What future for Development Advocacy? Three Paradoxes and Seven Directions

June 10, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam America’s head of policy and advocacy, Paul O’Brien wonders if he’ll still have a job in a few years, based on his Paul-OBrienremarks to a recent Gates Foundation gathering on the evolution of Policy and Advocacy work. 

A century from now, how will development historians characterize our policy advocacy in a post-2015 world?   In a year that aims to transform development finance and goals, policy advocates have to grapple with three paradoxes:

  • The places where we have the most influence show the least appetite for change;
  • As our slice of the development financing pie gets smaller, it is becoming more important; and
  • The only thing worse than not being taken seriously, is being taken seriously.


hammer-nailThe Hammer Paradox

The environments where we have the most access, influence, advocacy resources and political space are in Northern political capitals.  And so we challenge politicians in Brussels and Washington, because we know how to do it, and because we can.  For our advocacy hammer, Northern policy makers make a great nail.

Unfortunately, those northern politicians aren’t listening to our hammering.  An excellent 2009 study, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why found that, over the previous decade, the majority of lobbying efforts failed, and 19 out of 20 times, it didn’t matter how much money lobbyists threw at the problem.   By contrast, the study found, efforts to defend existing policies often succeeded (so our work to defend aid and stop policy reforms that are bad for the poor are frequently our most successful).  

Meanwhile, all over the developing world, and especially in countries where so many of the extreme poor are—from China and India to the more fragile states in Africa and Central Asia—there is much more “elasticity” in economic policy and political space, for better and worse–just look at the countries with significant changed rankings in freedom, corruption, and open budgets.   At the same time, global corporations are waking up to the profit implications of being good or bad planetary citizens, which helps explain the success of Behind The Brands.

Over the next 15 years, it will become existentially clear to many global advocacy organizations that we must put more effort where the real elasticity is.   We are going to have to develop influence in Abuja, Delhi, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa, and with Coke, Petrochina, and Barclays Bank.

Does that mean we need to close up shop in Washington, London and Brussels?  No.  But as developing country governments and corporations become primary targets (the ones whose policies we need to influence), we will increasingly work with northern political actors as secondary targets (where they still have influence over our primary targets).   But if we keep hammering away solely at Northern nails in the hope of remaining relevant to a post-2015 world, we are fooling ourselves and very few others.

leverBigCornersThe Lever Paradox

The most ubiquitous factoids going into the big Financing for Development summit in Addis Ababa next month will surely be those that show global ODA diminishing as a proportion of public international finance, which in turn is being increasingly dwarfed by domestic resources.

Paradoxically, as the money we control (our own resources) and help to shape (e.g. ODA) become a smaller part of the pie, how each dollar gets used may have a much greater impact on the lives of the poor by 2030.

Take Mozambique which languishes at 178 on the Human Development Index, behind Liberia, Afghanistan and Haiti.   They have discovered 250 trillion cubic feet of gas off their shorelines, which could provide a third of their fiscal revenue.   Development advocacy, properly targeted, may help to shape how much of that wealth gets exploited or left in the ground.  It may expose corruption and incentivize political institutions to manage this new national wealth better, it could meet critical humanitarian gaps in health and education until the domestic resources start to flow.

Ethiopia (HDI rank: 173) hosts the Financing summit, and the government will be telling a story of economic growth not aid.   They plan to keep growing at 10% a year until they become a Middle Income country in ten years.    The key variable will be the quality of that growth, and where its dividends are invested, and that may depend on the political space to self-correct when policies are misplaced.   Considering the operating environment for civil society in Ethiopia, the space to flag issues to be considered for self-correction is in jeopardy.  And that raises a last paradox.

oscar wildeWilde’s Paradox (doesn’t apply)

Oscar Wilde once wrote “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”   For development advocates today, the reverse is true:  the only thing worse than not being talked about, is the new attention we are getting.

As USAID increasingly embraces governance work and the importance of local institutions and solutions, they are getting kicked out of countries like Russia and Bolivia for having an increasingly political agenda.   In India, the government has frozen Greenpeace’s bank accounts, and has put the Ford Foundation on a watch list.

As development work becomes as much about shaping power as transferring resources, about strengthening political will as much as institutional capacity, about incentives as much as innovation, this paradox may be the most troubling of all.

Seven ways to evolve our work:

The Hammer, Lever and Wilde Paradoxes will force us to get more sophisticated in our (1) language, (2) identity, (3) evidence, (4) incentives, (5) partnerships (6) theories of change, and (7) proof of impact.

Language:  If the words we use are too euphemistic, we will fool ourselves that the poor have no politics, and nor do we.  If are too blunt, we will lose our space to operate.

Identity:  Northern-funded and -controlled development institutions will have to change who “we” are if they are to retain the legitimacy, skills and space they need to play a useful role.   If we rebalance our power and resources and evolve our identity, we could become a truly worldwide influencing network.   If we don’t, our political relevance will dissipate. 

Evidence:   Local elites will give us more space as technical experts than as opaquely-financed ideologues.  When we do take explicit sides and lobby in the South, the more we can ground our positions on solid empirical research, the higher the costs of sanctioning or ignoring our work.

Incentives:   For the last 30 years, “influencing governments” in the developing world meant developing non-confrontational “partnerships” to deliver services  and convince governments to adopt our innovations.   There were few incentives for donors, operational NGOs or government aid agencies to confront governments in developing countries or hold them accountable, if it meant risking access or getting evicted.  The incentives and ways of working within our organizations will have to change if we are to get serious about influencing in non-permissive environments.

Partnerships:  As we shift our southern partnerships from apolitical implementers to those who seek to shape policy and new partnershippolitics, we must understand how civil society activism actually works and is perceived in many developing countries.  Many governments already view local civil society as “the opposition in waiting”, and our support for them as a partisan statement that cannot be shrouded in development-speak.    We will have to rethink our alliances, perhaps moving beyond formally constituted CSOs to the institutions and individuals that accompany the poor or create platforms for their political voice—religious and creative bodies among them.

Theories of Change:   Being relentless about empowerment does not always mean being conspicuous.   Deep theories of change permit political subtlety.  The genius of the transparency movement is that its theory of change is so passive-aggressive.   Which skeptical politician could begrudge a thirst for accurate data?   Yet the underlying logic is profoundly political–that transparent data and empowered citizens can challenge governments to be more accountable.

Proof of Impact:  As more work shifts from service delivery to influencing, the burden to demonstrate a “return on investment” for policy and advocacy work will only grow.    As data and tech transform what is knowable, we cannot ask our publics and donors to “trust ” that we are delivering.   The organizations that marry operational presence in the south with innovative technology and proof of influence will thrive while others will starve. 

If collectively we are to be remembered a hundred years from now for having confronted and tackled the crises of our age—the pervasive extremes of poverty, climate and economic inequality, then we must confront these paradoxes and find new, more politically relevant ways to shape our world.

June 10, 2015
Duncan Green