Why and how the UN and NGOs need to work together at national level

October 5, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Two participants from our recent influencing training in Panama (Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez, National Influencing Adviser at Oxfam, and Alice Shackelford, UN Resident Coordinator in Honduras) discuss what they learned and the implications for more effective advocacy

A couple of weeks ago the GELI course on Influencing for Senior Leaders brought representatives from the UN and several national and international NGOs across Latin America together in Panama City. We were expertly led through four days of getting to grips with different tools for influencing, hearing powerful experiences of advocacy and campaigns in national and multilateral contexts, and being thrown into practical exercises to test our skills, including a full day simulation of multiple crises hitting the country of “Gelia”.

It was precisely during this exercise that one key lesson emerged. We were split into groups trying to make sense of how to respond to forest fires, displacement, social unrest, and international pressures. Whether we had been assigned to play the role of national government, neighbouring government, local social movements, NGOs or UN agencies in the humanitarian country team, our aim was the same, to try to reach agreement around a joint communique to secure emergency funding to save lives and rebuild the country.

Easy, right? Beyond the curveballs the facilitation team threw in throughout the day – including your very own Duncan Green playing the role of the holidaying ambassador being called back to chair the communique meeting – one fundamental challenge quickly emerged: how to coordinate across multiple stakeholders, with varying political interests and often very specific agendas of their own, particularly given the government wasn’t stepping into that coordination role.

We’d been introduced (by Geli’s Hugo Slim and Anna Macdonald) to a framework for thinking about the impact of our influencing work a day or two before. What was interesting was how quickly each of our groups immediately set about trying to influence at the upper two levels – “Connective” and “Ambient” – tweeting our own positions and messages furiously, and rushing around trying to meet the people who seemed to have power, almost always bilaterally.

At one point the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) announced how they had assigned the internal relief fund allocations from HQ, and that they had a proposal for the flash appeal to be launched with the government. Although some consultations did take place, Gelian CSOs mobilised to make their voice heard and meanwhile the government criticized the HCT for not having consulted them. Few people seemed to be standing back looking at the wider picture and assessing who actually needed to be involved.  It was a high pressure (fun?) simulation, but parallels with real humanitarian contexts and coordination challenges could easily be drawn.

In the face of multiple crises, the exercise emphasised the need to find ways to jointly strategise, particularly between national civil society, INGOs and UN agencies. Our analyses of the contexts, of the key emerging trends and threats to human rights and social justice, are often very similar and our actions potentially highly connected. Yet when it comes to the specifics of our influencing strategies, we tend to hunker down in our own corners, focusing on the tactics and channels we are more comfortable with, and of course that limits the impact we achieve, particularly in the quadrants of “Normative” or “Operational” change. We tend to look at the context from our own perspective without necessarily understanding the positions and proposed actions of others.

Each of our organisations has voice and legitimacy in very different spaces. Perceptions of our organisations vary hugely depending on who we should be speaking with, even though we may have common goals. This means that on those common goals, joint strategies could mean certain actors speaking up in certain spaces and moments, and other staying silent. On more than one occasion we heard UN staff members allude to the fact that NGOs tend to be quick to speak out, not always achieving the intended aim, and we also heard the frustration from NGO reps, when the UN seems to fail to speak out at times of crisis. The setup of a Humanitarian Country Team at national level allows for joint analysis and advocacy. It is intended to enable humanitarian actors to produce change in government approaches or secure international assistance, amongst other aspects. But it doesn’t always work that way.

The available points of entry for our influencing also vary hugely, and all can be important. When one of the UN resident coordinators in the workshop took a call from a foreign minister, many of us from the NGOs thought it was just part of the simulation – it wasn’t – it was real life! Thinking through which stakeholders are important to engage is important in any strategy, but also being realistic about who each of our organisations can connect with, who is better placed to do what, and the importance of how each of these roles connects and builds on each other is also vital.

Finally, effective influencing relies on excellent political analysis and yet each of our organisations inevitably has glaring blind spots. The possibility of strategizing together can help us identify these more clearly, and so test the assumptions we make about how change will occur. Establishing regular meetings between UN heads at country level and the international and national NGOs has been shown to be effective in developing complementary approaches and enabling strategies that build on each other’s strengths.   

The multiple dimensions of any crisis we face require multidimensional partnerships and strategies for influencing and achieving change in people’s lives. Beyond the specific phase of an emergency, humanitarian actors need to engage with each other on a regular basis, nurturing collaboration and partnerships, and focusing not only on implementation, but also on influencing the critical actors in the field. We would all like to see attention placed on the issues that we prioritise, but perhaps a key benefit of joint strategizing across UN agencies and NGOs is that we could have more accurate analysis of where there is real opportunity for change, encouraging us to focus, collectively.

October 5, 2022
Duncan Green