Author Archives: Jeremy Smith

  1. Campaigning and advocacy: the impact of Covid 19 and the impact to come

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    By Jeremy Smith and Jean-Martial Bonis Charancle

    Advocacy Hub members spoke with 12 advocacy directors or their equivalent from international development and human rights NGOs and trade unions to gauge what the impact of Covid 19 on advocacy and campaigning has been and what the longer-term impact on advocacy and campaigning might be. Our analysis is summarised here.

    The prevailing impression is one of uncertainty. The actual and potential effects of Covid 19 are not susceptible to a simple analysis and there is no simple path forward. What the Hub offers in a series of three blog pieces is (1) a description of the current state of the sector as affected by Covid 19; (2) an analysis of what the various uncertainties arising from Covid 19 may mean for the future of advocacy and campaigning; (3) a resumé of a debate held in October 2020 with many of those interviewed.

    The state of the sector

    Covid 19 is having profound effects on the space in which advocacy and campaigning is conducted. It is a cause of, or cover for, restrictions on civil and political rights and / or for cuts in regulations. At the same time, the pandemic may encourage populations to look to their state to ‘save’ them. Where a state has performed well, this may engender a revalorisation of the interventionist state. Where a state has performed erratically, this may heighten cynicism and mistrust towards either a particular government or to public institutions as a whole.

    Attacks on civil liberties and human rights which use Covid 19 as an excuse, a reduction in access to decision-makers and a sense that the solutions that they were advocating for have been shown to be inadequate may lead NGOs to adopt more radical positions to compensate for lack of access, vent frustration at the limits of online activism and use Covid 19 as a cue for raising the bar in terms of policy demands.

    While Covid 19 should be – and perhaps is to some extent – a driver of closer cooperation between states, it is also proving to be a source of tension between states as some focus on ‘looking after their own’ or squabble over funds for economic recovery. As such, the pandemic may reinforce nationalist-populist trends all the while it demands effective global action.

    This same tension between collaboration and competition marks relationships among NGOs themselves: civil society could spin off into competitive groups driven by self-interest or Covid 19 could engender more of a collective approach: to campaign together or pool resources, for example. Covid 19 may also reinforce a trend to localise advocacy as international NGOs already responding to the need for complementarity between local and global actions and for elevating Southern advocates step back and devolve more responsibility to local branches or partners. International NGO structures and power dynamics may level out as a result. The Northern branches of international NGOs, already unnerved by a crisis that has a direct impact on them, may feel more vulnerable as a result.

    In part because of the particular effects of Covid 19 on large, international NGOs, it is possible either that looser movements and / or organisations set up with lighter structures prove themselves better equipped to respond to an ever-evolving situation. Black Lives Matter actions and political protests in Hong Kong are examples of activism that is more organic, less organised and less susceptible to NGO ‘control’. This may represent an alternative model to institutional NGO campaigning in a post-Covid 19 world, one that gains more ground as established NGOs show themselves to be less agile.

    Constraints on direct activism heighten the importance of online activism – but also bring its limitations into sharp focus. There is a corresponding need to find ways to improve the ‘online arsenal’ and to develop a wider range of effective and engaging online and / or remotely organised actions.

    The cancellation of meetings and summits has led to a dramatic drop in opportunities for informal lobbying. With many lacking direct access to decision-makers, new inequalities may emerge as individual groups are invited to be the only NGO representative at a scaled-back physical meeting while others exploit their privileged status as part of policy-makers’ WhatsApp groups.

    While few NGOs may be on the verge of collapse, there are signs of a funding timebomb. Institutional donors have to date allowed the reallocation of funds, but cuts in funding will start to kick in soon, if they have not done so already. And while few individual donors may cancel their donations, longer-term sustainability will be affected as lower levels of recruitment mean that the natural loss of donors is not made up.

    The need to be agile and responsive has been part of the NGO discourse for some time, but has been rendered acute by Covid 19. To show themselves to be responsive, NGOs may need to tilt the balance between being mission-driven and being opportunity-driven towards the latter as they are obliged to follow a lockdown – unlockdown – relockdown rhythm.

    The impact on ways of working may initially have been positive with stronger collaboration than ever within and between NGOs. But what people imagined themselves putting up with on a temporary basis may be harder for them to accept as more or less permanent ways of working. All the while most recognise that Zoom meetings can be effective, and that there are benefits to cutting travel for international meetings, the lack of face-to-face time hinders creativity and prevents the forming of personal connections that underwrite effective coordinated international advocacy.

    Here in miniature though is the challenge for the NGO response to Covid 19 – to put up with a temporary impact on the grounds that at some point everything will go back to normal, or invest in developing the best ways to adapt to what will be enduring changes to how to conduct advocacy and campaigning.

    Read Part II of this series here and contribute to the debate by giving your reaction in the comments.

  2. ‘Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads’; Jack Kerouac

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    As an evaluator of civil society campaigns for nearly 15 years, I have regularly observed the tendency for particular issues at particular moments in time to achieve a high level of prominence in the programmes of NGOs and funders, to the potential detriment of other, equally deserving issues. The plethora of initiatives and funding streams on plastics waste may be a current example, the succession of priorities within the health sector another. The idea that NGOs’ priorities may be skewed by the latest, but ultimately short-lived, fad is problematic because of the risk not only that resources are disproportionately directed at particular issues in ways that may not be sustainable, but also that this is done in an inefficient and duplicative way; I myself have been in the position of evaluating very similar projects or campaigns for different organisations one after the other. It is possible too that, consciously or unconsciously, funders, particularly institutional funders, may be isolating a particular part of a problem to be fixed all the while the wider / deeper issues involved are left untouched. Their support for progress on one part of a problem may amount to a false signal of political will to tackle the underlying issues at stake.

    In some cases, it may be that an NGO or group of NGOs has succeeded in planting an issue up the political, media and funder agenda and this is to their credit. (It does raise the question for evaluators and strategists as to what the factors are that put an issue up the public and policy agenda and how they can be replicated). In other cases, it may be that funders are setting the tone, and shaping NGO priorities through their own funding choices, something which raises issues of legitimacy and independence. There are responsibilities too for evaluators. At a certain level, evaluators may be obliged to ‘follow the money’ to earn a living. There may well be a benefit to clients from evaluators having accumulated deeper knowledge of an issue or set of issues through involvement in multiple assessments of a similar scope. At the same time, there may come a point when evaluators need to try to resist fads and assert a more balanced allocation of energies across a wider spectrum of issues.

    Evaluators are also well-placed to perceive the effects of a different sort of fad: the ‘faddism of methodologies’, that is, the tendency for NGOs to treat the inclusion of certain ‘in vogue’ methodologies as a marker of professional competence and the legitimacy of an evaluation’s findings. In the design of campaigns and advocacy too, different approaches appear to be employed by rote – the obligation to devise theories of change being one example,  just as the need to set SMART objectives was a few years earlier – sometimes without it being obvious what the value is that these approaches are bringing.

    Whether you judge something to be a fad – a certain approach to planning or evaluating campaigns or a particular issue or set of issues in themselves – depends on your perspective. If it is ‘your’ issue that has achieved high prominence, then the chances are, it will be seen as a victory to be celebrated, but if it is not, then it is a fad to moan about. And evaluators who are the ‘victims’ of clients prescribing particular methodologies may identify these as their fads of greatest concern. It should be possible, however, to see beyond one’s own immediate situation and reflect on what is to the benefit of progressive causes in a wider, more holistic sense. In this, evaluators have the responsibility to question the importance of a campaign in its wider context through investigation of its relevance. Assessing the importance of the achievement of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, for example, demands weighing this against other interventions to mitigate climate change. That cutting hydrofluorocarbons came out top in a ranking of solutions to control climate change suggests that it is an issue that is deserving of being made of a fad. In some cases though, it may be difficult for evaluators to gauge the relative importance of the solutions promoted by the work that they are assessing. This may suggest a need to involve content experts better placed to make these sorts of reasoned judgements of relevance.

    There may also be value in evaluators and funders maintaining some form of dialogue to discuss trends in the sector, including the potential emergence of fads. While evaluators may have no special claim to be able to understand and weigh the relative legitimacy of particular issues, they do tend to be involved in work with multiple organisations across multiple issues and so have an important insight into sectoral trends and distortions. Ultimately too, it may become incumbent on evaluators to engage funders almost as advocacy targets in their own right, as the logical corollary to funders’ own, more interventionist strategies.


    Jeremy Smith


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