Global Policy Forum

NGOs Must Form Creative Alliances to Tackle Global Poverty and Injustice

NGOs must purse new, and perhaps unexpected, alliances to successfully affect change; this is the message from Oxfam International's Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director, Stephen Hale.  Hale argues that creative alliances achieve a number of purposes; including broadening and deepening public support and NGO capacity building.  NGO alliances with business are on the rise, not necessarily because business is growing a conscience, but rather "businesses see partnerships as a way of restoring people's trust and confidence in them."  While alliances can be effective, NGOs must be cautious that they are not pursued at the expense of affecting change.

Stephen Hale

March 14, 2011

Clever collaboration between sectors is essential if we are to build public support to achieve our common goals

Why work with others? Life is a lot more straightforward when you don't. But no NGO can succeed in isolation. Oxfam's charitable mission is to end poverty and injustice. We're not the only ones. We all have a responsibility to work together where it accelerates progress towards goals we share.

In developed countries, that means collaborating to influence the actions of our governments and to deepen public support for those efforts. This has never been easy. But it's getting much harder. A shift in public expectations of NGOs and the (very welcome) rise of new social actors are among the trends that make it tougher than ever.

How good are we at this today? First base is co-operation within individual NGO sectors. For Oxfam, that happens through organisations like Bond in the UK, Eurodad in Brussels and the Global Call to Action against Poverty. Such groups enable us to develop a common approach to external events such as the forthcoming G20 summit in France, and to share knowledge and learning.

But of course we can and must collaborate far more broadly. The environment, development, human rights, migration and many other NGO sectors are deeply intertwined, and examples of their collaboration include the Robin Hood Tax coalition, an amazingly strong and diverse group pushing for a new tax on the financial sector. The Jubilee Debt campaign was another that made a major global impact by bringing together development NGOs, faith groups and many others.

But too often our co-operation is limited to our traditional allies, and by the perception of different interests which would require sustained dialogue to resolve. We're generally stronger when we collaborate and demonstrate to politicians and the public the strength of support for our concerns, particularly through unusual alliances that catch public attention.

At the same time, new modes of organisation and shifts in public attitudes are diminishing the impact of even diverse alliances between traditional NGOs. The successful alliance strategies of the future will need to grapple with three significant new challenges.

First, NGO alliances are difficult to establish, but even more difficult to adapt and sustain with mass public support. Many partners typically means many decision-makers. This is a long-standing dilemma. But it is made far more acute by the rise of new social movements and citizen groups that are far more flexible and give their supporters control over both message and action.

The success of UK Uncut in highlighting corporate taxation and of the movement against the government's proposed new forests policy are recent examples of the success of these new groups. The far more dramatic events in the Middle East also show the power of new social movements to bring about truly historic change.

Second, the territory traditionally occupied by voluntary sector groups is increasingly being occupied by others. There is a big drive, with money and sophistication behind it, for private sectors to fill spaces of social conscience. There's also a continuing growth in collaboration between businesses and NGOs such as Oxfam. The challenge for Oxfam and others is to identify the opportunities that will deliver, as opposed to those that dilute the demand for change.

A recent survey of trust conducted by Edelman showed that businesses see partnerships as a way of restoring people's trust and confidence in them. But we don't get to decide this. Businesses are increasingly mobilising consumers themselves to take both personal and political action.

Third, our existing strategies aren't nearly as effective as they need to be at deepening public understanding and support for action. Despite all our endeavours, the Department for International Development's annual survey of public attitudes shows that the proportion of people professing themselves "very concerned" about global poverty shifted just 1% (downwards) between 1997 and 2010. The figure did rise in the aftermath of the phenomenally high-profile Make Poverty History campaign, but fell back soon afterwards.

Deeper public support for action on global poverty is absolutely critical to success in the longer term. This is an area where collaboration is vital. The forthcoming report by Andrew Darnton and Oxfam's Martin Kirk on the importance of framing research for our future strategies will be valuable to many in the sector in the UK and around the world.

The successful alliance strategies of this decade will look very different. There are no hard and fast solutions to these challenges. We're all on this journey together, learning from the success of new movements and developing new ways to broaden and deepen public support. Our task remains the same, and the political class is more vulnerable than ever to public concern. But none of us can do this alone. Let's make new friends and influence people.


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