Continuing on the theme of how aid agencies can work better in fragile and conflict affected settings (FCAS), there’s a new e-book (Advocacy in Context) looking at the work of national NGOs in South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi, Central African Republic and Afghanistan. The researchers, Margit van Wessel, Wenny Ho, Edwige Marty and Peter Tamas, talked to local partners of the Dutch NGO Cordaid, using a ‘Narrative Assessment’ methodology.
All of the organizations were working on aspects of social cohesion and the social contract between citizens and states (e.g. distributing oil revenues to communities in South Sudan, or tackling gender-based violence in CAR schools).
The findings endorse a lot of the literature on adaptive management, but add important new insights on what is different about working in the even more fluid and chaotic world of FCAS.
‘When it comes to strategies, we see important roles for generally acknowledged strategies such as evidence-based advocacy, public campaigning and lobbying. However, the stories provide two fresh insights on strategizing.
A first insight is that advocacy strategies are often part of organizations’ wider involvement with change, involving a range of stakeholders in a societal domain rather than mainly decision-makers or the public. Piloting and modelling innovative practices and involving multiple state and non-state actors, are key strategies in three of the stories. In the two others, mobilization for policy change and implementation involves engagement with many diverse stakeholders in coordinated efforts of mobilization, collaboration and coordination.
In all the stories, we see that organizations seek to engage and convince state agencies, but also to mobilize and harness the power of informal authorities such as that of religious and community leaders. And we see that they engage other diverse societal groups, such as youth organizations and relevant professional groups, such as teachers. While each single strategy, such as awareness raising of communities or developing a research report, may not be innovative in itself, the carefully and dynamically crafted combinations of strategic actor engagement are. Each combination is made to fit its context, creating momentum and the opportunity for leveraging beyond what individual organizations or strategies could achieve.
A second insight is that strategic engagement with different actors is developed from a close and continually updated analysis of what approach can work where and with whom, creatively testing ways to move forward, while often seeking to overcome or circumvent challenging contextual factors. Importantly, these also involve ways to reduce or spread risks; for example, by reducing own visibility, liaising with actors with authority, or also undertaking non-threatening interventions that may play to the ear of power-holders. While this type of close context-reading was commonly found, the diversity of context led CSOs to develop diverse strategies.
For outside organizations supporting such work, implications include backing local organizations to use their political antennae to learn, adapt and move on, and not insisting on an artificial separation between ‘service delivery’ and ‘advocacy’ – in successful work FCAS, they are often interwoven. When so much is down to the ability to read and respond to the context, training manuals may be less useful than setting up conversations between people working on the ground in this way in different countries.
And here’s a nice flavour of what it is like doing advocacy in a place like South Sudan:
‘In an emergent country such as South Sudan, the creation and institutional embedding of laws, procedures, job profiles, mandates and relationships is still being negotiated with the many local, national and international stakeholders. Contrary to chess, where rules are accepted and arbiters wield power and authority, in South Sudan, formal and informal rules are being hammered out, hashed over and retracted. Operating in such a context is like ‘playing chess with a pigeon’, which describes a situation where the rules are not equally understood or applied by the players. The organizations have to follow rules, both formal and informal, while at the same time also contributing to their (re)creation or renegotiation so as to enable those rules to contribute to fulfilling South Sudan’s promises to its people. This demands not only a well-developed antenna for political dynamics and sensitivities, but also a clever negotiation of situations and actors.’
And a great example of the nuts and bolts of ensuring research has influence – in this case trying to get the government to follow through on its promises to distribute 3% of oil revenues to communities in oil-producing states:
‘For the public lecture where we presented our research, we had the presidential advisor of the economy (who was the former minister of finance) moderate the event. And we advertised it. We invited interesting people for our panel, such as the Dean of School of Social and Economic studies of the University of Juba, a former deputy minister of finance and an MP from the area, so it was not like a one-sided thing. We invited people who were stakeholders with interests in this subject matter. And they were already engaged in this process; for example, some of them were interviewed for the study and were already looking forward to the findings. For the High Level Conference, we invited the minister of petroleum, who is in charge of petroleum resources. We also invited the minister of finance, who manages and allocates the finances. Both are very important to ensuring this law is implemented. In fact, they are the ones who could be blamed for not implementing the law. We invited members of Parliament, the Parliamentary committees responsible for finance and the economy, for public accountability, for petroleum and energy. We invited the MPs from the oil producing areas, and also the civil society organizations that have interests in the oil and gas sector. And of course, apart from specific invitations to these categories, we also sent invitations to a mailing list that has over 1,000 people.’
There’s much more to it than that, but you’ll have to read the e-book….