Chap 1

Coalitions – partnerships for change

This chapter provides a short overview of what we mean by global civil society coalitions. We provide a very brief summary of some of the issues such coalitions have worked on, their major achievements and their subsequent development.

Partnerships for change

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society organisations have become important actors in national and international politics. In many cases, where change is being sought to particular elements of policy or law, groups of NGOs have come together in coalitions in an effort to achieve that change. This has happened at the national, regional and international levels. Civil society coalitions mobilise resources – people, their time and their money – towards a collective goal. They work with varying degrees of coordination and joint activism and use a variety of terms to describe themselves, including coalitions, networks, campaigns, alliances, initiatives and so on. This book is concerned with civil society coalitions seeking to influence international policy or law, although many of the lessons it draws out are relevant to other types of coalition or network.


Global civil society coalitions have had a hand in a number of important successes such as helping the passage of international treaties over the last two decades. The table below focuses on some of the coalitions that have successfully achieved new international legal instruments.

Defining civil society coalitions

There is a great deal of academic literature related to the emergence of what has been called the ‘global civil society’ or ‘transnational civil society’ along with ‘transnational advocacy networks’. Coalitions of the type we are focusing on in this report have been situated by some alongside ‘loose networks’ and broader ‘social movements’.

When discussing a global civil society coalition in this book, we mean a group of separate NGOs, working together in multiple countries in a coordinated way as members of an identified coalition on the basis of a common purpose and seeking changes to government policies and practices or to international laws.

Mass membership organisations (such as Amnesty International), NGOs with affiliates in different countries (such as Oxfam) and political parties or trade unions are not considered global civil society coalitions for the purposes of this book. We are also not talking about organisations like AVAAZ, which are able to mobilise massive numbers of individuals to take online actions such as signing a petition or sending an email.1 Yet all of these types of organisation may play important roles within coalitions.

Similarly, this book does not analyse the broader social or political initiatives of which coalitions are themselves a part. For example, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines is a global civil society coalition, but it is situated within a broader political movement to ban landmines that includes international organisations such as the UN and ICRC, parliamentarians, governments, academics, and others from outside the ICBL itself.

“By building new links among actors in civil societies, states and international organisations, [civil society coalitions] multiply the opportunities for dialogue and exchange. In issue areas such as the environment and human rights, they also make international resources available to new actors in domestic political and social struggles. By blurring the boundaries between a state’s relations with its own nationals and the recourse both citizens and states have to the international system, advocacy networks are helping to transform the practice of national sovereignty.”

Transnational advocacy networks in international and regional politics, Margaret E. Keck, Kathryn Sikkink, International Social Science Journal, Volume 51, Issue 159, pages 89–101, March 1999 

  1. See About Us page on AVAAZ had over nine million members in 193 countries in July 2011.

Common characteristics of global civil society coalitions

Global civil society coalitions tend to have the following characteristics:

A Membership

The basic characteristic of all global civil society coalitions is the membership:

  • A coalition’s membership might include a handful of organisations or several hundred.
  • Members might sign up to a charter with specific duties and responsibilities, or the affiliation might simply require endorsement of a common call.
  • Members are usually organisations rather than individuals, but there are often ways to include individuals in the coalition in one way or another.

A Common Call for Change

Global civil society coalitions come together in order to change practice, policy and sometimes laws at the global level:

  • This purpose is usually expressed as a call or mission statement and endorsing it is often the core requirement for becoming a coalition member.
  • This joint call is often the subject of negotiation among the members; it can be detailed or very broad but in any case it sets the parameters of the coalition’s work.

A Leadership

Many coalitions have in place a leadership to guide the policy and planning of the coalition and help facilitate the activities of the membership

  • The roles and responsibilities of the leadership vary greatly among coalitions.
  • Terms used to refer to the role of a coalition leadership include: advisory, governance, steering, executive, strategy and management.
  • Terms used to describe the structure include: council, committee, board and group.
  • Leaderships groups are either elected or appointed. Staff members are often employed to work on behalf of the coalition. Sometimes staff will be part of the leadership group and sometimes they may have a more administrative role.

A Common Plan to Achieve Change

There is often a general plan of action to achieve the global change that the coalition seeks.

  • Depending on the level of coherence within the coalition, this plan might be more or less detailed at the global level.
  • It could be a set of objectives on which to lobby governments through a campaign of global meetings, or it could be a more detailed analysis of the power dynamics and political targets among decision makers at the international level.
  • Members will often determine the best way to effect change in their own national or regional context.

A Collective Identity

Coalitions often promote a collective identity for themselves.

  • This can include a name, slogan, logo and visual identity.
  • Individual member organisations may communicate on behalf of the coalition, or identify themselves as members when undertaking specific actions, such as talking to governments or the media.

“You need to make a decision early on as to whether you want to be able to speak together as one voice or just be a network where people do their own thing. If you don’t decide that early on this can be a problem down the line.”
Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will

A good encapsulation of some of the key elements in coalition campaigning is set out by Jody Williams and Stephen Goose in their article: Citizen Diplomacy and the Ottawa Process: A Lasting Model? contained in the book they co-edited with Mary Wareham, Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy and Human Security, 2008.
The key elements for a successful coalition are:

  • Know how to organise
  • Maintain a flexible structure
  • Understand the need for leadership and committed workers
  • Always have an action plan and deadlines, with outcome-oriented meetings
  • Communication, communication and more communication
  • Follow-up and follow through
  • Provide expertise and documentation
  • Articulate goals and messages clearly and simply
  • Focus on the human cost
  • Use as many forums as possible to promote the message
  • Be inclusive, be diverse, yet speak with one voice
  • Recognise that international context and timing do matter


Loosely linked, hold common values, share information Example: IANSA

More tightly coordinated, share values, exchange information, work on the basis of common tactics and strategies Example: ICBL, CMC

Share the characteristics of networks and coalitions, but also engage in sustained public mobilisation and protest Example: The Occupy movement

Why do NGO’s work in global coalitions

Civil society coalitions emerge for a variety of reasons. Some motivating factors include:

  • The desire to maximise NGO influence on advocacy targets in different countries, including helping activists overcome obstacles at a national level by drawing on international support.
  • The need to make the most of scarce human and financial resources and to avoid duplication of effort among NGOs working on similar issues.
  • The desire to ensure effective communications among key NGO actors working on a particular issue and to pool the expertise available to NGOs.
  • The desire to avoid NGO disunity on an issue. Opponents will be all too willing to exploit differences in opinion among NGOs in order to undermine the overall goal being pursued.

Working in coalitions also provides a coordinated way for NGOs to forge and maintain strategic partnerships with external actors. It is easier for a government to relate to a coalition as a single partner that represents the range of civil society actors on an issue than to work out whom to interact with from among a host of organisations.

However, coalitions also impose costs and constraints on member organisations. A key trade-off when working in coalition is between the gains in effectiveness (stronger voice and wider reach) on the one hand and the amount of time and resources spent in making a coalition work on the other. Coalitions have been described as a ‘necessary bureaucracy’ and every coalition an NGO joins brings with it another set of communications, another email list and another set of conference calls and meetings.

“Governments and international organisations such as the UN sometimes see significant benefits in having NGOs organising themselves into coalitions. For example, the ECOSOC Statute for Non-Governmental Organisations states that: “Where there exist a number of organisations with similar objectives, interests and basic views in a given field, they may, for the purposes of consultation with the Council, form a joint committee or other body authorised to carry on such consultation for the group as a whole.”

ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, 25 July 1996.

The importance of communication

Keeping the communications flowing and keeping up with the flow of communications is a crucial aspect of coalition work. Civil society coalitions have a long track record, but there has been considerable proliferation in the past few decades. One of the drivers of this proliferation has been the increasing number of NGOs that exist today and that work on issues that resonate across borders. A key factor in the emergence of more – and more effective – global coalitions since the 1990s is the dramatic evolution of communications technology.

The mass collaboration made possible by the ability to email the same message to hundreds and thousands of people in every corner of the globe has changed the dynamics of global coalitions. It has made it easier for individual voices on a particular issue to provide a unified voice, to stay up-to-date with developments globally, to plan together, to adapt and to exert maximum influence over decisions being taken at national, regional and international levels. It is this flow of communication that is central to effective coalition work.

“When you think about what members get out of being in coalitions, it’s not just about achieving common goals. For example, the former communist states in Europe had a limited civil society sector generally and one of the things CONCORD has helped to do it to provide a sector for them, it has created a culture that they can be part of.”

Andreas Vogt, CONCORD European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development



Global civil society coalitions have become important actors in the development of new international law and other policy change over the last two decades. These coalitions share characteristics that distinguish them from more loosely organised networks or the broader social movements within which the coalitions themselves may operate. While coalitions can offer NGOs significant benefits towards achieving goals, there are also costs associated with the additional workloads that they generate. Coalitions require structures and organisation but it is communication that is central to their effective work.

The next chapter looks at the particular challenges of initiating a coalition.

End of Chap 1