of a network, NGO has to negotiate both some of their goals and resources. As a result NGOs that join alliances could renounce at some of their initial ideas. Keeping the balance between autonomy and individuality on one side and the need of power of influencing (that comes from alliances) represents more than an ideological issue, a practical one.
Advocacy strategies – means of better influencing
Another constraint on advocacy work is the type of strategy engaged.
These strategies used for influencing the power holders in their decisions could be, according to Kramer (1981) at least two: an aggressive demands strategy or cooperation and partnership. I will discuss later in this paper about each strategy of influencing. What I want to emphasize now is that NGOs’ need a good understanding of the social environment and of the political and business interests that could try to affect public interests of the community.
According to Chapman and Fisher (1999, p. 8), campaigning unfolds in three steps: getting issue on agenda, action and real change.
Bates and Pitkeathley (1996) speak from their own experience and state that “to be an effective lobby a charity needs four things: a constituency; a clear and simple message; respect and some success” (Bates and Pitkeathley, 1996, p. 83).
Reading (1994) takes a step further and considers that voluntary associations should develop a political role for community evolution. The means for an NGO to achieve this role would be “1. Acting as a community care broker; 2. Stimulating public debate; 3. Stressing the importance of collective as well as individual need; 4. Promoting a new political and moral philosophy” (Reading, 1994, p. 87).
ActionAid India proposes six strategies for advocacy work with partners, called “the advocacy ‘toolkit’, aimed to help NGOs everywhere in their work: negotiations, lobbying, gaining membership of government bodies, building networks and coalitions, using the media and conducting campaigns”. (ActionAid India, 1993, quoted in Lewis, 2000, p. 124)
Previously in this paper I emphasized that the strategy followed by advocacy work shapes the dialogue with the policy makers. The type of strategy engaged could be an “outsider” or an “insider” strategy. The outsider strategy is confrontational, many times implying marches or demonstrations. The insider means to work side by side with the policy maker, in a collaborative, non-confrontational way. The insider strategy is connected with long-term relations, where negotiating brings small but steady improvements.
The informal, interpersonal relationships with officials are cultivated as a mean of better results for advocacy work. Kramer (1981) cites what is called in England “the old boy network” which represents the personal relationships among officials and the NGOs representatives.
Oakley et al (1998) explain what are the stages of a long-term campaign: “heightened awareness about an issue, contribution to debate, changed opinions, changed policy, policy change implemented, positive change in people’s lives” (Oakley et al, 1998, p. 95). If a campaign did not get yet to the final stage, does not mean the efforts are in vain. It only means that the process is still unfolding and that achieving the intermediary stages is the sign that the activity goes on the right direction.
Regardless the type of strategy adopted by NGOs, the advocacy activity is causing tensions, and this is their biggest challenge: to promote change with all its implications (risks, dynamic, tensions) in a totally unpredictable environment.
And this challenge brings us in front of a much-commented problem: the personality of people engaged in running a campaign, people able to pursue the goals of their campaign without amplifying the pressures beyond tolerance. People that are not only involved in community’s needs for change, but are as well good communicator and persuaders, skilled in delivering a credible message, take campaigns to success. For this, charismatic leaders try to convince the policy makers of the necessity of the change they claim. Bratton (1990, quoted in Lewis, 2000, p. 124) emphasizes the importance of a well-connected leader, and states that one of the factors that makes the policy advocacy effective is “a set of informal ties with political leaders by NGO leaders (this was found to be a main predictor of impact)”, while Kramer (1981) notes that “the ideological commitment of the executive leadership system” is the most significant for advocacy influence.
Due to the complexity of the task undertaken by NGOs, their leaders need not only charisma and good personal connections, but need as well to engage good managerial skills. As NGOs activate in a dynamic environment, their leaders confront a serious challenge for managing and keeping under control such organizations. Management is the activity that pursues efficiency, improvement. Here is the point where another constraint comes into stage: the need for professionals conflicts with the volunteers’ amateurism. Advocacy needs highly trained communicators, highly efficient managers if is really wanted a substantial influence on policy makers. But when the professionals are seen by volunteers activists as “full-time planners of other people’s short-term burst of energy and masochism” (Kramer, 1981, p. 206), it is difficult to have in the same pot the professionalism required by performance and the enthusiasm of volunteers.
But only a leader is never enough. It is equally important the contribution that NGOs’ members bring into advocacy efforts.
The advocacy work is concerned with results obtained in influencing the development policies. To assess the efficiency of the advocacy work in influencing the change at policy making level, we should need to know which factor or combination of factors resulted into achieving policy outcomes; we need to understand what brings change and how certain interventions, related or not, influence the result. As Bates and Pitkeathley note emphasizing the importance of flexibility that an NGO has in achieving its goals: “You may not be able to achieve them (i.e. goals) all. Some may have to await a change of government, a shift in national thinking, a win on the National Lottery. But there will be some which can be reached, given a following wind and perhaps some negotiation and compromise […] Campaigning agencies need to grab their opportunities. When they occur, you must be ready for them and have your campaign ready to go. The opportunity may present itself in the form of an unexpected amount of money; a rare conjunction of people and policies; a shift in public opinion; or a sympathetic voice where you usually meet opposition. Whatever the opportunity, you have to seize it and push your agenda” (Bates and Pitkeathley, 1996, p. 87).
To understand the complex influence of social environment on advocacy results, I found the case regarding Covey’s (1995) research on “an NGO advocacy alliance in Mexico revealed that in the end it was macro-economic issues which eventually made the proposed World Bank-funded forestry project unattractive to the government, rather than the NGO advocacy alliance which was secondary in its impact”. (Covey, 1995, quoted in Lewis 2000, p. 130)
Another constraint of the advocacy work is the performance assessment. The difficulty of efficiency assessment is in the same time a constraint and a challenge for advocacy work: a constraint as there are no direct links between action and result, and the risk of not-getting-to-the-target is high; and a challenge as is asking for constant efforts to improve the networks, the communication with grassroots, with policy makers and with media.
NGOs, that are actors on the middle stage of the social environment, should have as main “tool” for advocacy work the communication strategies that need to be flexible, adaptable and persuasive. Generating awareness is the result of a good communication strategy. When the advocacy work generated the desired change in policy, NGOs’ roles do not end there. They engage in monitoring the quality of governmental services, assuming the role of what is called “watchdog”.
The funding issue represents another much-debated constraint. It is important to find out what is the relation between funding and the way the donors influence the NGOs advocacy agenda, the problem of autonomy being one of the most delicate matters.
When talking about funding, it is necessary to identify if the pursue of change is a genuine problem of the community or a matter imposed by the donor. Thus the financial (in)dependence is a major factor that influences the issues advocated. Kramer (1981) shows that “contrary to conventional wisdom, reliance on public funds is not constraining […] the U.S. agencies that receive the largest amount in public funds are among the most active advocates” (Kramer, 1981, p. 229).
In literature we find an interesting question regarding the balance between advocacy and service providing for NGO activity. The discussion starts from the evidences that showed how the “organizational-maintenance activities” could reduce the advocacy performance (Kramer, 1981). It is cited the recommendation of O’Connell (quoted in Kramer, 1981, p. 229), that the quantity of time devoted for advocacy by an NGO should be between 25-50 percent of the total amount of time, otherwise other activities as “fund raising and program management may drain off the time and energy of leadership that might be channeled into influencing social policy” (Kramer, 1981, p. 229).
A balance should be kept between the functions of an NGO. Kramer (1981) brings as consideration that an NGO exclusively dedicated to advocacy work could not have public support: “it is doubtful that financial support and tax exemptions would still be forthcoming if service programs were substantially reduced in scope and social agencies become pressure groups […], concerned only with the quality and quantity of governmental service” (Kramer, 1981, p. 232).
Advocacy work is one of the most important functions an NGO could have. The result of this work is the influence on policy-makers’ agenda. Advocacy is the expression of active citizenship, with a great impact on democratic values.
Advocacy has as final result the development of civil society, the realization of change, or as Reading puts it: “transformation of consumer into citizen, of caring professional into social policy practitioner and of uninvolved government into government responsible for all its citizens” (Reading, 1994, p. 96).
Bates, Francine, Pitkeathley, Jill – Standing up to be counted, Campaigning and voluntary agencies, in Sweet Charity, The Role and Workings of Voluntary Organisations, Routledge, London, 1996
Chapman and Fisher – Effective NGO Campaigning: a New Economics Foundation briefing – summary paper, March, 1999, in Course Pack, 2006-2007
Kramer, Ralph – Voluntary Agencies in the Welfare State, University of California Press, London, 1981
Lewis, David – Management of Non-Governmental Organizations: Catalysts, Partners and Implementers, Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2000
Oakley Peter, Pratt Brian, Clayton Andrew – Outcomes and impact: evaluating change in social development, UK: INTRAC publication, 1998
Reading, Paul – Community Care and the Voluntary Sector, Venture press, Birmingham, 1994
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