How should our influencing strategy vary with the kind of state we're working in?

top killer facts – not too late to chip in), I’m willing to give you another chance to provide us with unpaid consultancy crowdsource some useful ideas. This time it is helping us think through how an INGO’s influencing strategy at national level (whether through advocacy, programming or both combined) needs to adapt to the institutional environment and in particular, the nature of the state. To do this, we borrowed a handy 2×2 matrix from our humanitarian colleagues, categorizing states along two axes –Able and WillingWilling-Unwilling and Able-Unable (see pic). ‘Able’ refers to a state having the resources and governance structures to be effective (in delivering sustainable development). A ‘willing state’ is one where a significant part of the state apparatus wants to deliver sustainable development and is willing to engage and involve active citizens. Yes, I know these are very crude categories: states and countries are not homogeneous, and different strategies suit different issues, sectors and target institutions. But bear with me – the idea is to help us understand the different political contexts in which we work, and how we need to be organized for maximum impact. So let’s unpack the four quadrants. For each one, I’m listing some tentative candidate countries, some general characteristics of the most suitable approach to influencing, and some specific strategies that might suit the political context. 1. Able & Willing Possible candidates: Brazil; South Africa; Mexico; India?  General Characteristics: In Able/Willing states, you can employ the full repertoire of influencing strategies, supporting civil society organizations to make maximum use of the ‘invited spaces’ offered by the state, but also supporting more confrontational approaches to create new spaces where necessary. But what works best? Possible Influencing Strategies: Support civil society strengthening and activism Engage with countries’ role in the world Engage publics (incl. using traditional & digital media) – middle class & poor Convening and brokering discussions between different sectors (state, civil society, private sector, media, academics, faith-based etc) Strong evidence base & research Private sector – engage positive actors & push for regulation by state Use legal system and test cases 2. Able & Unwilling Possible candidates: Russia; China; Indonesia? General Characteristics: People-on-the-streets style activism is likely to be counter-productive, but often the state technocracy is consultationamenable to arguments based on evidence, especially when conducted through respected (state-approved) institutions. Beyond that, what else is possible, especially to strengthen citizens’ voice? Possible Influencing Strategies: High quality evidence & research Partnerships with respected think tanks Programmes that demonstrate best practice Influence private sector CSR and encourage investment best practice Support civil society space 3. Unable & Willing Possible candidates: Haiti; Zambia; Ghana; Bangladesh; Kenya; Nepal; Mozambique; Nigeria? General Characteristics: What do you do when the state’s door is open, but there is nothing much behind it? It’s all very well to support demands for change, but INGOs may also have to build the supply side – working with the state at local or national level to enable it to respond to those demands. Plus what’s the right way to engage with non-state actors to build state capacity in the long term (rather than undermine it by creating parallel systems)? Possible Influencing Strategies: Build civil society capacity & active citizenship Programmes that could be taken to scale Influence donors Brokering role with private sector Support communities in defending against abuses Technical/advisory support to local/national state Engagement with important non-state actors (faith-based, traditional authorities, other) 4. Unable & Unwilling Possible candidates: DRC; Afghanistan; Zimbabwe; Ethiopia; Pakistan; South Sudan; Mali; Somalia; Yemen; Egypt General Characteristics: The most difficult environments in which to do influencing (or pretty much anything else, apart from selling arms). We can support basic ‘bearing witness’ style work, and engage with non-state actors such as aid donors, but what else is possible to build a brighter future in some pretty dark places?Guatemala citizen state confrontation Possible Influencing Strategies: Donor engagement Humanitarian advocacy Bear witness Help provide support and “cover” for civil society? Engagement with important non-state actors (faith-based, traditional authorities, other) Concentrate on building next generation (eg work with student leaders) So does this resonate with your reading/experience of influencing in different polities? Or is it too crude and generalised to be useful? Over to you…….]]>

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12 Responses to “How should our influencing strategy vary with the kind of state we're working in?”
  1. Wale Osofisan

    One critical factor that INGOs need to focus on – and it cuts across all the categories above – is the need to understand the various incentives and disincentives that shape the behavior of various actors especially policy makers and service providers. Such an understanding should enable us design pragmatic and realistic programme strategies with the aim to shift incentives structures in such a way that it benefits the poor and does not constitute a threat to those with the power to make the changes we seek possible.
    This is quite a challenge because it would require dabbling into the politics of policy making and implementation/service delivery processes in these countries and INGOs always find it very uncomfortable to engage in such terrain.

  2. Catherine Dom

    Hi there, I think the first question to wonder about is about the categorisation… I’m not sure we’d all agree with e.g. DRC and Ethiopia lumped together in unwilling/unable – or say I certainly don’t agree with this. So, if the categorisation is imperfect – which is always is – does it make sense to want to get general principles on influencing? What about a case by case approach?

  3. A couple of things spring to mind.
    1) Overarching response should always be for INGOs to work with local civil society, and not displace, buy off, or colonise it. That civil society will have history and cultural charcteristics (good and bad) which make it unique (and potentially uniquely effective). This should be true across your characterisations. Especially important is the question of insider-outsider strategies. INGOs tend to go for the former, while often, for historical reasons, local groups go for the latter. All our experience from Norther and global levels shows that change strategies work best when the insider and outsider groups are being coherent, mutually reinforcing and coordinated (think WTO campaigns). That should be no different in national contexts. Especially where “invited space” is available to INGOs but often not available to local ones, INGOs should not take up that space with externally (usually Northern)driven strategies.
    2) You clearly have too simplistic categories. At the very least a third dimension for the degree of freedom is necessary. Unwillingness by the state does not necessarily mean there is supression of civil society. Lets take South Africa – where many people argue that the state is UNWILLING because of certain parts of it being wedded to orthodox economic perscriptions. But South Africa has a vibrant and open polity that allows protest and dissent. Contrast that to China which many would say are WILLING, in fact hell-bent on, creating development (or at least growth) to maintain legitmacy for their political system. But of course dissent is highly frowned upon and very risky. So I propose a third dimension to capture to ability of groups to take very different kinds of actions.
    3) For “Unwilling” states “People-on-the-streets style activism” might be very helpful, rather than counter-productive as you suggest. It depends on the charcteristics of the political system. If the unwillingness comes from ideological positions, or impositions from external parties (ie. donors, IFIs) – then people on the streets style activism might deomnstrate the political benefits leaders can gain from moving towards willing. This of course assumes a system that allows expressions of this type. Imagine applying your matrix to the UK – because the Tories are “unwilling” to reduce inequality, we should just have some think-tank reports on inequality and not engage in bare-knuckle politics and political expression? Thats doesn’t seem right.

    • Duncan

      Good comments Peter and Catherine – feeds into my growing doubts about the value of typologies (people get obsessed with fitting reality into boxes, rather than thinking about reality). Maybe a set of questions would be a better way – eg if unwilling, is the state repressive, or merely of a different opinion and so, open to persuasion. The alternative is a more complex typology, eg:
      Large, sophisticated, global influencers
      Authoritarian rationalist
      Authoritarian brutal
      Highly aid dependent
      Fragile + conflict affected
      Strong national bourgeoisie/private sector
      Progressive/centre left
      Right wing elected
      Strong civil society
      Weak civil society
      Functioning legal system
      Presidential v parliamentary
      Genuine electoral democracy
      Centralized v federal/decentralized
      Trouble is you can add endlessly to this list til you basically have one category per country

  4. Jay

    All typologies are crude, but political will to deliver pro-poor change and capacity to deliver pro-poor change seem like a helpful way of starting to frame the analysis (that then needs to look deeper at the political economy, as Wale suggests…and you have frequently before in other posts).
    But states are not uniform across sectors and issues, or from national to subnational level, so this will vary hugely depending on the specific issue around which an INGO (or local civil society) is seeking to promote change, and where. So the framework would be more useful if it were applied at such a level, rather than generically at national level.
    We found this in CARE’s in Peru, for example, where there was significant will and growing capacity on the issue of child malnutrition, say (see IDS analysis of this case, at, but little will or capacity on education for indigenous populations (see CARE/UNICEF/SCF report at In the latter type of case, our advocacy work focused more on working with others to frame an issue and seek to get it onto the agenda, whereas in the former, we were supporting efforts for broad scale policy change and implementation.
    It would also be interesting to combine this framework with your How Change Happens archetypes (from your 21 June 2011 post), as different archetypes and their associated strategies will be more relevant for different quadrants in the willingness/capacity framework.

  5. Ken Smith

    Able seems to be a mixture if it refers to a state having the resources and governance structures. Maybe you’d get more clarity if Able was simply about resources – could this state do something about development if the folks in charge wanted ? and Willing – do they want to ?

  6. Lucy Royal-Dawson

    You’ve got lots of strategies in your ol’ kitbag already, and it seems you are an advocate in search of a suitable label to attach them to, rather than a particular situation/case. As you say, reality ain’t like that. Different issues, different departments, different ministers, different policies all conspire to create an n x n matrix of categories. Why not try working from the perspective of the people on whose behalf you are advocating and work out the routes of influence available and open to them, and setting agendas according to what can be achieved by them sustainably. Yep, I’m reading Upendra Baxi and his human suffering perspective is influencing this reply.

  7. Jo Rowlands

    I’m with Jay and Catherine on this one. More or less. Simple categorisation can help in flagging one or two important aspects to get people thinking – but the reality is way too complex for this to be any more than a crude generalisation, and I’d hate to think Oxfam was allocating its resources and energies on that basis. But to go fully to a case by case basis would make it harder to apply learning across contexts and spot interesting patterns that could help identify perhaps new approaches and strategies.The more complex typology you propose, Duncan, might be thought provoking in terms of deepening the analysis, but I’m not sure the boxes would end up hugely more useful than the very generic ones in the first approach.
    I think a list of questions to guide thinking and analysis would be the way to go, probably grouped in some way, since it’d be quite a list!

  8. Ian

    I’m wondering if the categorization by country is also a bit broad. I’m sure that a country can be lumped as willing/not-willing or able/not able in a general sense, it also surely depends also on the specific issue you are looking at. I know that the countries you have listed as able/not willing are actually willing to do a lot of things (and are doing them) but are unwilling to do others.
    I’d also not underestimate the role of external pressure in “unwilling countries”, or in working on those issues that are close to the edge of but not beyond what the government is willing to do in order to slowly increase the space for discussion.

  9. Whatever the typology, one strategy, imo, is constant and that is for citizens of that country to take an active interest in matters that affect them.
    I do not think that change can or even should be forced by ‘outsiders’. In the realm of advocacy those who are speaking WITH the people will always succeed more than those who are speaking FOR the people.

  10. Our experience of working with the State is that it does not manifest itself in one way. There are parts of the state which could be very innovative while others could be as good as dead. Even these parts could change with change in personalities dominating that part of the state. In many parts of the world there are very few institutions and institutional norms. Its personalities we deal with. An innovative personality at the head of a department could mean innovative partnerships with the state for the civil society. It could change dramatically if the peronality changed

  11. Martin

    Hi Duncan,
    1. Other than most respondents, I see the value of the able-willing axis, crude as it is. Still, I’d consider making it measurable – so for ‘able’, you could use the size of the state’s fiscus (per person, at parity) to have an objective measure. For ‘willing’, to possibly measure the state’s commitment towards poverty alleviation and basic service provision, why not consider the proportion of the state’s fiscus spent on (say) health, education and housing. This is no less crude, but immediately makes the categories less ‘interpretive’ i.e. more objective, and more meaningful, too.
    2. Perhaps these are included under the ‘civil society’ rubric, but, from a Southern African perspective, two groups need special mention in you ‘possible influencing strategies’ bits. These would be organised labour (the unions are numerically large and politically consequential, and often a truer vox populi than, say, the ANC), and traditional societies (to point: African monarchs reign over more than 70% of Zambia, in many cases these would be your best link to rural legitimacy; even in South Africa these are powerful in many areas, and symbolically significant, too).
    Hope this helps!