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We need more Policy People – and more collaboration. The importance of ‘policy coherence’ and what more can be done to promote EU policies that work for people and planet

19th March 2019 by Seamus Jeffreson

In this blog piece, Seamus Jeffreson, former Director of CONCORD – the European Confederation of Development NGOs – asks if European NGOs concerned with global development are investing enough in EU Policy and Advocacy work and calls for more joint work among NGOs to boost this critical work.

European development NGOs’ mission is to champion and fight for greater equality, human rights and sustainable development globally.  One key way of doing this is to examine the impact of EU policies, from trade to tax to intellectual property, on the most marginalised people in third countries (aka: ‘policy coherence for sustainable development’). At their best, European NGOs are exceptional at exposing unfair policies and campaigning for justice.  CSOs and campaigning groups in many partner countries are active and keen to fight for human rights.

Having moved recently to West Africa and speaking to NGOs and activists here I am reminded that EU policies beyond aid potentially have far greater effect on people’s lives than projects and programmes.  But are NGOs investing enough in EU policy work?  If not, why and what can be done to boost this critical work?

What kind of policies and what is their impact?

It’s not difficult to see the impact of EU policies in say, Africa. Trade deals, fisheries agreements, investment promotion initiatives, tax regulations, migration policy, all have profound effects on the most vulnerable people and most marginalised communities.  Much more than aid and concessional loans, these policies (policies the EU is Treaty-bound to ensure are ‘coherent’ with the fight against poverty) have the potential to work for the public good or else mainly for a privileged few thereby widening inequalities.

Fighting for greater transparency for example on how EU companies make their profits abroad, NGOs and campaigners have been working on EU rules governing supply chains (of timber, fish, conflict minerals, palm oil) to promote environmental sustainability and protect farmers’ and workers’ rights. In December last year, Fairtrade advocates succeeded in including African, Caribbean and Pacific farmers in an EU measure protecting small suppliers being abused by buyers (through prejudicial late payments or cancelled orders).

Fighting for measures like country by country reporting on profits and public registers of the real owners behind companies can encourage, among other things, more tax to be paid where profits are earned, increasing resources for services like health and education.  These EU policy developments can have a huge impact on poor and marginalised communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Linking policy and advocacy in partnership with CS activists and partners globally

Policy wonks are indispensable to the process of influencing EU policies for the better.  They understand and follow the topic, understand the (complex) EU decision-making process, know who the decision makers are and the right moment to engage in the policy design process. They are generally quite driven, committed individuals too. Crucially, Policy and Advocacy people seek to understand and expose the interests and interest groups (commercial, political and national interests) driving certain positions.

Ideally, these experts need to be long term staff, people who have the time to follow an issue over many years (trade being an obvious example).  To be something other than an academic exercise, Policy work needs to link with Advocacy to devise and deliver a strategy to inject public interest into the policy process.  This is often linked to more public campaigns of awareness or action. More than think tanks, NGOs’ positions, informed and developed with allies and partners in the affected countries and backed by millions of supporters and volunteers at home, have political ballast.

CSOs in partner countries directly representing the affected populations can increasingly do their own in-country policy and advocacy work using their direct contacts with EU Delegations and different networks (garment workers via the international trades union movement for instance).  But collaboration with European NGOs has specific added value.  First, many NGOs are closely linked to political or faith-based institutions in Europe that can be powerful players in influencing EU policies for the better.  Second, by involving European civil society, affected communities from other countries can draw on the solidarity of European supporters (aka voters).  As issues become global – pollution and climate change, tax injustice, trade and investment where little trickles down – marginalized communities and European civil society find they are often fighting the same battles.

So, policy people have a critical place in the EU policy process. When MEPs, governments and officials have the benefit of these positions and witnesses to the potential impacts of their policies, better decisions are the result.

The challenge in making the case for EU policy work

The last ten years have seen considerable attention in Brussels to ‘policy coherence for development’ – but the policies do not seem to be getting more coherent and the ambition is getting lower (the recent EC- PCD report highlights only three isolated success stories).

Meanwhile, corporate actors have increased efforts to look after their interests – up 40% between 2012 and 2016 according to the LobbyFacts.EU webpage (a worthwhile read).  Corporate interests have understood the power and impact of policy making at EU level.  NGOs should perhaps be paying more attention.

For many, Brussels can too easily be seen primarily as a fundraising destination.  The financial ‘bottom line’ seems increasingly to become an end in itself for some of the bigger players.  The EU policy making process is complicated, not very visible and often misunderstood.  It can be a challenge to demonstrate success and impact.  Fundraising is much easier to measure and justify – but is it ultimately leading to the change NGOs say they want?

Or perhaps it is not that it is complicated to understand the potential impact, rather that we are not very good at demonstrating the impact and effectiveness of legislative and policy changes on influencing behaviour and positive social outcomes. NGO leaders are probably right in wanting more thorough ‘cost-benefit analysis’ of policy and advocacy work, with the onus on policy people in the EU to demonstrate the connection between this work and change for the better. My own feeling is that such an examination may at least reveal plenty of worthwhile side products (profile for our organisations and our issues, exposure of our allies to policy makers, mobilization of supporters and informing the public).  It may be a case, to misquote Dr. Spock thus:  “It’s success Jim, but not as we know it..”

A focus on fundraising for delivering projects and programmes also points to another challenge in ensuring effective policy and advocacy work.  This is the lack of a persuasive link up between European NGOs with civil society colleagues in the affected countries – fisherfolk, small scale farmers and traders, trades unions.  They need to tell their story of how EU policies, ranging from fisheries agreements to inward investment, affect them.  Yet policy people often struggle to collaborate with allies or affiliates/country offices, many of whom are focused on ‘delivering’ programmes and not on research and advocacy work. Where there should be win-win collaboration there is a disconnect.

Similarly, as policies are increasingly global, so too Policy and Advocacy efforts need to be joined together across different global policy making centres.  For example, combining action in the EU but also in member states (where EU rules are implemented – or not), the OECD (see the tax example above), African Union and UN. If advocacy is to be effective in getting change on the ground, then the EU advocacy needs to be tightly coordinated with advocacy efforts in Washington, Addis Ababa, Paris, Beijing. Investment in EU Policy and Advocacy needs to be considered as part of a bigger investment in global Policy and Advocacy (since this changes the cost-benefit analysis). Given the scale of the challenge especially in terms of resources and expertise, NGOs working on global sustainable development might best work in concert with others including Environmental NGOs.  Many of whom are well positioned in new global institutions and processes (WWF has worked with the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank for instance).

With unfortunate timing comes Brexit. UK development NGOs provide unique policy expertise and capacity, including on EU issues.  This capability will be contested after the UK’s departure as British NGOs shift priorities to influence the UK’s new independent foreign and aid policy.  In fact, there is a strong case for continued UK NGOs engagement with EU policy if they and their supporters wish to tackle poverty and inequality globally.  Why?  Because EU’s policies on trade, taxation and intellectual property will continue to have a huge impact on the lives of the most marginalized in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as in Europe.

Finally, while working with the current of public opinion on issues such as tax justice or solidarity with oppressed peoples though campaigning, NGOs’ rigorous and high-quality policy work can be an essential antidote to a new politics that seem to be increasingly influenced by conspiracy theory. Turning policy work into advocacy and campaigning material risks oversimplifying issues that are complex.

One seasoned Brussels advocacy actor put it like this.  “In the battles for the most scarce resource – politicians and policy makers’ attention – there is a danger that NGOs engage in a campaign arms race, dialing up the outrage and indignation at the expense of measured and nuanced analysis. The power of social media and weapons of mass distraction make this very tempting, but it should be resisted in the interest of the long-game – positive social change on the ground”

What’s to be done?

There needs to be refocused attention on EU Policy work and acknowledgment that given the challenge, tighter collaboration is needed to have impact.  Here are some ideas for action:

  1. NGO leaders could make a concerted and joint effort to invest more in policy staff working on European issues. One way of husbanding resources while at the same time promoting collaboration would be by pooling resources.  Say 3 – 4 NGOs coming together to hire experts to work on a specific issue.
  2. More strategic consideration and support could be given at leadership level in NGOs on the value added of working together, including with Environmental NGOs and in alliances like CONCORD or Eurodad. Consideration could be given to specific events or actions to demonstrate the impact of policy work and promote good examples of joint working – a sort of ‘Advocacy Forum’ perhaps in the margins of existing gatherings like EU Dev Days, CONCORD General Assembly or ICSI global leaders meetings.
  3. Global and European NGO ‘families’ should encourage and support UK policy capability remaining focused on key EU issues and policies.
  4. NGO Leaders should support and sell policy and advocacy work more actively explore and promote collaboration and give this their time and visibility. More leaders of well known NGOs could go together to Brussels and capitals alongside allies and speak to decision makers on policy issues.
  5. NGOs in Europe and in-country could build more capacity (policy staff, research and expertise) into ‘delivery’ projects. A clearer link and logic could be made in the design of how delivery projects contribute to a wider understanding and contribution to the issue at hand.  In other words explaining what the ‘theory of change’ is behind a particular intervention and how it links up with driving wider policy change. Donors may be more willing to fund this kind of work than one might expect.


Thanks to Isabelle Brachet (ActionAid), Sergi Corbalan (Fairtrade EU), Jesse Griffiths (ODI, ex-Eurodad), Carl Dolan (Transparency International), Louise Hilditch.  Responsibility for the views expressed is mine..


Seamus Jeffreson

Analyst, writer and facilitator based in West Africa

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Seamus Jeffreson is an analyst, writer and facilitator based in West Africa. He has previously worked in EU humanitarian and development programmes in the Balkans, middle east and Africa and was until January the Director of CONCORD, the European network of Development NGOs based in Brussels.