Chap 5

The external context

Previous chapters have focused mainly on issues of internal organisation. This chapter looks outwards, to consider some key issues regarding external context – that is the configuration of discussions between states or other actors within which the coalition is operating. Given the extent to which the specific subject matter of a coalition’s work will affect external issues, this section focuses on a few broad points that might have general relevance.

The external context

This short chapter is structured around two phases of coalition work explained below.

Building the Problem
Framing the issue, undertaking research, raising awareness, building partnerships – but not yet working within a process that is likely to achieve the outcomes being sought.

Creating the Solution
With evidence and partnerships in place – working within a process geared towards achieving concrete outcomes.

The challenges faced when implementing a solution are looked at in Chapter 7.

Building the problem

An issue may be clear to those whose work brings them face-to-face with it, but it will not feature on the international agenda unless organisations provide the evidence and arguments that make people sit up and take notice. Building recognition that there is a problem that needs to be addressed is the initial phase of work for almost any NGO campaigning coalition. The questions below are for consideration while building up the problem, ahead of the coalition committing itself to a specific political process.

Are key actors acknowledging the problem?

An early stage of coalition life is likely to be focused on framing, evidencing and communicating a problem and the feasibility that something can be done about it. This stage of work takes time and may require numerous briefings to different audiences and the production of many documents. The aim is to see governments, NGOs and other relevant partners acknowledging the problem that the coalition wants to address. Acknowledgement of the problem is the first building block of any such effort, as it shifts debate to a more detailed delineation of the problem and then onto what should be done.

Does the coalition have strong external partners?

Relationships need to be built with external partners if a coalition is to achieve its goals. Support from states will be vital to achieving international policy or legal change – it is states, after all, that have the authority to come together and agree such changes. International organisations (such as UN departments or the International Committee of the Red Cross) can exert substantial influence on states, as well as being able to develop evidence and policy ambitions for themselves. In addition to these partners, the coalition may also benefit from partnerships with other NGOs or individuals who are unable to join the coalition but are in possession of helpful evidence and contacts.

It is important for NGOs to understand that external bodies such as international organisations and states are fundamentally different actors, working under different constraints, with different internal dynamics and pressures. This means that even for likeminded people, these institutions may need to take different paths to the same goal. We have emphasised the importance of trust for holding coalitions together internally. The same emphasis should be given to trust as a vital ingredient for the coalition working with partners externally.

“There was a strong partnership for each regional meeting between the Coalition, UNICEF and the host government. This partnership deflected criticism that the Protocol was merely an NGO concern and it increased our credibility with other governments and the weight governments attached to the five regional declarations.”

Martin Macpherson, Child Soldiers International (formerly Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers)

Working with governments
Changes to the policies and practices of governments are likely to be a key goal for the coalition, and at the same time certain governments are likely to be central partners for achieving such change more broadly. Therefore a primary function of NGO campaigning coalitions is to interact with governments, although such interactions can be adversarial or collaborative (and sometimes both). It is sometimes important to remind NGO activists that it is governments that sign new legal treaties and then bear the primary burden of their implementation. A coalition will therefore need to work in partnership with governments if its work is to be successful.

Governments are not monolithic. There may be a number of different components within the government with different positions on an issue. It is important to try to understand these different orientations so as to help allies internally.

It is vital to recognise that not all work can be done publically and that much must be done quietly, behind the scenes. The public face of the coalition, its campaigning and its formal statements can only be part of the work. A significant amount of work for some coalition members involves strategic discussions within small groups that builds trust between the coalition and its external partners.


This introduction to civil society coalition work is not a ‘how to guide’ on advocacy and campaigning. There are many useful resources available on this topic and some are listed below as further reading.

  • Advocacy and campaigning: how to guide, by Ian Chandler, published by BOND and The Pressure Group, June 2011, available online at: Advocacy_and_campaigning_How_To_guide_ June_2011.pdf
  • Good guide to influencing and campaigning, by Brian Lamb, published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK in January 2011
  • The good campaigns guide for the voluntary sector, by Tess Kingham, Jim Coe and E. Moore, published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK in 2005
  • Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World, by the Trapese Collective, published by Pluto Press in 2007
  • The National Council for Voluntary Organisations website also includes a number of useful resources on campaigning and advocacy: campaigning-resources

Some of these resources may be UK-focused, but they should provide useful guidelines and thinking that can help underpin the advocacy process in other countries and internationally.

Strong partnerships
Evidence of strong partnerships developing might be found in the statements and positions adopted by governments and other partners. However, strength of partnerships is also evidenced in the tone of direct discussions – an ability to talk openly about the challenges faced, to share intelligence and think strategically about how the issue might be developed. Such partnerships require an ability to be open about points of disagreement, awareness of risks and an appreciation that different organisations might have to adopt slightly different positions in light of their own internal pressures.

Building this direct and transparent dialogue behind the scenes can help support the development of a core-group – usually comprising states committed to working closely together to achieve a humanitarian goal.

“The very first step needs to be to identify who actually has the power to affect change. This requires a detailed power analysis – who makes the decisions, and who influences the people who make those decisions? In some cases, those people need to be your primary campaign target.”

Kelly Rigg, Climate Action Network

What sort of process is likely to get underway?

Achieving new international policy or law almost certainly requires states to debate the issues in question within a structured framework of meetings, often called a ‘process’. Such processes can be broadly split between established mechanisms (meetings that are already ongoing) and new mechanisms to achieve a particular purpose. Getting the coalition’s issue into the mandate of some form of diplomatic mechanism marks a key point of transition from building the problem – to building the solution.

Almost all processes will be framed by a document or set of documents that serves as a mandate. The nature of processes can vary widely, including in the following areas:

  • What level of prominence is given to the issue within the mandate? Is it the main focus or just one of many issues for consideration?
  • Does the mandate indicate the sort of work to be done and the outcome to be achieved? This could range from simply asking states to discuss the issue through to stipulating an intent to negotiate a binding legal instrument. Between the two a mandate to identify best practice might produce an outcome, but will it be sufficient to address the need?
  • Who will be participating in the process? Is it open to all UN Member States, or only to states that have endorsed a particular position regarding the issue?
  • What role will NGOs and international organisations have in the process? Will NGOs have access to the substantive meetings and will they be able to provide input into the debate and respond to arguments made by others?

In the early stages of an issue’s development, it may be preferable to have a process in place for discussing the issue even if it does not offer the prospect of success, but this also has significant risks.


In many coalitions the expertise of individuals regarding the subject matter being worked on will be a key strength. However, it is also important to have some individuals with experience of the sort of political processes through which the coalition will be working. Without understanding of process, coalitions can easily find themselves with limited traction, exerting little influence over the direction being taken. It is important to remember that many diplomats are more expert in process than they are in the substance of a particular issue and, unless a strong focus is kept on the external benefit being sought, process can quickly become an end in itself.

Do established mechanisms offer a reasonable chance of success?

If there is an established international mechanism directly relevant to the issue the coalition is working on, then this will need to be addressed. Such a mechanism might be a standing committee of states or ongoing state meetings under a particular legal framework.

Existing mechanisms need to be assessed carefully to determine if they offer a plausible chance for success. An established framework can actually be very stifling to the prospects of reform if it comes bound with consensus–based decisions, limited NGO engagement and the participation of actors who are wholly opposed to the outcomes being sought. On the other hand, the political commitment required to establish a new mechanism on a specific issue is hard to generate and may be impossible.

“Treaty negotiations tend to favour large international NGOs.The drafting process requires specific skills and experience
of how governments and intergovernmental organizations function. Understanding of multilateral diplomacy, specialist legal knowledge, language skills and of course the substantial financial resources required to undertake such advocacy hinders many smaller NGOs, particularly those in the south, from participating in the process.”

Martin Macpherson, Child Soldiers International (formerly Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers)

Even if an established mechanism does not offer the prospect of a substantive solution to the problem being addressed, such frameworks can sometimes provide an environment within which issues can be fostered and partnership developed, if a way out can be found. It is notable that on both anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions the processes that led to new international treaties were initiated after the declared failure of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons. In the first case it was the inadequacy of amendments made to Protocol II as a response to the humanitarian problem of landmines. In the second it was the failure of the CCW to adopt a mandate to negotiate towards a legal instrument.

However, if existing mechanisms do not offer a reasonable chance of success then coalitions should be wary of putting their issues on the table of those bodies unless they can see a way out.

Belgium enacted national legislation banning anti- personnel mines and later cluster munitions ahead of international processes to prohibit these weapons. In the case of cluster munitions, Belgium’s ban had an important role in reframing the debate over the acceptability of these weapons. Even though Belgium was not subsequently a prominent leader in the international effort to achieve a ban, this domestic step was a very important boost to campaigners and sent a signal that new rules on cluster munitions were possible.

What transitional steps might be available?

It is important to recognise the utility of transitional steps, such as changes to national laws or national practice, that can indicate progress, identify national champions, and even serve to reframe how the issue is seen internationally. National steps may not go as far as the coalition would like, but they still help to generate a sense of movement, and can be used in international discussions as evidence that the issue is gaining traction. National steps are also vitally important for motivating coalition members to focus at the national level as well as towards international policy change.

“Part of the difficulty in pushing forward NGO coalition work on nuclear weapons is the lack of an external diplomatic process and a partnership with governments within this process.The conventional weapons sector has had more of a chance to develop partnerships with governments because of the processes on mines, cluster bombs, small arms, arms trade and so on. The NGO sector on nuclear weapons issues is diverse, which might make it seem nebulous to diplomats. A coalition type approach would be useful in the sense that it could effectively communicate to diplomats and other government officials the different initiatives and efforts going on around the world, and help integrate and support these efforts, rather than forcing those different strands to conform to one strategy or one voice.”

Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will

Creating the solution

Getting the coalition’s issue adopted into the mandate of a diplomatic process is a key point of transition.
Of course, even within such a process the coalition will likely need to continue building understanding of the problem being addressed and present new research to emphasise the need for reform. The questions below focus on some of the structural issues a coalition may face in this context.
Is there a core group?
A ‘core group’ refers primarily to a group of states working together with a common commitment to shepherding a process to a satisfactory conclusion.
In a free-standing process the core group might be responsible for hosting diplomatic meetings as well as drafting and editing collective documents. When working within an established mechanism, a core group might not have the same administrative power but should work together strategically to try to secure a strong outcome.
Creating a genuine core group is vital to the coalition’s work. However, such a group will need to come together on its own terms – with the coalition working to encourage and facilitate this where possible. Ideally a core group will contain some geographic diversity. Most important is that it brings together individual state representatives who are capable and dynamic, and committed to achieving a meaningful result.
While the core group will be made up of states, significant diplomatic power can be generated where this group works in close partnership with the NGO coalition and international organisations. In many recent processes it has been the energy and skills of this expanded core group that many have identified as central to success.

It is very important to recognise that not all groups of states working collectively for a process should necessarily be considered a core group. In a genuine core group the states involved will have explicitly endorsed a substantive outcome for the process that is broadly in line with the NGO coalition’s aspirations. A group without a shared substantive aspiration risks becoming focused primarily on achieving an outcome – where ‘an outcome’ can mean something far short of what the coalition might consider adequate.


There is often a desire for states to appear more conservative than NGOs on a given issue. It is an issue that NGO coalitions need to be mindful of if not wholly accepting of.

States may be averse to putting forward positions that go beyond what the NGOs are calling for, and they may not want to endorse the NGO position directly for fear of looking like their policy is being driven from that group. Similar dynamics can cause problems where NGOs publically circulate suggestions for legal text – only to find that states are unwilling to endorse such text directly.

Coalition positions based on principles and evidence may be preferable in public documents and statements than pre-empting compromises based on the politics of the process.

“We once wrote resolution text and circulated it to a number of friendly governments as well as the chair of the negotiation who was very much on-side. The chair didn’t realise we had circulated it to governments as well, and ended up using our text in his draft. The governments who had received it were suddenly aware of the fact that he had adopted an NGO text as such, and it was a huge embarrassment for him.”

One interviewee on the dangers of NGOs circulating text.

Who is controlling the negotiating text?

Control of the text that forms the basis for negotiations is strategically very powerful. It is worth noting that the message ‘don’t change the text’ can provide a very simple basis for communicating with coalition partners across numerous potentially complicated articles, so long as the coalition can endorse that position. Having a strong starting text in line with the coalition’s ambitions is by far the best strategic position. Having as many articles as possible where ‘don’t change the text’ provides the basic message allows attention to be focused on the areas where it is really needed.

“Quite a lot of the ingredients of success for bringing organisations together in coalitions come from luck and circumstance.”

Felicity Hill, former director, UN Office of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

What will be the status of NGOs in the process?

The status of NGOs in relation to states is an important theme in political processes. In many cases it is states that will accept some binding commitments as the outcome of a process, and few would argue that a distinction in status is unreasonable. However, it is also quite common for spurious arguments to be put forward for keeping NGOs out of certain discussions and even whole meetings, usually so certain states can avoid transparency or limit organised lobbying of others in the room.
The status of an NGO coalition as a full participant in a process needs to be worked for as a key strategic objective from the outset. As discussions become more fraught, pressure from some states is likely to mount for reductions rather than increases in NGO participation. The level of NGO participation needs to be embedded through practice, rhetoric and through formal documents. Practice can see NGO presentations of evidence and arguments but, perhaps most importantly, it can involve coalition representatives talking from the floor as active participants in debate. Rhetorical reinforcement for this can be developed through the statements of states supportive of this input, recognising its value to the process. The position of NGOs (or a specific coalition group) can be effectively secured through formal documents that delineate this role within key meetings.
In different processes NGOs have been allowed varying levels of participation. Whether a process is taking place within an established or a new purpose-built framework can have important implications for NGO participation. The latter may be more open, whereas the former perhaps drawing on established precedents may tend to be more closed. Yet even in such circumstances the chair and states holding key formal roles will likely have considerable latitude to organise NGO input as they see fit. Again, relationships of trust between NGO coalition organisers and these office holders are likely to be important – as would be advocacy towards those office holders by full- participant states supportive of NGO engagement.

Is the coalition there to constrain NGO behaviour?

With the coalition identity operating as a unifying force for NGOs, its perceived leadership can often face expectations of keeping potentially problematic NGO elements under control. This pressure may come from both NGOs and states. With coalition representatives likely to be negotiating and organising such issues as access and speaking roles in meetings for the NGO group as a whole, these rights (or privileges in the eyes of some) are likely to become bound up with a sense that the NGO participation will not breach expectations of behaviour. In this way it is important to notice that the coalition can take on the role, albeit implicit, of policing NGO behaviour. This in turn can lead to internal tensions where different individuals or groups have divergent ideas about how the coalition should be communicating its messages.

Can it be right to disengage?

Large-scale NGO participation is likely to serve in some ways as a validation of the process underway. There are risks that ongoing participation allows NGO thinking to become structured too strongly by the rules of the particular process, and of limited expectations within that process, creating a slow drift towards validating work that has little or no chance of achieving the reforms that were initially sought. Such a situation presents a real challenge because as it continues pressure is likely to grow within organisations and individuals who have committed years to such work, to identify in any outcome at least a semblance of success. It is important that the coalition is not on a slippery slope towards endorsing an outcome that falls far short of its aspirations. Again, difference coalition members are likely to have difference readings of such a situation which can intern cause tensions.


This section highlighted a few issues of external context that may need to be considered by coalitions working for international policy or legal change. The coalition needs to spend sufficient time building engagement with the problem and supportive partnerships, before negotiating a solution. A key point of transition comes when the issue of concern is adopted into the mandate of a mechanism for structuring international discussions. This focus on international mechanisms should not distract attention from the transitional steps that might be possible at national and regional levels and that can be important foundations for international reform.

In the next chapter this book looks at how the coalition can work together to make the most of its collective voice.

End of Chap 5