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.
￼IS THE COALITION GIVING FRIENDLY GOVERNMENTS ENOUGH ROOM TO MANOEUVRE?
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.