How can NGOs be effective advocates in restrictive political settings? Global comparative research (such as this study by CIVICUS on ‘enabling environments’) often concludes that at least a modest degree of formal democracy is necessary for civil society to flourish…including, but not limited to NGOs. Yet our experiences in Vietnam, which is commonly thought to be one of those restrictive settings, have shown that there is somewhat more space to carry out advocacy than appears at first blush – if advocates have a clear understanding of the national context and appropriate advocacy strategies.
We’ve seen effective advocacy take place around environmental and health issues through the initiatives of networks of formal and informal actors. At times, such as the disputes over bauxite mining in the Central Highlands (see here and here), networks have gone beyond the ‘invited spaces’ of embedded advocacy to boundary-stretching strategies of blogging, petitions and media campaigns. These actions defy the standard state-society dichotomy, bringing together activists and officials, intellectuals and community groups from around the country. At base is a realisation that social and policy problems are too big and chaotic to be resolved by state or non-state actors alone.
Last year, Oxfam joined with a diverse coalition of local NGOs, media, and individual experts to press for revision of Vietnam’s Land Law. When we started, even some of our own NGO and media partners thought the topic was too ‘politically sensitive’. The coalition showed otherwise, finding allies in some local government and (state-owned) media agencies and using a mix of persuasion and publicity to attract the attention of national-level policy makers. When the initial draft law did not address many underlying problems, the coalition (later adopting the name of Land Alliance or ‘Landa’) successfully pressed the National Assembly to postpone voting on the bill by five months.
Some of the land policy coalition’s recommendations on community consultation, limits on compulsory land acquisition by the state, and secure land tenure were reflected in the final revised law that passed in November 2013. But even recommendations that were not accepted still had a strong effect on public sentiment and media coverage, raising prospects for further policy changes in coming years. In one province (Hoa Binh), community consultations followed by workshops and media exposure visits resulted in local authorities returning 3,000 hectares of land from state ownership to villagers’ own use.
The land policy coalition is one of six multi-stakeholder initiatives currently supported by Oxfam in Vietnam through a DFID-funded advocacy programme. (The other 5 coalitions, all domestic and single-issue based, are working on agriculture, clean water, forestry, health, and mining.) We identified existing and prospective coalitions through a process of political economy analysis considering the topic’s level of public concern, possibilities for policy reform, and prospects for successful cooperation among members.
Each of the coalitions has a coordinating organization – usually an NGO, in one case a provincial university research centre – and from 5-20 members. Coalition members can be either organisations or individuals: in addition to NGOs and universities, they include retired officials, journalists, business associations, and government departments. In some cases, people who are not formal members nevertheless contribute significantly to the coalition’s work.
DFID and Oxfam provide several types of support to coalitions. Modest funding is available for core operations: workshops, communications, and a few salaried positions: a full-time coordinator and two part-time communications and monitoring-evaluation-learning officers. We’ve found that this keeps the coalition working smoothly without creating a top-heavy secretariat.
Second, we help each coalition develop a multi-year advocacy strategy and annual work plans made up of a series of issue-based projects (IBPs), which link advocacy efforts with research and campaigning. Each of the IBPs must be carried out jointly by at least two coalition members and focus on distinct policy processes, extending from public debate to leaders’ commitments, policy content and implementation.
Equally important in our view is coaching and capacity building, which goes beyond classroom training to facilitated learning and sharing, internal study visits, cross-coalition workshops, and a large amount of one-on-one encouragement and advice. We particularly emphasise the role of theory of change-based strategy formation, communications and media outreach, and real-time monitoring and evaluation. For the latter, Oxfam has teamed with Oxford Policy Management to develop Qualitative Assessment Scorecards for both internal coalition building and policy effectiveness. Every six months, coalitions self-assess their progress on a series of 10 indicators, then their scores are reviewed (and sometimes challenged) by Oxfam and the programme’s Advisory Panel.
The multi-stakeholder approach is new for coalition members and programme managers alike. All of us are more familiar and comfortable with traditional projectised approaches to development – and with single-sector networks or NGO working groups. Inevitably, some participants perceive the programme as a funding opportunity more than an invitation to cooperate with others in an advocacy campaign. We’re attempting to preserve as much flexibility for coalitions as possible within the limited time frame and financial regulations inherent in a donor-funded programme.
Even strong coalitions can take years to achieve their policy objectives, yet opportunities for reform tend to be time-bound and fleeting depending on political calendars and external events. Some of the open questions we are still exploring are whether (and in what circumstances) coalitions and networks can become ‘sustainable’ and proactive, rather than only temporary responses to a policy obstacle (stop the dam!) or a donor priority. We are also trying to find the right balance between professional leadership and internal coalition diversity including ethnic minorities, women, and community organisations.
These are ordinary sorts of challenges, perhaps not so different in a single-party political system as anywhere else. How does our experience compare to yours in other countries?
Andrew Wells-Dang is Senior Technical Adviser, Oxfam-Vietnam and author of a book on civil society networks in China and Vietnam as well as a World Bank paper on the land coalition experience. Pham Quang Tu is Team Lead of the Advocacy Coalitions Support Programme.