Where next for NGOs?

What’s a single issue NGO to do in a multi-issue world? It’s no easy balancing act.

On one hand, funding departments argue that members want to see them campaigning on the issues they’re known for. Too much scope creep, they say, could lead to falling subscriptions, legacies and income. (Sometimes, members are in fact surpisingly open-minded and ready to understand interconnections between issues, and it’s actually conservatively minded staff members, rather than grassroots members, who want to keep things ‘as they’ve always been’.)

On the other hand, the brighter NGO policy departments understand very well that as issues like environment, conflict, development and human rights become increasingly intertwined, it makes less and less sense to focus resolutely on just one piece of the puzzle. Will the Oxfam / Greenpeace / Amnesty generation of NGOs be able to make the shift? Or are we heading towards a new – and perhaps less ‘vertically integrated’ – model of NGO campaigning?

Take Amnesty International, which has been more open than most to broadening its interpretation of its mission. It has championed the message that protecting human rights implies addressing root causes of abuses, including – for example – the international arms trade, where Amnesty is campaigning together with Oxfam.

Yet as a recent Economist article showed, plenty of people are ready to criticise the new approach: “current and former Amnesty insiders worry that an increasingly grandstanding and unfocused approach makes it ineffective”, opines Edward Lucas, the magazine’s central and east European correspondent. Oxfam has experienced similar muttering from some internal quarters about its increasing focus on conflict, which – bizarrely – not a few in the aid world still see as a separate issue from development.

But on the other hand, NGOs that have remained focused on the core areas for which they’re best known often find that they simply lack the platform needed to set out credible positions on global issues. No sector demonstrates this better than the major environment NGOs like Greenpeace, WWF or Friends of the Earth, who have failed either to move beyond sounding the alarm bell and towards describing comprehensive solutions, or to get to grips with the wider political economy dimensions of the issues they campaign on.

Take the Stop Climate Chaos campaign, a coalition of environment NGOs (and some development ones too, though firmly in the back seat) designed to ‘do a Make Poverty History’ on global warming. A great idea in principle; yet the coalition’s policy positions are completely incoherent on what it actually wants internationally. In particular, despite all the rhetoric about global fairness, the agencies running SCC have not managed e to set out any answer to the central question of how to share out a future ‘global emissions budget’. (This has been the subject of a massive internal row in the coalition – but that’s for another post.)

These sort of fudges – that duck the interconnections between issues, and value a neatly branded campaign over a well worked-up and comprehensive policy proposition – can have the effect of alienating grassroots members who are, inevitably, less professionalised or jaded than full-time staff at headquarters. A 2004 study for British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND), an umbrella organisation, argued that

While British NGOs remain central in campaigns around debt relief and trade justice, they somehow seem to have lost touch with the groundswell of radical activism which is mobilising large numbers of people around the same causes as they espouse. There is a danger that NGOs will be squeezed out of their niche, unable to recruit volunteers and experiencing falling donations, and that they will be rejected by a whole new generation of activists as irrelevant, co-opted, or a part of the system which they are fighting.

So with traditional single issue NGOs caught between the devil and the deep blue sea as far as complex global issues – which don’t respect neat sectoral boundaries – are concerned, are there any examples of more deft and nimble civil society campaigning?