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


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