How do you Influence the State when Leaders change every 5 minutes?

June 24, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

Imagine a job where you literally eavesdrop on private (Chatham House rule) conversations between leaders working on the frontlines of international development – trying to influence governments, donors and others, mainly in the insider spaces open to UN agencies, the Red Cross/Crescent and NGOs (both international and national).

Amazingly, I have just such a job, running the GELI programme on influencing, and it is utterly fascinating. Last week I met up online with a bunch of Latin American leaders. The issue that jumped out at me was something I’d previously failed to take seriously in designing change strategies – the issue of churn v longevity.

As any advocate will tell you, influencing is all about building and maintaining relationships. But what do you do in highly unstable political situations eg Peru (four presidents in three years, countless cabinets and ministers) or for that matter, the political churn rate in the UK in recent years? As yet another political leader gets turfed out, not only will all your investment in building trust with them count for nothing, it may even count against you if you are seen as too close to the turfee.

The suggestion from my Latin American colleagues was to identify ‘islands of stability’, where you can be reasonably sure your investment in building a relationship will pay off over a decent length of time. They mentioned sub-national governments and senior civil servants (permanent secretaries – the clue’s in the name), but afterwards I thought about a wider circle:

  • Traditional leaders: in many countries these are a family business and literally last for generations
  • Faith leaders: apart from the more bonkers pastors, these also tend to be in for the long haul
  • Private Sector: Most governments will listen to the big companies that bring in foreign exchange and create jobs, along with their business associations. Ditto institutional and potential foreign investors.
  • The military: OK, they may not be your cup of tea, but senior officers tend to stick around for a lot longer than politicians and in some countries, have the ear of decision-makers.
  • Universities and Think Tanks: The University of Chicago famously started building its relationship with Chile’s Catholic University from the 1950s. 20 years later, their acolytes, known as the ‘Chicago Boys’ overhauled the country’s economy in a precursor of Thatcherism.
  • Influential individuals: Some people remain influential in their own right, because of their past lives (e.g. former political leaders, national treasures etc) or because of their current status. They may move in and out of different institutions and resurface in new roles, so it’s worth building relationships with them even if their current institutional home falls out of favour.

So much for advocacy; if you’re a funder you can also think about how to create jobs and institutions that will ensure longevity for the issue you are working on. In the UK, for example, the big NGOs funded organizations like the Latin America Bureau (where started out in the 1990s – it’s still going) and the Bretton Woods Project, which continues to work and influence on the IMF and World Bank even when the INGO spotlight moves on.

From an analytical point of view, I think this also means improving on the standard ‘stakeholder map’ of power v interest (here’s an example from Malawi).

Sure, you can may identify players in the top right quadrant who are both powerful and supportive of your issue as potential allies, but if they disappear after a couple of months, they may not be worth engaging with.

That suggests (sorry, non-mathematicians), that we may need a third axis (z) to go with x and y. The sweet spot for influencing is building clusters of allies who register positive on influence, interest and longevity.

But from the influencing point of view, these axes are not the same. A good influencing strategy can aim to move players on the interest and power axes, for example by picking the right narrative, or helping build coalitions, but there’s not much you can do to slow down the churn. So maybe longevity should be more of a filter on your choice of targets – chose the ones who are likely to stick around, not the here today, gone tomorrow variety.


June 24, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. This all rings true with my own experience – one additional dimension to influence, interest and longevity, is to think about the “network resilience” in your clusters of allies.

    Resilience requires diversity, so you should make a very deliberate effort to ensure those clusters are politically diverse (if all of your allies are on the left, you will be out in the cold when a right wing government comes in, and your cause will suffer). This might mean working harder with people who score high on influence, but need some convincing to get really interested.

    Resilience also means ensuring there is some capacity for self-organization/autonomous action – ideally your allies will be motivated and able to take initiative that benefits your cause when opportunities arise without you having to be directly involved. This might mean building capacity of those who are highly interested but don’t have the tools to act on that interest.

    And resilience requires that at any point in time there is some redundancy. This might mean including people in your cluster of allies even if they currently rank a bit lower on influence, because there is a chance things will change in future. People who may not be in favour right now may still have connections or experience that mean one day they might end up in a Ministerial role, or appointed to a board, or brought in as an advisor to a Prime Minister, or be called before a parliamentary committee as an expert in your area. You have to find the revolving doors and get to know people on both sides of it.

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      Will do, although teaching, training and coaching others who are doing the hard yards doesn’t really qualify as getting my hands dirty!

  2. I definitely relate to my experience in the Caribbean region where our island communities are relatively small and sub-sectors even smaller with a high turnover of key political positions. It is incredibly important to have a resilient approach to advocacy and influencing. We need to think of resilience both externally (targeting a broad range of entry points in our efforts – permanent secretaries, technical staff in relevant ministries and government agencies at various levels) and internally (it should not be only one person within my organisation who is building the relationships). It’s about knowing who to target for influencing and also having the internal organisational structure to ensure those relationships can be carried forward and don’t “die” when someone within your organisation leaves.

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      Thanks Anna, really interesting. Love this idea of ‘relationship resilience’, which I haven’t come across before

  3. I like your wider circle list. But to be cognizant of effective influencing also obligates thorough cultural understanding.
    What I mean is that if we are talking about a country’s national being influential, all that you have noted applies; if we are foreigners trying to influence– e.g. some UN appointee responsible for a peace process and humanitarian issues in an Asian country during an insurgency– with no previous experience in that country, ignorance of the underlying sociocultural issues that have a bearing on alliances, bureaucratic manoeuvrings, linguistic dependance on translators, let alone the very real influence of other particular countries (which could also be added to your list), any hope for effective influencing is slim.

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