How can grassroots aid programmes influence the wider system?

April 30, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

In the first of two posts on how aid agencies can use their grassroots work to exert wider influence, Erinch Sahan discusses his ErinchSahanwork with livelihoods programmes (jobs, incomes etc). Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the conditions for such ‘joined-up influencing’ to work.

“Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” Sounds comfortingly intuitive, right? But what if people can’t access the water or afford the boats? What if fish stocks are disappearing or pollution is making the fish unsafe to eat? Or cultural norms dictate that women aren’t allowed to fish? For decades, NGOs and aid agencies have tried to lift people out of poverty through their version of “teaching someone to fish” – but this hasn’t been enough.

That’s where influencing comes in. The programmes we operate and the people we hope to help operate in complex and overlapping systems: political, economic, legal, household, community and natural systems, just to name a few. If we can influence how these systems work so that power is shifted to the powerless, we can then start seeing broader impact. This means influencing the ‘rules of the game‘ so that they protect fish stocks, give fair access to water, break down gender discrimination and allow fisher-people to bargain for cheaper boats (to stick with the fishing analogy).

Beekeepers in Ethiopia

Beekeepers in Ethiopia

But where to start when programmes are geared mostly to deliver on the log-frames that drive them forward and rarely have the flexibility for the fluid game-playing associated with influencing?

Recently, I’ve been working with Oxfam’s two flagship enterprise and markets programmes (the Enterprise Development Programme (EDP) and the Gendered Enterprise and Markets Programme (GEM)) on this. Here are four lessons I’ve learned the hard way for shaping how we’re building the influencing components of our enterprise and markets programmes in countries:

1.   Start by scrutinising the problem, not with a tactic

If I had to pick one lesson, I’d say clarity about the problem we want to address. Clarity allows us to zoom in on the right decision-makers and decision-making processes (formal and informal). Once that’s clear, the power analysis begins, where we unpack the ways these decisions can be influenced and the tactics that we should deploy (ranging from writing a research report to public campaigning, from joint-lobbying with companies to convening workshops to highlight farmer perspectives to officials).

Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many aspiring advocates start with the tactic (“let’s do some research to convince MPs of our position”) before really understanding the problem. Only then can you break down who needs to be influenced (maybe not the MP – maybe it’s a business leader at the helm of an industry association or an advisor in the president’s office?).

The very last step is to decide the tactics, which build on what will influence the target (e.g. media attention, collective voice

Women dairy farmers, Bangladesh

Women dairy farmers, Bangladesh

of farmers, evidence of business support for the measure, evidence of likely positive impacts) .

2.   Don’t get walled in by your laundry-list of problems

You will almost certainly have a long list of problems you can rattle off. Ask a programme office working on agriculture, and they’ll probably highlight: access to finance, lack of economic opportunities for women, access to extension, lack of lead firms committing to sourcing….. We need to pick and choose, but prioritising can be painful, so I ask four questions:

(1)  Is it important to the people and enterprises we want to help?

(2)  Are we (and allies) well placed to focus on this issue (i.e. do we have the right expertise, programme evidence, networks, credibility etc)?

(3)  Is there an external opportunity to influence (i.e.; is there a reform process, market disruption, increasing public interest etc)?

(4)  Is there energy on this (are others already working on influencing on this)?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, we probably shouldn’t be focusing our influencing efforts on it.

3.   Ensure programme officers make time for meeting thought-leaders

Programme staff often lack the confidence to engage on bigger picture policy debates. But when they do, their perspectives are thoroughly grounded in programme experience. This makes them credible and means they’re bringing fresh and unique perspectives to policy debates. Giving time to programme staff to ensure they’re engaging in conversations with industry organisations, think-tanks and policy-makers will help get the influencing juices flowing and help them spot influencing opportunities. They’ll have more to contribute than they realise.

4.   Avoid the stereo-type that influencing only equates to lobbying governments

Example-is-not-the-main-thing-in-influencing-others-it-is-the-only-things.-Albert-SchweitzerPolicy-making is only one possible area to influence. Ditto with national-level focus, as our energy may be best spent at local level. For instance, if communities are unable to access agricultural extension, the solution may not lie in achieving formal policy change, it might be about influencing the attitudes of extension officers. Ensuring time-saving tools are available to women farmers may not be about getting government investment in relevant R&D, but might be about working with farmers to demonstrate the market opportunities to agricultural tool manufacturers who are looking to expand.

Influencing is more of an art than a science. It means we need to keep looking at how the systems and associated power are shifting. It means we need to keep looking for opportunities to influence as success usually capitalises on new opportunities. Programmes can be great vehicles for influencing decisions and attitudes beyond their territory and we must enable them to do so.