Research → Policy; understanding NGO failures and trying to be funny on inequality: conversations with students

March 14, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been meeting some impressive students this week. Last night I was at a very swanky dinner organized  by the LSE Student Society trickle-downof its massive International Development department (rising to 300 uber-capable one year Masters students). Tricky gig – how do you make the topic (inequality) funny, as required by the after dinner speaker genre? Your responses to my tweeted appeal for jokes were no help – ‘did you know that half the best jokes belong to just 1% of comedians’ was the best one. Crowdsourcing clearly has its limitations.

Earlier in the week, I headed down to IDS last week for a deeply enjoyable seminar with its Governance Masters students on a perennial topic – how research does/doesn’t influence policy (powerpoint here IDS Research Into Policy March 2014, please steal). Key points:

Start with the right questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Who are we trying to influence with evidence? Politicians, civil servants or other? They each need a different research approach.
  • What’s already known? What more is needed?
  • What kind of research will be most effective?
  • How should we engage our targets for best effect? (see recent post on what White House officials think about research)


  • I’ve done my research, now how do I get people to listen to my findings? (distressingly common, in practice).

Timing is crucial: if you want to influence policy, think about where your issue is located in the ‘policy funnel’ (see below, explanation here) and what that implies for the methodology, comms etc. Key times when policy is most likely to be influenced by research are when a ‘new issue’ is still forming in the minds of policy makers, at the right point of the political timetable (eg election campaigns, manifestos) or after shocks (scandals, crises, new leaders). Rapid reaction is likely to deliver more results than a steady grind of research + seminar, but can be hard to finance (a ‘drop everything, rehash old research and go into media overdrive’ funding pot?).

policy funnelWe then spent the second half sitting on the grass in the sun (in the open air? In March? In England?) having a great exchange on the aid business, NGOs etc. What struck me was the number of times I ended up talking about incentives, cultures and systems. Among other things, the students (a bright bunch with lots of first hand experience from the 12 countries represented – no Brits) raised the following questions:

  • Why do NGOs sometimes find it hard to collaborate?
  • Why do NGOs dislike working with the private sector?
  • Why is it so hard to follow Engineers Without Borders and explicitly learn from failure?
  • Why are NGO campaigns and policy engagement often too short term, moving on before the job is done, and sometimes leaving partners and communities in the lurch?

In all of these, my response involved some version of:

Incentives: NGOs, like any other large institution, are not monoliths, but assemblies of different sub-parts, which may share overall purpose and values, but also have different short term incentives. So fund raisers and media people may be in competition with other NGOs, whereas campaigners and advocacy people have clear incentives to increase influence by forming coalitions.

Culture: People in NGOs are not poverty reducing automata. They come with baggage that can both inspire and hinder their work. Lots of lapsed Catholics in a programme make it very unlikely they will work with the Church, even when the situation seems to demand it (sexual and reproductive rights in the Philippines?). Campaigners seeking a new world order where profit is no longer king may have an instinctive antipathy to large corporations, driving fundraisers crazy.

Systems: Different systems work to distinctive rhythms: public protest and mobilization is always likely to be spikey, producing moments of uprising and protest, which then fade away, as the agglomerations of smaller, more long lasting organizations (trade unions, student unions, faith groups, producer organizations etc) dissipate.

So what? Well, rather than just labelling people (‘othering’ in IDS-speak)  who disagree with you as right wingers, baddies, neoliberals, [insert perjorative term of choice], understanding why people think/act like they do is crucial to influencing them. Plus, you can save yourself a lot of self-criticism if you realize that things like protests waxing and waning is not down to being a good/bad campaigner, but is inherent in the nature of popular movements – then you can spend your time more productively getting ready to catch the next wave.

Secondly, if you want to change your organization, you need to understand it. Doing a power analysis, understanding people’s incentives, assembling coalitions for change, working out how to neutralize or win over the blockers. In short, you need to apply all the analysis and advocacy skills you would apply to influencing a company or government department. For some reason, people seem reluctant to do this – all too often, we think haranguing and finger wagging should suffice, because we haven’t understood that not everyone in our organizations thinks/acts like us.

March 14, 2014
Duncan Green