International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have repeatedly won Nobel prizes for their advocacy work and helped combat major world problems ranging from arms control to global poverty. However, international advocacy organizations, particularly those from high-income countries in the Global North, face a growing crisis of relevance.
Policymakers and the general public increasingly question the accuracy of NGOs’ claims and the legitimacy of allowing Northern NGOs to speak for, or advocate on behalf of, people living in developing countries. In a growing number of countries, legal restrictions on foreign NGOs have limited Northern NGOs’ ability to conduct operations or provide funding, reducing their access and capacity to work with Southern partners.
At the same time, NGOs and activists from many Southern countries have begun to assert their power and voices on international issues. Local farmers and beekeepers in Mexico, for example, have successfully challenged Monsanto’s efforts to expand the production of genetically modified soybeans there. And Vietnamese NGOs have challenged Global Fund policies toward middle-income countries.
New types of advocacy organizations have further disrupted the global NGO community and the space of transnational activism. Members of the Open Progressive Engagement Network, for instance, use new digital technology and mobile-based platforms to expand grassroots engagement and facilitate volunteer-led campaigns.
What do these changes herald for the future of international advocacy organizations? Here, six NGO scholars offer three perspectives on the future of transnational advocacy and discuss how organizations can adapt to the challenges of 21st-century campaigning. We highlight three trends: the continued reliance of Northern NGOs on Northern power and funding, the increasing power of Southern NGOs and advocacy networks, and the disruptive nature of new technology. We also show how the diffusion of power, both to Southern NGOs and to digital activists, challenges traditional approaches to advocacy and suggest strategies by which NGOs can adapt to these changes.
The Dilemma of Northern NGOs
International advocacy organizations face many challenges related to power and representation. These groups have evolved into global brands over the past decades, because they mobilized Western publics and elites for causes largely compatible with a liberal world order. Past victories reflected a projection of Western norms, including institutional advances in civil and political rights, and standout successes such as the anti-landmines agreement in 1997, the International Criminal Court Statute in 2002, and sharp reductions in female genital cutting. While many of these issues also found significant support beyond the United States and Europe, organizations from the global South rarely defined the agenda. Over time, this approach led many NGOs to increasingly professionalize and become global lobbyists with privileged access to Western states, multilateral agencies, and the United Nations. As the prominence and influence of international advocacy groups increased, they also embraced an increasingly incremental and global approach to their activism.
Rather than designing campaigns based on local communities’ input, global advocacy has often focused exclusively on abstract rights and “naming and shaming” strategies. Such campaigns often elicit concessions from targeted states and businesses, but rarely change the underlying root causes of social and economic injustice. Many large NGOs still struggle to be responsive to local needs, largely because their past successes reinforced a focus on organizational growth. Over time, perceived elitism negatively affected public opinion of the sector, especially among younger demographics. Dictators and rights violators have adjusted to the presence of NGOs, while the general public increasingly questions NGOs’ major currency: the perceived moral legitimacy of their activism.
Many advocacy organizations have responded to this legitimacy crisis by trying to become more globally representative. Amnesty International, for example, has established regional offices across the globe to better respond to local populations. ActionAid moved its headquarters to Johannesburg in 2004 and improved Southern representation in its membership, while Oxfam is currently moving to Nairobi. In addition to moving headquarters and diversifying leadership and membership, prominent NGOs have embraced rights-based advocacy, as well as new roles of empowering local groups rather than perpetuating the “white-savior” mentality often pervasive in traditional, staff-driven advocacy.
Such efforts to become more representative and responsive to diverse global audiences are steps in the right direction, but they may not be enough to address deeply entrenched patterns of global inequality. Many global advocacy organizations today face a powerful imperative to protect their brands, and maintain their power and fundraising effectiveness. They may want to become nimbler and more accountable to local communities, but their professionalization and entrenched organizational cultures push them to prioritize perpetual growth and global status. In short, Northern NGOs confront a dilemma: They cannot stay relevant and legitimate without truly giving up power to Southern voices, but they cannot maintain their current power and influence without catering to Northern priorities.
A Necessary Rebalancing
While Northern NGOs have led many of the major advocacy campaigns of the past 35 years, their successes have often relied on cooperation with communities in the Global South. Southern activists provided access to local populations and information on local needs. Northern NGOs then reframed these needs to appeal to Northern audiences, and communicated this revised message to interested policy makers and the media.
This reframing often ignored local input or oversimplified complex issues. For example, US environmental activists claimed that local populations in India were opposed to the Sardar Sarovar Dam, part of the World Bank-funded hydropower project on the Narmada River. In reality, the local mobilization mainly focused on questions of adequate resettlement on new land. In Christian Aid’s ”Who Runs the World?” campaign, international activists translated the nuanced reforms proposed by partners in Jamaica and the Philippines into blanket criticism of structural adjustment. Another example is the Kony 2012 campaign, which was designed for viral appeal but largely ignored local voices.
It is unsurprising that Southern actors would seek to undertake advocacy on their own behalf, and the convergence of several trends is now empowering them to do so. An increasing number of developing countries are rising to middle-income status and fostering an entrepreneurial middle class with the resources to support local civil society efforts. Southern NGOs, benefiting from the intentional and unintentional capacity-building pressures of Northern partners, have professionalized and increased their capacity. And intergovernmental organization staff, long interested in local perspectives and information, are increasingly getting local insights directly from Southern NGOs.
Expanding democratization and government reform has accompanied the strengthening of Southern NGOs, improving partnerships between national governments and local organizations. Local NGOs have gained greater influence and access to policymaking in Brazil, South Africa, India, and many other states. South-South development cooperation has proliferated, including vastly expanded Chinese support for infrastructure projects across Africa. This trend extends to the civil society sector, where Southern NGOs assist each other in organizational development. Even the recent wave of restrictive regulations on NGOs, which have limited or banned foreign NGO activities in countries like Russian, Pakistan, and Tanzania, have had some beneficial effects; some Northern NGOs have spun off their Southern chapters, making them independent entities, and some Northern donors now directly fund Southern NGOs rather than Northern NGO intermediaries.
The result is a long-overdue rebalancing of North-South power in the advocacy space. Southern NGOs are gaining more power globally and locally, as they now play a larger role in an increasingly fractured advocacy space. They are now addressing many policy issues, such as climate change or the regulation of genetically modified organisms, at local, national, and regional levels. The result is fewer broadly messaged global campaigns, and an advocacy environment in which the presence and global reputations of Northern NGOs are less relevant. Digital tools, which enable people all around the world to start their own campaigns at lower cost, and adapt campaigns such as climate change to local audiences and conditions, are facilitating this shift toward locally driven activism.
New Digital Advocacy
Traditional advocacy NGOs also face competition from a new generation of digital activists. Many new social movements mobilize around Twitter hashtags—think #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #FridaysForFuture. These movements are powered by a diffuse network of individuals, connected through social media by a common experience (such as sexual harassment or racism) or cause (climate change), and some have been incredibly effective at gaining media attention and triggering social change. Their organizational model contrasts starkly with traditional, centralized, NGO campaigns. Digitally based social movements often comprise non-hierarchical networks of individuals and do not have leaders with clear authority. This makes it harder for them to negotiate with adversaries. They also lack the organizational structures to reflect on tactics and campaign messaging, learn which are most effective, and retain and apply lessons to future campaigns.
The Internet has also enabled the growth of new digital advocacy organizations, such as MoveOn and GetUp. These organizations are distinct from hashtag movements, in that they are permanent organizations with full-time staff and physical headquarters. They take advantage of the low cost of sending an email or posting on Facebook to test campaign issues and messaging, and then run the most successful ones. Many groups have developed sophisticated digital analytics to “listen” to their members and customize their messages for maximize public engagement. They will regularly test their email subject lines and content to determine which issues and what framing garners the most support, and reshape their campaigns accordingly.
But the digital era also raises important ethical questions for NGOs. Are they, for example, engaging in what Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”? Zuboff defines this as “a new economic order that claims human experience as raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” After all, some advocacy organizations now collect extensive data on the preferences and demographics of their supporters, much like major digital platforms and businesses such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google. And while this information may help NGOs better target their campaigns, it may simultaneously undermine public confidence in NGOs if they collect, store, and share individuals’ data without active consent. NGO’s digital presence requires that organizations set ethical standards that put the interests of their members first.
The Future of Transnational Advocacy
Established NGOs looking to the future need to not only accommodate new participants in the international advocacy space, but also transform their own business models to succeed in a digital and multi-polar world.
For Northern NGOs embedded in traditional North-South confederations and networks, it is increasingly impractical to resist change. Granted, inequality across NGOs mirrors historical patterns of global inequality and, at least for the moment, Southern populations cannot yet match the funding available in the Global North. As a result, Northern voices will likely continue to dominate for some time. Yet to preserve their legitimacy over the long term, Northern NGOs will need to cede real power to Southern partners by granting governance and decision-rights autonomy to more members of North-South confederations, and by equalizing voice, vote, and resources.
The question is: How far are Northern NGOs willing to go?
This is a question of some urgency. As Southern empowerment advances and Northern-led campaigns falter, Northern NGOs will become less relevant to the overall impact of transnational advocacy. Southern voices may drive the advocacy agenda on their own and via new partnerships with national governments or NGOs in the same region, replacing traditional North-South ties. As transnational advocacy decentralizes to the regional and national levels, Northern NGOs eager to retain their relevance must move beyond selecting local partners that advance Northern agendas and genuinely embrace the role of supporting actor in these new localized fights. The future of NGO advocacy may lie in the accumulation of smaller victories.
Of course, not all policy debates will move to Southern or regional contexts. And NGOs working on transnational issues will increasingly need to work with digital platforms to amplify and democratize their messaging. Many traditional NGOs are adopting a more decentralized, digitally networked model of advocacy that could enable members of the public, whether in the Global North or South, greater control over their advocacy agenda. Some Greenpeace national offices, for instance, have started experimenting with “distributed campaigning,” delegating power to Greenpeace members to start their own campaigns online through Greenpeace’s website. Greenpeace International also established MobLab to develop in-house expertise on digital, distributed campaigning. MobLab is now independent, and advises and runs workshops for other NGOs worldwide.
However, not all NGOs may want to adopt this model of distributed organizing; some may be risk averse and/or not want to devolve power to their members. Other NGOs may have concerns that the majority of their members do not have the expertise or desire to develop and sustain progressive campaigns on issues such as climate change or refugees. The digital era pushes NGOs to address deeper questions about their relevance, while providing the tools to remake themselves and their operational logic. Advocacy groups will have to decide whether to embrace the role of disruptor or to pursue slow, incremental change with limited experimentation at the edges. To become influential 21st-century campaigners, NGOs will need to join newcomers in the digital realm and in the Global South by fundamentally reimagining their own roles, and their relations with members and the general public.