Webinar with Thomas Coombes: Hope based communications, an antidote to NGO apathy?

1st August 2019 by Thomas Coombes

This webinar with Thomas Coombes, focusses on the power of Hope-Based Communications to change people’s minds and help International civil society organisations (ICSOs) set the communications agenda, rather than react to it.

This September, for the first time, International Civil Society Centre’s will convene Heads of Communications of ICSOs. At this meeting we will look at how hope-based communications can help ICSOs reach new audiences, we will also share what works and what doesn’t work regarding campaigns and look into solidarity messaging in times of crisis.

To get the ball rolling, we are offering a taster webinar of the kind of topics we will engage with to stimulate debate and collaborative action.

More about Hoped-Based Communications Hope is a pragmatic strategy, informed by history, communications experts, organisers neuroscience and cognitive linguistics. It can be applied to any strategy or campaign. By grounding your communications from the values you stand for and a vision of the world you want to see, hope-based communications is an antidote to debates that seem constantly framed to favour your opponents, so that you can design actions that set the agenda rather than constantly reacting to external events.

A hope-based communications strategy involves making five basic shifts in the way we talk about human rights.

Thomas Coombes

Communications Strategist

Hope-Based Communications

Thomas Coombes is a global communications strategist who has developed an approach to framing, called Hope-Based Communications to help organizations and movements develop new narratives for social change rooted in their values and vision. Before setting up Hope-Based Communications as an independent consultancy, Thomas was Head of Brand and Deputy Communications Director at human rights movement Amnesty International. Thomas has also worked in communications for business, government and civil society, including anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, the European Commission and PR firm Hill & Knowlton. From Ireland and France, Thomas is also a triathlete and blogs about world literature.

Leave No One Behind buzzing ahead

25th July 2019 by Thomas Howie
Leave No One Behind Partnership Meeting Berlin

The Leave No One Behind project is lifting off. With concrete results and recommendations from the five pilot countries, there is continued energy among the project partners and allies to continue this joint initiative to make voices heard and count.

At the annual project partners meeting in Berlin, the partnership confirmed that the novel approach to Sustainable Development Goal monitoring and implementation represents an important stepping stone for the realisation of the promise to leave no one behind in SDG implementation. Recognition of this comes from the highest levels, too. In July, the project was invited to present at the United Nation’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF). By participating in the HLPF new connections are made in our shared mission to make all people’s voices heard and count in SDG implementation.

Project Partners Meeting

In late June project partners presented, discussed and evaluated the results of the pilot phase of the project that sees twelve leading ICSOs joining forces to make the voices of marginalised people heard and count in SDG implementation. The five pilot countries are Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Kenya and Vietnam.Leave No One Behind 2019 project partner meeting

The principle at the heart of the SDGs, to leave no one behind is yet to be fully realised in current monitoring and implementation. The pilot project shows that the novel approach taken by the project partners is capable of ‘building a bridge’ between gaps in statistical monitoring and policymaking. Community-driven data has proven its potential to identify specific drivers of vulnerability at the local level and to develop purposeful policy recommendations to address these local issues.


The project partners will now define the concrete next steps to move ahead towards a collective four-year engagement until the mid-point of SDG delivery in 2022. Together with partners from across the sectors, we want to work towards a more inclusive, accountable and participatory SDG implementation in a growing number of countries worldwide.

High Level Political Forum

The partnership presented its results at the High Level Political Forum in New York. In addtion, the partnership were central to two well attended side events where there were in depth discussions about our unique approach and futre collaboration.

As a result their input, the partnership is invited to contribute to the Voluntary National Review labs of the HLPF. They will present the approach to an international expert audience of statistics agencies and political decision-makers. Also, the UN Deputy Secretary General’s SDG strategy hub is keen to explore how we can work together.

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

It’s time for international NGOs to reflect on our China work

24th July 2019 by Kevin Li

The timing of the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting 2019 in June coincided with the huge demonstrations against the Extradition Bill in Hong Kong, which created strong fluctuations in every citizen of Hong Kong, including myself. What was happening beyond our air-conditioned meeting room coincidentally matched with the main theme of our discussions, China’s global role. While we were taking advantage of this space, our discussion served as a timely and meaningful start for exchange of experiences.

We shared with each other the context, the analysis and the strategy in dealing with the changing and emerging role of China in overseas investments, in global governance, philanthropy and other areas. China’s technological innovation in particular is one of the most interesting trends which might have big implications for inequality and poverty issues around the world. As it will have an impact on our work, this will need to be considered by many INGOs, including Oxfam.

The most timely and valuable overall message from the meeting was the importance of structural reflection on a regular basis. We shared and understood each other’s constraints in operationalising different strategies and approaches. Practitioners were meeting with a whole range of challenges and might deal with them in a practical way, for example, by stopping certain areas of work or not using particular approaches to avoid risk.  However, more structured and regular reflection can help us learn lessons and explore how we could work differently.

My main points of reflection, especially in the context of constrained civil society space in developing countries, are:

  1. Identifying added value: Even with good intentions, international NGOs or our local partner organisations need to identify our own niche to contribute to multi-stakeholder dialogue with governments and companies. Thinking beyond our brand, it is even more critical to make the dialogue more meaningful and proceed on the right path with our expertise, knowledge and skillsets.


  1. Maintaining relevance: international NGOs and our partner organisations’ groundwork in local communities is also important, building a robust foundation so synergies can be created between advocacy and community work. Staying relevant in the local communities will become even more essential in gaining and maintaining our reputation in support of advocacy work.


  1. Understanding the external context: While international NGOs and our local partner organisations advocate for pioneering and innovative ideas, the world is changing rapidly, and other stakeholders are also learning and updating their own narratives and practice. The dynamics of foreign relations between China and the rest of the world is also vibrant, which may occasionally impact on our strategy. Resilience and agility are therefore important in this context. Strategy adjustment might be more frequent than before, and funding models for international NGOs and our partner organisations will require a higher level of flexibility, transparency and accountability.

It is now a critical moment to reflect on the role of international NGOs in this vibrant context. Whether we stay relevant depends so much on our capability of comprehension and reflection as an organisation. We look forward to continuing to share our experiences and lessons with other organisations on this important topic.


Kevin Li

Programme Manager

Oxfam Hong Kong

Threat or Opportunity? China’s Increasing Role in International Development and What It Means for the Future of ICSOs

24th July 2019 by Darren Ward

In a world becoming increasingly dominated by geopolitical issues, authoritarian rule and populism, the role of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) has perhaps never been more threatened, or more necessary.

At the heart of many of the discussions on these issues is China, and its rise as a global power. China is no longer a minor voice in development that can be ignored. It now presents the potential to be the biggest influencer in how the development sector changes in coming years.

It is clear that China’s increasing role in global development is done through a very different lens and approach to the traditional western rules-based order that has been evident over the last 50 years or so. It is challenging the status quo.

Whilst we often portray the international civil society sector as a somewhat dissident voice to the predominantly western approach to global governance and development, it reflects and reinforces much of this approach in its work and structures. The sector’s background in the western liberal way of thinking is creating some real challenges as ICSOs look at how they engage with a new participant with a different values base and approach.

It is clear is that China is here to stay as a major player in international development. This has been recognised by governments and the private sector, and the civil society sector must also recognise this, and identify how it needs to adapt to be relevant in this changing environment it works in.

So how should the sector, and the organisations working in it, respond? Here are my reflections from the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting in June, where we met to explore these questions:

• Focus on the central vision and adapt to the operational culture

The vast majority of ICSOs were founded to meet a deep and deserving need. They are an embodiment of a vision for change. This vision gives them purpose and meaning and must remain at the heart of all they do.

However, vision shouldn’t drive rigid adherence to approach or operations. Organisations who want to remain relevant in disruptive environments need to be agile and adaptive in their operational model. To work with different values, different approaches and different cultures, you need to be willing to invest in understanding them, how they think and work and how you can work with them. Engaging with China, and others, should be a part of every ICSO’s global strategy.

• Focus on building relationships

We work with people we like. What we do is not a transaction, but a relationship. This is especially true in working with the Chinese, who value understanding and relationship and think in a much longer timeframe than many of us in the West. Engaging with Chinese development partners will need a long-term approach and investment.

• Build real cross-sector partnerships

The traditional development model is being replaced by a much more diverse approach which includes increased engagement with the private sector. Much of this work is happening in sectoral silos at the moment, including the work of Chinese state and private organisations. Building capacity within ICSOs for real cross-sector partnerships, including creating the right culture for these to be a success and developing or recruiting the right skills, will be crucial to ensuring civil society can increase its influence and reach.

• Look to opportunities

ICSOs work in communities where there is an identified need. With the expanded development model, many more opportunities exist for partnerships that will enhance the effectiveness of the work being done by all involved. Whether it is partnering for economic development, environmental gains or acting as a constructive watchdog and community advocate, many new opportunities are presented through cross-sector partnerships.

This creates increased opportunities to influence the delivery and effectiveness of projects by Chinese organisations.

• Understand the risks and mitigate them where possible

Engaging with new partners who have different values presents real risks that can’t be ignored. Be realistic about these. Look to mitigate them wherever possible. An agile and informed operating model will help this immensely. However, if mitigation isn’t possible, don’t enter into partnerships that undermine your vision and values.

• Identify ways to engage in the new funding landscape of loans and grants that flow to the private sector

Organisations that have invested in understanding, in building relationships, who are open to cross-sector partnership and have an agile operational approach will be well positioned to engage in new models of funding. The final part is to look differently at how they can add value and where this will benefit both the community and the other partners in delivering better impact.

This has particular potential in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where partnering with implementing contractors to make BRI projects more effective through community engagement and development, or with local communities and governments to build negotiating capacity, are both areas where ICSOs could add real value.

In summary, China is one of many disruptors influencing ICSOs today. It is here to stay as a dominant player.

The implications of not adapting how the sector engages with the various Chinese development organisations and initiatives are large and serious.

The benefits of making this a strategically important focus are potentially larger.

What is required to deliver this is what is required to build the future of ICSOs.


Darren Ward

Managing Partner

Direct Impact Group

Leave No One Behind Partnership at the SDG Global Festival of Action

3rd May 2019 by Thomas Howie

The Leave No One Behind Partnership is excited to be at the Sustainable Development Goal Global Festival of Action in Bonn, Germany from 2 to 4 May 2019. The SDG Global Festival of Action brings together more than 1,500 political decision-makers, activists, experts, business leaders and creatives from over 130 countries at the World Conference Centre.

Thao Hoang, Country Director of ActionAid Vietnam, representing the Partnership at the Festival, participated in a panel discussion about how to make SDG implementation and review processes more inclusive.

Thao Hoang participating in the panel on “Leaving No One Behind: How to make SDG Implementation & Review More Inclusive?” at the Sustainable Development Goal Global Festival of Action in Bonn, Germany from 2 to 4 May 2019

An influential partnership of a dozen of the world’s largest international civil society organisations (ICSOs), ‘Leave No One Behind’ partnership brings together actors from the local up to the international level to realise a more participative and inclusive SDG implementation. The coalition aims to fill knowledge gaps about marginalisation and to advocate for evidence-based policy-making at national and global levels. Put simply, Make Voices Heard And Count.

Thao Hoang, Country Director of ActionAid Vietnam, said:

“SDG implementation by government alone is not possible. They can only be achieved with the inclusion of civil society, private sector, academia and, most importantly, with the most marginalised people’s voices being heard. We need to all work together.

“SDGs are not one size fits all, they mean something different to each person, education for one person and safe cities for others. To address this diversity, we need to work together.

“Change takes time, you just won’t wake up finding all the SDGs implemented. Its time to stop asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ and, instead work on the why and how now – that’s why we attend the SDG Global Festival of Action.”

Peter Koblowsky, Senior Partnership Manager, said:

“Being at the SDG Global Festival of Action shows that there is a strong global level focus on SDG implementation. Likewise, there is an appetite to work more locally, and across sectors and organisations. Our multi-stakeholder Leave No One Behind coalition serves this need, bringing in marginalised communities and advocating for their needs both on a global and local level. This is how we will make voices heard and count.”


Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Responses to Populism in a Digitally-Enabled Era: A New Sector Innovation Report

24th April 2019 by Vicky Tongue

This piece was originally published on InterAction’s blog on 18/04/19

Are you working to push back against populist narratives and tendencies? Have you got a new way of doing things that you would like to share with a wide civil society audience?We are looking for case studies for our new innovation report for the civil society sector.

The rise of populist governments and movements has become a key influencer of public opinion, including towards international and national civil society organisations (CSOs) and human rights actors. This discourse is often binary and leads the public to ‘choose’ one side or the other. Social media further fuels such divisions by enabling ‘echo chambers’ of inaccurate stories which, in turn, are covered by mainstream media.

In this context, civil society actors and organisations remain vulnerable to deliberate misinformation and disinformation campaigns and other forms of politically-motivated targeting in different countries. This includes international CSOs, including the Muslim-based foundations in the United States supported so effectively by InterAction’s Together Project, or humanitarian ICSOs assisting refugees in Europe.

International CSOs are also increasingly confronted with accusations of elitism or lacking legitimacy in representing grassroots interests, and some recent ethical and reputational challenges have also provided individuals and groups opposed to progressive and liberal ideas a further opportunity to challenge the missions and values of organised civil society.

The need for continued learning on alternative narratives and solidarity

At our Innovator’s Forum in February, two outcomes identified by our diverse group of civil society representatives, were the need to both build new narrative and solidarity and collective risk management capacities for our sector. There is a growing body of invaluable resources, such as Dejusticia’s playbook for human rights actors, and the Guide to Hope-based Communications, and InterAction’s Disinformation Toolkit, which are inspiring and empowering CSOs to act and innovate in response to the complex challenges arising from political populism and polarisation.

The International Civil Society Centre and our innovation partner JustLabs want to add a further contribution to this knowledge base for our sector this year, with our new report on ‘Responses to Populism in a Digitally-Enabled Era’. We want to highlight the most promising innovations to tackle populist tendencies, build shared solidarity and promote new emerging narratives and public engagement around civic priorities, space and action. In particular, we want to find the most exciting and effective initiatives in the following three areas:

  1. Reflecting the ‘license to operate’: Innovative and adaptive steps to reshape ICSO’s operational legitimacy, advance accountability towards communities, and strengthen resilience towards challenges of perceived elitism, privilege, or disconnection from grassroots interests.
  2. Re-framing the narrative: examples of powerful narratives and positive visions aiming to reopen spaces for constructive dialogue on social change and democratic actions. This includes compelling new communication, outreach and engagement approaches/campaigns which connect with new public audiences.
  3. Countering attacks on civil society: examples of robust mechanisms, mobilisation and collaboration tactics and strategies which have been developed to counter attacks on humanistic values, civic rights and civil actors and to hold repressive actors to account.

Crowdsourcing case studies

The Report will analyse the emerging effectiveness of these different approaches, and identify key enabling factors which have supported the design and implementation of innovation. It will also highlight innovation case studies from a range of international and national CSOs and countries/contexts, including examples identified through a crowdsourcing approach. This is where you come in.  

We want to hear from ICSOs who have been innovating in this area before 31 May 2019. We will confirm and co-develop ten case studies from international and national CSOs for in-depth profiling. Providing information on your innovation work will provide access to valuable opportunities to the increase visibility and recognition of what you have been doing across a wide and diverse sector audience.

The final report will launched at the Centre’s annual sector flagship conference Global Perspectives, in Addis Ababa from 30 October, which will brings together leaders from civil society, politics and business, with a focus on the legitimacy of civil society. The final case study submitters will be invited to showcase their innovative work as part of the report launch.

To let us know about your innovation, please visit https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/PGDF6MN or contact Vicky Tongue for more information. We hope to hear from you soon!

Vicky Tongue

Programme Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Vicky Tongue is the International Civil Society Centre’s Programme Manager, co-ordinating core initiatives on horizon scanning, innovation and peer convening for CEOs and Global Heads of Division. Vicky has 15 years’ senior programme management with several leading UK-based ISCOs, including Marie Stopes International, Article 19, CAFOD, ODI and Save the Children.

Our strategy 2019 – 2021

18th April 2019 by Thomas Howie

Welcome to our 2019 -2021 strategy. You can download the strategy by clicking  on the button below to find out about what we have planned over the coming years. 


Download Strategy (PDF)


Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Developing a Blockchain Collaboration Model for Social Good

18th April 2019 by Andrea Christie

On 19–20th March, I was honoured to represent Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation (BPF) as the Chief Education Manager at the Blockchain For Social Impact Summit in New York, held by the Rockefeller Foundation. As a 2-Day conference co-hosted by the International Civil Society Centre and MercyCorps, its key purpose was to facilitate early thought-leadership discussion amongst blockchain entrepreneurs and leaders who are currently using this technology to create social impact. This meant establishing our interest in creating a global network where we could safely share our key industry learnings, ideas and resources, as well as create a set of universal standards that will help guide sustainable and ethical blockchain developments well into the future.

This exclusive invite-only event brought together 40 delegates from the civil society, financial, academic, government, technological and consulting industries. Organisations presented included Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, the United Nations, IBM, Microsoft, University of Edinburgh, Accenture, ConsenSys and, of course, BPF. It was an incredible feeling to be sitting in the same room as so many leaders who wanted to plan for the future of blockchain technology.

Here are some of my key learnings and reflections from this conference:

There is a Need for a Blockchain Paradigm Shift

The first conference topic introduced the concept of the “blockchain paradigm shift”. Whereas organisations have generally adopted a tactical approach to focus on improving the technical efficiency of systems through blockchain technology, this conference signals the start of a new movement where diverse, socially-minded leaders are banding together to form future strategies on a more holistic and constitutional level.

And yet, how can we best collaborate in practice? And how can we ensure that these conversations will produce valuable and sustainable frameworks for future collaboration?

With a mission to develop a collaboration model that would help members of the blockchain community maximise their social impact, this summit sought to discuss these ideas and create cross-sectorial feedback loops. These activities stressed the importance of working together within the blockchain community to not only learn from each other, but also support each other in educating external parties and pushing legislation that will allow healthy experimentation within the blockchain for social impact economy.

Current Barriers to Blockchain Adoption

A main theme that continued to appear over the 2 days was the problems that we commonly faced as blockchain innovators and leaders. Firstly, we agreed that education awareness was a primary issue that threatened to prohibit our entrepreneurial progress. More specifically, it made it difficult for us, as organisation leaders, to get the necessary approval and funding to roll out our projects.

This directly ties in with another huge challenge — collaborating with policy-makers and regulators in developing clear guidelines on blockchain use. From my personal experience, our state government here in Melbourne is extremely supportive towards social entrepreneurship in the blockchain space. In addition, our regulatory offices such as the ATO are very helpful in answering organisational questions and in clearing up any cryptocurrency tax-related issues. However, upon discussing the various problems that other organisations faced, it soon became evident that many other governments around the world don’t share this same crypto-friendly approach. Consequently, many of the delegates mentioned that they would ideally like more assistance from regulators in clarifying legal compliance policies. It is important that we find ways to collaborate with policy-makers in creating economic safe zones (i.e. “sand boxes”) where we could safely experiment with social impact projects without penalty, before rolling these out into broader society.

On reflection, this has made me appreciate Melbourne’s crypto-friendly policy approach so much more. In fact, this might explain why Melbourne currently has such a strong fintech and blockchain social entrepreneurial community, with many successful pilots being based in Melbourne.

Blockchain Misconceptions Still Fuel Distrust in Blockchain Solutions

There were also a number of misconceptions that we, as organisational managers, faced as a collective. Particularly, there seemed to be a huge unease amongst charities in adopting blockchain regarding disintermediation. In other words, many feared that there would be a huge downsizing phenomenon, whereby many of their employees and volunteers would lose their jobs, or their entire operations would be made redundant due to technology. In some ways, this is not necessarily untrue, but this problem may need to be reframed. For example, when Oxfam International recently deployed a cryptocurrency donation solution in the Pacific region, they reported a huge reduction in intermediary steps that they would normally have to undertake to collect, distribute and send donations to the beneficiary. By increasing organisational leanness, this structural change ultimately led to greater social impact being delivered to victims.Additionally, this created new and exciting jobs for people in the education, consulting, research and technological spaces. As such, the main lesson to take away from this experience is to embrace this technology as a tool for developing new jobs and social impact outcomes for the future.

I was highly surprised (or extremely pleased, I should say!) by the high calibre of presentations. Coming from an academic research background, it was truly inspiring to recognise so many pioneers in the field — authors whom I had read extensively while researching material for my own PhD thesis back in Melbourne on “crypto governance solutions for charities”. One of these authors was Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation, who had written some well-known articles on the history of charitable gift-giving and how blockchain is a relevant piece of the missing puzzle.

At this conference, I was given the fantastic opportunity to hear some of these revolutionary ideas in person, like the contemporary debate on blockchain vs. “human-based institutions” (what Davies defined as governing mechanisms that oversee, manage and control our societal interactions, including the humanitarian sector’s various donation distribution activities). Normally, we rely on third-party authorities, such as banks and regulatory or government bodies to create a transparent and trusting environment in which donors, beneficiaries, charity managers, contractors and regulators can work together on our charitable projects. Yet with this new introduction of automated technology, would this create new and daring challenges for us all? And would this solve some of our heavily entrenched societal problems, such as no longer mistrusting one another when we attempt to create social impact together? All in all, these questions made me think about the incredible change that’s yet to come. And hearing this straight from the academic who developed the underlying theory was certainly a rewarding experience.

I also learnt that creating a universal set of guidelines on a global, cross-sectoral level can be really challenging. While everyone present at the conference voiced a huge appetite for continuing these important thought-leadership discussions well into the future, it took a majority of the two days simply to identify our main unified goals moving forwards as a collective network. It was inspiring to hear about so many social impact projects around the world that have used blockchain technology with success. We were all willing to share our pilot failures, learnings and challenges in a safe and supportive environment, which I believe is an essential ingredient moving forwards in this highly dynamic, evolving and uncertain technological space. I was immensely proud to represent BPF at this world exclusive conference and am looking forward to keeping you updated on our follow-up conferences in the very near future.

Andrea Christie

Chief Education Manager

Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation

Andrea Christie is currently the Chief Education Manager at the Blockchain Philanthropy Foundation, where she provides educational courses to NGOs, philanthropists and civil societal leaders on harnessing new technologial innovations for UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) delivery. In academia, she is pursuing a PhD in Nonprofit Economics, with a passion for investigating distributed ledger technologies (e.g blockchain) as economic infrastructures for promoting trust in charitable giving. Through her research, she hopes to provide governing bodies with more informed knowledge on how best to treat these architectures when developing new policy and compliance regulations.

Why NGOs need a reputation risk management strategy and how to develop one

9th April 2019 by Martin Cottingham

Reputation is a precious commodity for international NGOs, hard won and easily lost. A bad reputation can fundamentally undermine your support. A good reputation – with the public, with peer organisations and other key stakeholders – can boost your influence in the good times and protect your organisation when it comes under attack.

Islamic Relief knows this better than most. As a high-profile Muslim organisation in a polarised world, we sometimes come under attack from hate groups, from vested interests and from hostile media. Our reputation with donors, in the NGO community and among institutional funders has helped us not only to defend ourselves but also to continue to grow in income and impact.

Communications is a vital area for tackling reputational challenges. But good messaging needs to be accompanied by good practice: you have to ‘walk the talk’ if you are to maintain trust and integrity in the face of criticism.

It is no good having good policies on paper if they are not respected and implemented meaningfully throughout your organisation – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Every organisation is different but here are ten points of principle in reputation risk management, informed by Islamic Relief’s experience.

  1. Develop a reputation risk strategy and establish a reputation risk management team. Our team includes the CEO and representatives of legal, communications, finance and programmes.
  2. Identify the main risks you face and develop a plan of action to mitigate them.
  3. Map your key stakeholders – regulators, institutional funders, governments, financial institutions – and engage with them positively and openly. If you don’t make friends while the sun shines, it is much more difficult to do so in the eye of a storm.
  4. Plan for and practise different scenarios that might arise if your main identified risks materialise as major controversies.
  5. Manage the media and social media decisively and effectively. Prioritise correcting falsehoods and baseless allegations in credible mainstream outlets.
  6. Remain calm under pressure to ensure rational decision making.
  7. Reflect your values in how you communicate. Transparency and accountability are important. Say ‘sorry’ when there is something to apologise for but don’t accept the blame if you are not responsible. Communicate strongly who you really are and what you stand for in the case of misrepresentation.
  8. Identify and work with allies who have common cause. At Islamic Relief interfaith collaboration is in our DNA, and it has been a very positive experience for us to work with Christian and Jewish organisations who share common values but have similar negative prejudices to overcome.
  9. Strike an appropriate balance in internal communications, providing reassurance and clarity to staff without unnecessary detail.
  10. Last but not least, maintain a ‘business as usual’ mindset. Because nothing will reinforce a good reputation among those who matter quite like continuing to deliver on your core mission – in Islamic Relief’s case, the alleviation of poverty and suffering around the world.

Martin Cottingham

Director of External Relations and Advocacy

Islamic Relief Worldwide

Martin Cottingham has worked for the Islamic Relief federation for eight years, first as Media and Advocacy Manager and Head of Communications for Islamic Relief UK and since late 2016 as Director of External Relations and Advocacy for Islamic Relief Worldwide. In a 22-year career working on international development and environmental issues, he has also held management positions in media, marketing and campaigns for Christian Aid, Oxfam and the Soil Association.

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.