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:
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..
From 19 – 20 March 2019, the Centre will hold its Blockchain For Social Good Summit in New York. We want to share 6 important and relevant readings with you on the potential of blockchain.
1. Blockchain for social impact moving beyond the hype – This report encompasses analysis of 193 organisations, initiatives, and projects that are leveraging blockchain to drive social impact.
2. Blockchain ethical design framework for social impact – This paper addresses why intentionality of design matters, identifies the key questions that should be asked and provides a framework to approach the use of blockchain, especially as it relates to social impact.
3. Seven design principles for using blockchain for social impact – seven design principles that can guide individuals or organisations considering the use of blockchain for social impact. We call these the Genesis principles, and they are outlined at the end of this article.
4. Blockchain for International Development: Using a Learning Agenda to Address Knowledge Gaps – Find out how MERL practitioners gauge the value of blockchain technology for development programming.
5. A Revolution in Trust: Distributed Ledger Technology in Relief &
Development – This article explains how blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) is poised to revolutionise our industries and the benefits of trusting them.
6. Block by Block – This report compares nine distributed ledger platforms on nearly 30 metrics related to the capabilities and the health of each project.
This blog is written by Vicky Tongue, Programme Manager at the International Civil Society Centre and Krizna Gomez, from JustLabs. The blog looks at whow and why civil society can produce innovative responses to populism. Together they give a summary of the complex situation facings CSOs, reflect on some strategies to explore response and finally look at building alliances. This topic is our main focus at our Innovators Forum on 25 – 26 February 2019.
Rising with Brilliant People in our Beautiful City, by Vicky Tongue
As we highlighted earlier this week, CSOs need to reflect on their legitimacy, embrace innovative approaches, and collaborate to continue shaping the new global world order. In this blog, ahead of our Innovator’s Forum next week, we further explore these ideas in the context of ‘reframing narratives’.
The need for CSO dialogue, innovation and reinvention must increase in tandem with rising speed of toxic narratives.
The need for CSOs to (re-)act is greater than ever. This includes working together in smarter ways, trying to reconcile and integrate ‘us’ and ‘them’ societal divides, whilst positively promoting the integrity of our missions.
The challenges facing CSOs in this respect are manifold. Increased scepticism of human rights activism and NGOs’ work is being fuelled by strategically-targeted and politically-motivated communications. For example, branding concerned voices of dissent as unpatriotic or representing foreign interests, and twisting core humanitarian principles of neutrality into partisan narratives of furthering faith group interests. Peaceful non-violent social movements have been counter framed as terrorist organisations, and deliberately linked to alleged ‘hate crimes’ through false association on social media.
The speed with which new toxic narratives against the causes championed by CSOs are churned out by populists and other detractors requires even greater velocity in the responses. However, these responses must not inadvertently repeat the negative narratives and thus fuel them further, but instead offer a more encouraging vision of the future. A vision which communities and ordinary people can easily embrace. For this shift in approach, CSOs need a space and an approach which allows for fast, fresh, brave and long-term thinking.
Reflecting, by Krizna Gomez
At JustLabs, we have run a series of labs where people from very different fields of expertise brainstormed and designed solutions for civil society actors from facing serious challenges to their work because of negative narratives.
To ensure maximum innovation in thinking and to break the disciplinary silos which often isolate civil society from other fields which populists have been tapping into, only the clients came from the human rights field. All other participants were from other disciplines — political strategy, advertising, marketing, cognitive and behavioural sciences, business, and product development.
The workshops utilised design thinking, with its ethos of co-creation with the client, and stepping into the shoes of the communities with which they were seeking to rebuild relationships, while closely examining the power landscape they must navigate.
The outside perspectives helped open the clients up to new, potentially game-changing, narrative strategies which embrace emotions, tap into people’s values, and offer a sense of belonging to entire sections of society who feel excluded, ignored or left behind.
Adopting innovative approaches – which also “go back to the basics”
The prototypes produced in the labs reached out to people not on the usual basis of perceived threats or abuses by official power (for example, rallying people to protest an abusive policy) but rather by appealing to a sense of belonging, provide intellectual stimulation in cultural settings, or send messages which jive with their values from people they respect.
The imagery was not the traditional fists, protests, struggle/war or the scale of justice, but that of the “day-to-day”, the non-threatening and even the mundane, which tie communities and friends together—a cup of coffee, a football match, an embrace, even love. The narratives projected human rights not as a discourse or claim to legal protection, but as a bridge which connects people, a compass which guides people through a journey, and a glue which allows for ties that truly bind. Some of the narratives also used the metaphor of building and construction – where human rights are a blueprint or guide for creating a better society.
To achieve all these goals, civil society actors need the necessary support to skilfully use words in everything they say so they are grounded on findings from neuroscience and cognitive linguistics and involve mastery of sophisticated digital marketing tools—things they currently often do not have the expertise or means to do.
But beyond all this, we found that winning the narrative challenge means going beyond the mere use of clever words and social media hashtags. While narrative initiatives may often include communications campaigns, they encompass a broader array of tactics. In short, what civil society actors do—from the way we interact with communities, decide on the actors we work with, and design projects—is the narrative.
Building alliances, by Vicky Tongue
Civil society organisations can build broad alliances which cut across our work on different themes, enable both short- and long-term action, dialogue and organisation, and combine complementary strengths for both online and offline diplomacy and mobilisation.
In the US, InterAction’s Together Project continues its inspiring and innovative role as a solidarity hub for NGOs vulnerable to disinformation and discrimination. It is now using the skills, strategies and solidarity networks it has developed since 2017 to support new organisations facing unanticipated risks of false information attacks. Mob Lab is launching a new project to convene, building solidarity, and developing practical solutions among organisations, groups, and individuals to foster alternatives to the rise of the far right. Ahead of the EU elections in May, online movements and ICSOs are collaborating on anti-disinformation initiatives to protect European audiences from the proliferation of ‘fake news’.
And next week, brilliant people from the leading international CSOs, online movements, national CSO platforms, donors and media organisations will join us here in Berlin’s beautiful city, to reflect and build new dialogues and alliances on innovation. We can’t wait.