It has long been clear that many non-state actors have more influence on international policymaking than a great many sovereign states. No one doubts the impact that major multinational corporations and terrorist organisations can have, for better or worse. But the role of a number of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) has been more significant than is generally recognised and what makes the best of them tick is worth exploring.
According to current estimates, there are some 40,000 NGOs operating internationally, with the overwhelming majority focusing primarily on health, education, welfare, economics, industry, energy, the environment, human rights, social policy and governance and development-related issues. A much smaller number — a few hundred at best — work primarily on peace and security issues, though some primarily human rights-focused organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are influential here.
Those that seek to influence foreign-policy outcomes can be typecast, perhaps unkindly, as “thinkers,” “talkers” or “doers.” In other words, they tend to be pure think tanks, research institutions or policy forums (like London’s Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York or the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC); overwhelmingly campaign-focused advocacy organisations (like Human Rights Watch, Enough, Kony 2012 or Global Zero); or field-based, on-the-ground operational organisations engaged in activities like mediation, capacity-building and confidence-building (like Search for Common Ground, the Community of Sant’Egidio or Independent Diplomat).
The organisation with which I was longest and most closely associated, the International Crisis Group (ICG), is an unusual combination of all three categories. It is field-based in a way that most operational organisations are, but that think tanks and advocacy organisations are not. It focuses, as policy-oriented think tanks do, on analysing complex conflicts and potential conflicts around the world and identifying workable solutions. It campaigns for the adoption of these solutions, but less at the grassroots and more by direct access to high-level policymakers.
Measuring INGOs’ impact on policy outcomes is more an art than a science. The most successful, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the ICG have high visibility among policymakers and produce analysis and argument that — whether publicly acknowledged or not — regularly becomes part of the currency of debate. Their perceived ability to make a difference is usually reflected in their capacity to raise funds, whether from governments or the private sector.
What does it take for organisations like these to become and remain successful? My own experience, as both a government insider and INGO outsider, has been mostly in the area of peace and security, but I think the lessons can be generalised. Four criteria seem to be essential:
First, INGOs must add value, meeting a need that is not currently being met well or at all. The primary unmet need seen by the founders of the ICG, for example, was to compensate for governments’ growing incapacity, for both security and budgetary reasons, to develop an accurate picture of what was happening on the ground in conflict zones. Open-source reporting and commentary by the media were not doing much to fill the gaps, because resource shortages, particularly in the quality print media, have long been dumbing down international coverage of sensitive and difficult situations.
Second, successful INGOs are marked by the clarity of their mission. The most successful tend to be those that find a clear niche and stick to it. When Amnesty International broadened its focus from traditional political and civil rights to the whole range of economic, social and cultural rights, it seemed for quite some time to lose direction and impact. The most insidious temptation to muddy an INGO’s mission occurs when money is potentially available for some project that is not part of its core business and for which it does not have readily available internal expertise. In such cases, diversion and dilution of resources and loss of focus are inevitable.
Third, INGOs require real independence. Any INGO in the business of giving advice must be scrupulous about being — and being perceived as — immune from influence by vested interests. Some organisations, like Human Rights Watch, solve the problem by refusing to accept any government funding. The ICG does not do that, but it has always been absolutely insistent on saying whatever has needed to be said and in practice governments have been remarkably tolerant of specific criticism, provided it is well-supported and well-argued.
The final criterion that a successful INGO must meet in order to be taken seriously, at least by government policymakers, is total professionalism. If you want to meet governments on their home ground, you have to provide a product that, in terms of the depth and accuracy of its research and the style of its presentation, the best of them are accustomed to and demand. And your management — of finance, personnel and governance — has to be sustained at the level of global best practices.
The best INGOs develop strong reputations quickly, sustain them indefinitely and exercise real influence on policymaking. However, they operate in a highly competitive environment and will be on a fast track to losing their way if they come to be seen as no longer meeting real needs, remaining sharply focused, or being uncompromising in maintaining their independence and professionalism.
— Project Syndicate, 2013
Gareth Evans was the president of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009 and now co-chairs the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Canberra-based Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He was Australian foreign minister from 1988 to 1996.