How can NGOs “Make a Difference”?

This is the executive summary of my dissertation which achieved first class marks as part of a Masters in International Development with the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, tutored by Maria Prandi

How can NGOs “Make a Difference”?  – Anna Gurney, July 2009

Addressing the unequal political and economic structures that exist, ie taking steps towards Global Justice, is the best way to tackle the causes of poverty. Large-scale philanthropy continues to assert the outdated idea of International Development that money, used to provide aid, is the solution, but this addresses only the symptoms of poverty. [i] Advocacy is the branch of NGO work that campaigns for policy change to help “level the playing field”.  The purpose of this dissertation is to identify factors that lead to a successful and effective advocacy campaign.

Advocacy is made difficult by the fact that official institutions (Government agencies) are influenced more by large corporations with special interests than by anyone else. The European Commission still openly promotes international competitiveness as the main goal of the EU[ii]. Regulatory bodies trail behind big business with reactionary measures, rather than comprehensive well-informed solutions. NGOs continue to strive to become key players in decision-making processes, aiming for effectiveness and maximum impact. They are increasingly working as coalitions, and involving Southern organisations as equal partners.

Nine factors for success are identified from the academic literature and then used to analyse three case study campaigns which ran between 2001 and 2010 and achieved concrete successes: The withdrawal of funding in an arms company by a major bank, the implementation of a law banning a certain type of hedge fund by the UK Government, and the withdrawal of credit for a large hydro-power dam by government credit agencies. The key common elements were:

  • A coalition of active NGOs working concurrently with a clear objective
  • Successful transference of beliefs to establish public support – through influential individuals
  • Developing an expert case based on International Standards
  • Following the demands of Southern Partners

The differences between interventions targeting official institutions and those targeting private companies are also considered and the following broad conclusions are consistent with all the research.[iii]

  • Successful policy change within official institutions was brought about by lobbying them directly, combined with public support, and targeting specific private companies implicated in the campaign.
  • Influencing the policies of private companies by lobbying the company itself was unsuccessful, whereas bottom-up action by consumers had some effect.
  • Bottom-up action alone has little, or even a negative[iv], effect on influencing the policies of official institutions.

There are still relatively few big successes from advocacy campaigns. Depressingly, even though the credit agencies pulled out of the Ilisu dam (case study 3), it has found alternative funding.

Political will and reforms at government level are what is really required to affect change, but as decisions are increasingly made by multi-lateral regulators, campaigns will need to apply pressure across many different countries to be effective. More research into how best to influence bodies such as the EU will be valuable, but what current campaigns need is public support and active participants.

Based on experiences at the “alternative” summits (e.g. Catalan Social Forum) I see that support is too diffuse and groups ranging from NGOs to Trade Unions and Political Parties are involved in ongoing discussion about a broad alternative to neoliberal globalisation (which is a very long way off) while seeking support for thousands of different causes. “The movement“ needs to come together and channel energies into a few campaigns, each aiming for a concrete effective outcome so that the momentum brought about by the crisis can be used to affect real, if reformist, changes. Finally I suggest that the alternative summits are the perfect platform for tackling the difficult question “which are the most important campaigns? Where should civil society be channelling support?”


[i] M.EDWARDS and D.HULME: Making a Difference, Earthscan, London, 1992, J.GLENNIE: The Trouble with Aid, Zed Books, 2008, and many more.

[ii] Oliver Hoedeman from the Corporate Europe Observatory, speaking at Cumbre de los Pueblos, Madrid, May 15th 2010

[iii] this dissertation p. 25, p.32, p.40

[iv] ibid. p.17

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