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The Delicate Art of Working with Governments

In an ideal world, everyone should be able to rely on their governments to provide a fair and just society for them to live in. This is what we mean when we talk about governments as ‘duty bearers’ – it’s supposed to be their duty to protect and uphold the human rights of their citizens.

But in our far-from-perfect world, no government in history is yet to fulfill this ideal. That’s where civil society comes in: providing an outsider’s perspective and representing a range of concerns and voices, NGOs, activists and other grassroots organisations have two main roles to play when working with governments. The first is to work alongside governments: to support them to deliver services to their citizens; build their capacity in certain areas; and develop accountability mechanisms for their citizens. The second is to hold them to account: to call them out when they are failing to fulfill their legal duty for their citizens’ rights; and to advocate for them to take up their responsibilities for human rights and environmental justice without discrimination or pandering to special interests.

But what happens when the relationship between government and civil society breaks down?

This relationship has always been fraught, but as demagoguery and nationalism sweep across the old developed/developing country divide, this question is arguably more pertinent than ever. Around the world, governments headed by ‘strongman’ leaders are stifling civil society, at a time when its role is needed more than ever.

Fittingly, ‘Compliance or Defiance? Engaging with governments on social and environmental justice’ was chosen as the topic for our first ever Learning Call.

A global forum for social change

Based on feedback from past trainings, these learning calls were launched to provide a forum for further discussion among alumni from the Justice Based Approach trainings. They enable change-makers around the world to support each other to address common challenges, and provide a reflective, creative environment, where new solutions can emerge. This first session brought together participants from East Timor, Bali, Cambodia, Borneo, Vietnam and the USA.

So what should a good working relationship between civil society and government look like? The answer, inevitably, is that it varies between the location, issue, and even the individual in question.

Drawing on the wealth of experiences of those on the call, one thing was clear: close, positive engagement with government actors can pay dividends for change-makers in both the immediate and longer term. One participant described how a national crackdown on immigration in Borneo put a temporary halt to their doctor training programme, which had brought in foreign doctor volunteers to share their skills. But thanks to a positive relationship forged over the years, local government representatives actually advocated internally for the continuation of their project, and they were allowed to continue their work.

Like any relationship though, these connections need to be regularly tended. The risk of complacency was well illustrated by the same participant. She described how, due to past successes in government engagement, colleagues incorrectly assumed they could circumvent some bureaucratic requirements that would affect the running of a reforestation project. Unfortunately, their presumptive approach angered the local authorities, and the project was temporarily suspended.

But is it enough simply to earn the trust of our governmental counterparts? Isn’t the role of civil society to provide a critical voice, and to hold governments to account - whatever the cost?

The answer lies in a recognition of the different goals and motivations for the two parties in this relationship. It’s not in the interests of governments to make the radical, systematic overhauls that are so often the solution to many of the issues we are fighting for. Their preference is simply to ‘paper over the cracks’ - a closer look at the fundamental problems in question could, after all, cost them their job.

And that’s where NGOs, activists and civil society come in. It’s not our role to compromise or find a middle way with governments, but to fight for justice. This will be uncomfortable, and it will take time – but that, according to one participant of the learning call, is the task at hand if governments are going to be held to account.

10 practical strategies

For those engaged in this careful tightrope walk, the following ten strategies that emerged from the learning call provide useful guidance, and a reminder that you’re not alone in this struggle.

  1. Collaboration is key. The group recognised that strength is found in numbers, and identified the need to find allies in local or international NGOs to amplify lobbying efforts.

  2. It’s not one-size-fits-all. Experience has shown that different strategies are needed to successfully appeal to and influence government representatives at the local, regional and national level.

  3. Make it personal. Remember that governments are made up of humans, and by building warm relationships with governmental counterparts, these people are more likely to act as internal advocates for NGO causes.

  4. Be current. It’s the job of NGOs to know and follow current regulations, and remind government counterparts what the regulations say.

  5. Have a voice. Ensure the civil society perspective is heard in the development of local, regional and national policy.

  6. Set expectations. Ensure interactions with governments are grounded in strong policies and codes of practice, and that these are clearly communicated to explain our actions.

  7. Think long term. Remember that change takes time, and just because it is hard now, doesn’t mean it will always be difficult to engage with the government.

  8. Model the behaviour you want to see. Everyday activism is a key pillar of the Justice Based Approach. Setting a positive example can be much more effective than name-calling or focusing on failures of the government.

  9. Stay strong. As NGOs working for human rights and justice, we ultimately want a world where the government takes responsibility and where we have a very different role as civil society. This means that engaging with governments, whether easy or hard, is a goal in itself – to help them take responsibility.

  10. Seek feedback and participation. If in doubt, ask stakeholders and beneficiaries how they want you to work with the government.

While social justice activists grapple with how to influence governments to take responsibility and make positive change around the world, United Edge is designed to provide practical support and advice for these endeavours. If there is a way we can support you on your journey to a more fair and just society, please get in touch to discuss your ideas.

If you’d like to be a part of our global movement for justice, visit our events page to find a workshop near you.

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