Top Tips and Dilemmas in Influencing from seven senior Aid Leaders

October 25, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Last in the current snapshots of the GELI Influencing programme I’ve been leading this year. We’ve had blogs on all the other elements – the Face to Face meetings, the ‘user experience’, the podcasts with experts. Here’s a write up (Chatham House rule) of the missing piece – the online modules, in this case on analysis. 7 senior aid folk (UN, INGOs, Red Cross/Crescent) recently squeezed 90 minutes out of their crazy schedules for a fascinating discussion (can’t really call it a webinar – they did most of the talking, I just asked questions). Some highlights:

Using tools such as stakeholder analysis and fishbone diagrams to unpack problems: one participant got stuck in Burkina Faso during the recent coup and used the stakeholder map and everyday political analysis to work out how to improve their security. Instant relevance! Others used the Einstein quote with their teams to get them to think harder about problems.

Trust-building: One high level UN official working in a difficult, autocratic environment picked up on a comment in the Face to Face and decided to attend the funeral of a senior trade unionist. No agenda, just showing respect. They bumped into senior government officials and religious leaders who would normally be very hard to access and in the days following, three others came up and said, ‘we saw you at the funeral’. Doors opened. Trust built.

Discomfort of playing Machiavelli: Another who ‘previously said yes to everything’ decided to get more deliberate, assessing requests for meetings on the likely influence of the petitioner and getting proactive on reaching out to potential private sector allies. To do this they used their social network (they were working in their home country) – college chums, or people who had left the aid sector and moved elsewhere. Another called this process having ‘a wider eye’. But ‘it’s tough being so calculating, especially when you are on the receiving end, and you know someone has decided you’re not worth talking to!’ Even worse when it is entangled with your friendship networks.

Intentionality v Open Mind: Getting very specific about the problem you want to address (back to Einstein) helps you chart the path to a given decision maker, especially when you can only reach them by passing through a chain of intermediaries. ‘It makes your intervention much more guided’. But that may be too deliberate. Another was fretting to their driver about not being able to get a meeting with a senior official and the driver responded ‘oh, he always takes coffee in XX’. They went there and sure enough, after 30 minutes, the official walked in and they invited him to join them. They drank coffee for 3 hours and got huge amounts of intel on the way decisions are made, and why they were being frozen out. Squaring the circle could mean being deliberate in working out who to target, but ‘going with the flow’ in how you engage with them.

Time pressure: ‘the time to form networks is well in advance of actually needing them for anything, but time pressure is huge, and other, urgent things keep getting prioritised.’ And how do you keep your bosses on board if results take 5 years to materialize, with nothing to show for it in years 1-4? ‘Report against intent – make what you are trying to do visible’.

Example from a GELI workshop – fishbone analysis of hunger in East Africa

Churn: ‘We know that many influencing strategies take many years to get results, but we rotate out after 2 years and want to leave an impact.’ Smooth handovers to whoever is replacing you are essential but rare. Often there is a 6 month gap between someone leaving and being replaced and local players notice – ‘you people are made in China. You don’t last long!’ That makes local governments, decision makers etc become more transactional – they want to get stuff out of you in the short time you are there and are less willing to discuss long term issues.

If we accept that short staff rotations are unlikely to go away, what to do?

Sorting out the handover system, so that incomers get up to speed right away, would help. One senior UN figure had had only one in-person 3 week handover in 23 years of multiple postings in the humanitarian system. Once someone leaves post, they move on to another crisis. ‘within 6 months they’ve forgotten all about you.’

But handovers are tricky. A list of names and suggestions isn’t much help, even if outgoing people are willing to write them down (and incomers can be bothered to read them). Relationships are built on personal chemistry and not necessarily easy to hand over to your replacement.

So what other ways are there to improve continuity? National staff and partners are both more permanent and more knowledgeable about local context; they can provide the collective memory if enabled to do so. But too often, they have ‘a wealth of experience and relationships, but can’t get a seat at the table, because of language, or the ways of working of the aid sector.’

Right now, feels like every conversation leads back to localization!

October 25, 2022
Duncan Green