There are many different ways to contribute to positive changes in society for marginalised groups.

API activitiesThe picture on the right presents some of the different types of activities, representing different approaches in giving voice to a change in society. Which activities is effective? What is sufficient pressure? How can you ensure that politicians keep listening to you?



It’s all about LEGITIMACY, and TACTICS!

If you want to be successful in giving a voice to lasting change in society, politicians want to know on behalf of whom are you speaking. They prefer that people speak out on behalf of themselves, rather than their needs being voiced by some (international) experts.

First of all, effective advocacy depends on the involvement of primary stakeholders, namely the people who are directly affected by any changes in laws, policies or regulations. This legitimacy is linked with the right of citizens or organisations within a national state. Decision-makers in a country’s political spheres are very sensitive to this right to speak, and they’re likely to discard or resist change that comes from beyond their borders. Indeed, national governments everywhere in the world do not want to have direct international involvement, in terms of either politics or financial support.


Example from Europe

The Dutch government and public opinion do not accept political influence nor funding from Islamic sources in the Middle East. They fear controversial and unwanted influence on the mindsets of Dutch citizens. Therefore, they demand prohibiting international funding, or they at least require transparency on it: Where does the support come from? From whom? Where does it go? How much? For what activities?

In recent decades, increasingly more movements of primary stakeholders like trade unions, consumers’ or farmers’ associations, women’s movements, etc. have mixed with professional support organisations and NGOs, which offer support through research, resources, professional skills, and connections. However, due to their expertise, sometimes the policy space is taken over by these strong NGOs, thus pushing the representative organisation into the background.

This expertise can add to the credibility of the primary stakeholder, but it is insufficient by itself.


Another common level of legitimacy in donor-recipient countries relates to the large international NGOs that are present through the decentralisation of their head offices to southern and eastern countries. They have excellent international connections to donor governments and international institutions like the UN, IFIs and the WTO. Often these organisations are even better informed, funded and equipped than national and local politicians, who then feel overwhelmed and less acknowledged in their position as democratic representatives.


Example from African, Asian and American countries

When governments and/or society are very hostile towards LGBT+ people, defending LGBT+ rights might be culturally difficult or even unwanted. Large international NGOs and UN institutions speak out and support strong national NGOs to advocate. However, without the direct involvement of primary stakeholders – actual LGBT+ people – this might backfire at some point.

This strategy of international pressure on national decision-makers has been quite successful for many years. Over the last 5-10 years, we observe increasing resistance with national and local decision-makers placing increasingly more restrictions on civil society, and banning large international NGOs from their country, except for project implementation. These large international NGOs are seen as interfering with national politics, and are even considered illegitimate in the democratic context, including by local NGOs.


Change and respect

The question now is: How can you still change society and respect national legitimacy? This is where tactics come into play: What type of activities are most effective, in which sequence and at which moment in time?

All advocacy and policy influencing (API) activities can be effective, depending on the context, culture, democratic situation in your country, etc.

Therefore, there is NO RECIPE, but rather it is necessary to choose based on tactical decisions:

  • Which activities fit best for my organisation and primary stakeholders?
  • Which activities can best be performed by my allies, and which can we do together?
  • In which sequence do we perform these activities?


When engaging with deciders, different choices for API activities are possible: some activities create confrontation with the decision-makers and try to force them to make a change, while other activities rather seek to ask or convince decision-makers to introduce changes. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the many different types of activities because the activities that you choose will reflect your strategy for support mobilisation.

Policy Influencing continuum

The activities on the left show direct involvement of the decision-makers, or address them directly: those who force the decision-makers to change their behaviour, or that seek to reach the change against the decision-makers through ACTIVISM.

On the right are activities that ask or convince the decision-makers to change their behaviour, whereby trying to reach the change together with the decision-makers is defined as LOBBYING.

All the activities in the middle mobilise stakeholders to legitimate engage with the decision-makers, through SUPPORT MOBILISATION, ADVOCACY or CLAIM MAKING.



How to use this continuum

Tactics reflect the sequence in which you execute certain activities to persuade decision-makers. It makes a difference whether you first mobilise a large mob of people and then have a lobby meeting, or vice versa.


The same example used in an effective sequence

When governments and/or society are very hostile towards LGBT+ people, initially mobilising these people might be difficult or unwanted. When LGBT+ people are well organised in movements, together they might speak out, and even go public to show their identity.


Tactical use of the policy influencing continuum might create the change that you and your stakeholders want. In different situations, another sequence can be more effective: awareness raising in discussion groups of like-minded people, with families and relatives, exchange visits to other countries for primary stakeholders and/or political leaders, asking a celebrity to speak out on behalf of the whole group, etc. The possibilities are infinite, but they depend on the local situation. Sometimes you even have to take a step back.


An effective strategy combines three steps:

  1. Create legitimacy with movements of primary stakeholders
  2. Create legitimacy through national citizens in your country (avoid non-legitimate, large international NGOs to speak on behalf of you – your civic space will shrink!)
  3. Use different tactics in a certain sequence that best suits the situation!


If you are interested in discovering more, join the Advocacy and Policy Influencing course or get in touch with Ger Roebeling, writer of this article and trainer in the course.