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NGOs AND POLICY INFLUENCE
Say you are working for an Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that champions mangrove conservation in rural Madagascar. Your NGO’s main objective is to protect mangroves, while working with local communities to help them understand how this habitat is more than just forest to be harvested. Rather, it helps prevent coastal erosion, improves local biodiversity, and provides nesting habitats for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle species.
Convincing local communities and governments is challenging enough, but in a highly globalized world where International Organizations (IOs), such as the United Nations, have been entrusted with increased authority, it might seem like an impossible task to have local, on-the-ground concerns heard.
In this case, how would a local mangrove conservation NGO in Madagascar influence policy decisions about mangroves at the UNEP level?
An article in the British Journal of Political Science co-authored by centre researcher, Lisa Dellmuth, explores just that: how small-scale processes drive policy change at the international level. More specifically, Dellmuth and her colleagues look at what makes NGO lobbying most effective in influencing IOs policy decision.
"The study offers a large-scale empirical assessment of the sources of perceived influence among NGOs active in multiple IOs, issue areas, and policy phases of global governance. As a consequence, these findings imply a few techniques if you want make yourself heard while lobbying for a cause."
Lisa Dellmuth, co-author
Capturing the local to the global
To examine how local NGOs can drive change at an international scale, Dellmuth and colleagues surveyed hundreds of NGOs connected to either central UN-bodies or to other major IOs. While the authors recognize that influence cannot be measured directly, they instead attempted to gain insights about processes and outcomes from NGO political actors.
Dellmuth and colleagues use a number of different indicators for examining influence: NGO characteristics, such as organization size; opportunities for involvement in IO bodies; as well as their strategies for influence and how they believe others perceived their own influence as an organization.
The authors present a number of different rationales for what drives NGO influence.
The first is: NGOs with a higher level of interaction, through providing information to IOs or access to IOs, are more likely to influence policy changes. This idea is rooted in the political science theory of information-access exchange, which argues that decision makers and interest groups are in a cooperative, yet strategic relationship.
In domestic politics, where this theory is generally applied, policy makers seek information from special interest groups as a way to anticipate implications between different decisions. Special interest groups collect information relevant to their cause and constituency to inform policy makers – a means of strategically placing your causes’ voice in the political arena. In the end, the theory hypothesizes: more access, more information, more influence.
Dellmuth and colleagues are one of the firsts to apply this theory beyond the domestic level, to international politics. While this theory has held up in previous studies, the authors also offered three alternative explanations to information-access exchange that might explain NGO influence: resource availability; NGOs that work together for a common cause; and public opinion mobilization.
From a purely research standpoint, Dellmuth explains that this research, suggests broader implications for the study of NGOs in global governance:
"First, the information-access exchange offers a useful theoretical framework, not just on the continental, but on the global scale. Second, it demonstrates the benefits of integrating NGO and international relations research. And third, it shows promise that quantitative methods can be used to complement case study research on NGOs in global governance,” Dellmuth says.
Making yourself heard
Dellmuth believes the study offers a large-scale empirical assessment of the sources of perceived influence among NGOs active in multiple IOs, issue areas, and policy phases of global governance. As a consequence, these findings imply a few techniques if you want make yourself heard while lobbying for a cause.
As an NGO, providing information to international organizations is one of the most effective ways to lobby for the change you want to see. Even better, joining together with other NGOs that share a similar vision to lobby together helps to influence policy changes at the global scale.
However, the study also notes that context and timing of lobbying activity are crucial to the overall ability to influence policy. Particularly, NGOs have a better chance at influencing IOs decision making at the beginning of the process. Despite this, NGOs are typically included during the implementation phase of policy decisions, where the opportunity to influence decisions will have already become more rigid.
Surprisingly, the amount of resources an NGO has access to, as well as, mobilizing public opinion around a cause do not seem to play a role in influencing policy decisions global governance. In other words, you may be a small NGO, but you can still be mighty, even without excess public awareness.
In practice: what about the Madagascar mangroves?
Based on the results from Dellmuth and co-authors, in the case of the Madagascar mangroves, an effective way to influence the UNEP on their policies regarding mangrove conservation could be to:
Tallberg, J., Dellmuth, L. M., Agné, H.M and Duit, A. 2016. NGO Influence in International Organizations: Information, Access and Exchange. British Journal of Political Science, Available on CJO doi:10.1017/S000712341500037X
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