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


 An advocacy code of practice?

As early as 1994, a certain number of humanitarian actors clarified in the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief that, “Respect for the disaster victim as an equal partner in action should never be lost. In our public information we shall portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears. While we will co-operate with the media in order to enhance public response, we will not allow external or internal demands for publicity to take precedence over the principle of maximising overall relief assistance. We will avoid competing with other disaster response agencies for media coverage in situations where such coverage may be to the detriment of the service provided to the beneficiaries or to the security of our staff or the beneficiaries.” The links between information and marketing are an underlying theme in this text and this question continues to be relevant in external advocacy activities today. Advocacy campaigns are a means for NGOs to increase their visibility and raise funds. As such, it is not always easy to distinguish between advocacy and appeals for donations, which are also known as citizen mobilisation campaigns. The use of images for advocacy, visibility or fund-raising is regularly debated amongst NGOs. In awareness- and fund-raising campaigns, there appears to be a move away from very emotive images of people in need to more dignified images.

What is more, if the advocacy activities of international NGOs are to remain consistent with the values that they defend, it is not possible to use every form of pressure - “Political advocacy for social issues must respect certain ethical standards and therefore avoid the fraudulent or illegal techniques and tactics which are used in the commercial and political domains - violence, intimidation, misinformation, blackmail and corruption [5] ” .


International NGOs use a variety of different strategies to influence public policy. With the globalisation of aid issues, these have changed significantly in recent decades. Each strategy requires different means and levels of expertise. Communication requires a certain level of technical know-how and needs to be consistent with a precise methodological approach. The arguments put forward need to have solid foundations, as this forms the basis of a campaign’s legitimacy and credibility.

The efforts that NGOs have made in this domain have already borne fruit (some of which has been recognised via the awarding of a Nobel Prize) and have given them a new status. However, before investing themselves in advocacy activities, NGOs need to consider a number of critical issues, such as the competition that is created when more and more organisations become involved, the risk of messages becoming diluted, the blurring of lines between marketing and advocacy and the risk of being integrated into the decision-making process and losing independence.


Véronique de Geoffroy, Director of operations, Groupe URD
Alain Robyns, consultant


This article is based on the findings of a study commissioned by the NGO, Aide et Action.

[5] From Techniques de plaidoyer pour l’éducation et le développement by the World Bank (extract translated by Groupe URD).