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Strategies used by international NGOs to influence public policy
Véronique de Geoffroy and Alain Robyns

The limits of purely operational aid have become increasingly apparent. No matter how relevant, an aid programme can not resolve all the problems which have created a crisis and the resulting needs. Most of the time, these problems are political. As a result, many international NGOs have developed strategies to influence public policy. Following the example of other sectors, they dedicate significant resources to lobbying national and international decision-makers (governments and international organisations).

 The role of NGOs vis-à-vis public authorities: opposition force or advisers?

Advocacy can involve a number of activities such as awareness-raising, mobilisation of public opinion, providing expert advice, networking and lobbying. Generally, these are combined and are part of an overall strategy. The chosen strategy depends on three factors: the atmosphere and kind of dialogue which exists between the organisation and the authorities, analysis of the risks involved and the organisation’s culture.

Traditionally, international NGOs were more likely to indulge in “external” [1] advocacy, mobilising public opinion and taking part in protest movements. Nowadays, however, a large number of international NGOs opt for “internal” advocacy and target political decision-makers. A study commissioned by CONCORD [2] in 2003 showed that collective external advocacy campaigns by NGOs had only had a relatively limited impact on the decisions and directives of the European Commission. The study concluded that the strategies used to influence civil servants in European institutions, who are less receptive to public opinion campaigns, needed to be revised. It recommended that lobbying should be based on better analysis of the internal decision-making networks within the EU, that positions on different issues should be determined and that NGOs should reach agreement about the messages they wanted to get across via “corridor advocacy” or classical lobbying activities.

On the strength of their field experience, NGOs attempt to influence public policy via active engagement in current debates. In recent years, international NGOs have undoubtedly gained recognition from the institutions that they campaign against. They have already won two major battles: by taking part in international social and political debates, they have convinced a lot of people to return to political action, and they have imposed themselves on the international scene to such an extent that they are now listened to by governments and the most powerful corporations [3].

The development of international NGO networks capable of gathering and organising information, taking positions and monitoring the practical implementation of international decisions and commitments is a form of safeguard during the construction of world governance [4]. At the same time, their ability to influence and modify the rules of globalisation remains much weaker than that of governments and corporations.


[1] That is to say, by mobilising public opinion to influence policy via a confrontational approach with the objective of getting the attention of governments and forcing them to respond publicly. This type of advocacy is different from internal or technical advocacy which involves trying to convince political decision-makers, through analysis and expert knowledge, participation in technical work groups and sometimes even negotiation in consultative councils.

[2] Étude sur l’efficacité des stratégies d’influence politique des ONG, Mirjam van Reisen, EEPA.

[3] La montée en puissance des acteurs non étatiques, Christian Chavagneux, University of Sussex, Centre for Global Political Economy ; L’Economie Politique et Alternatives Economiques – shortened and slightly amended version of a contribution by Christian Chavagneux to the Global Governance Report, 2002, n°37 published by the Conseil d’analyse économique.

[4] Les coalitions internationales d’ONG, du lobbying à la contribution à la gouvernance mondiale, Pierre Calame, January 2004 (http://www.institut-gouvernance.org/fr/analyse/fiche-analyse-31.html).