Working Politically Behind Red Lines

A great source of knowledge on how networks add value to human rights efforts are the learning papers from the Development Leadership Program.

In February 2011 Mariz Tadros  published research on this website into how women's coalitions helped make change happen in Egypt. Or: how using your contacts can fuel a revolution. Women’s coalitions to advance women’s equality are rare in the Middle East, challenged by a restrictive and professionalized political culture that discourages collective forms of agency.

Given that the space for influencing policy is restricted to a closed circle of elites, it is not the agency of the coalition alone that leads to policy influence. The key finding is that engaging in informal ‘backstage’ politics is equally, if not more, important than formal channels of engagement. Policy influence relies heavily on informal relationships rather than strictly formal citizen-state engagements.

Tadros found that the ‘formal’ face of advocacy, for example through petitions, conferences and media advocacy plays a secondary role to informal processes, such as backdoor processes of negotiation and mediation between coalition leaders and key players. Moreover, informal networks and, often, prior relationships, are crucial for building the internal cohesion of a coalition, and they help reduce their vulnerability to external political threat.

A particularly interesting finding was that some organizations joined coalitions because of fear of social or political marginalization if they do not become part of the 'in-group'. Pre-existing social networks between individual leaders commonly form the basis for successful coalition forming.

I came across this same phenomenon in management studies. Arie de Geus, a former executive at Shell, noticed that by “knowing who is considered part of ‘us’” and embedding that from the top down in the structure of the company, productivity would increase. He also recognised the danger of creating ‘outsiders’. Through this distinction, many groups within companies have been able to argue for being ‘let in’ – women, sexual minorities, physically handicapped people, ethnic minorities.

Another important find in Tadros’ study was that the members of the coalitions are very aware that in order to have policy influence they need to rely significantly on the social and political networks that are often based on their common class, professional or educational backgrounds. Without such political and social clout and protection, they can face difficulties n withstanding the often-harsh realities of unpredictable political conditions.

Tadros’ study found that support for emerging coalitions was characterized by a deliberate policy of making a number of important diversions from the typical project cycle. These include
  • Ongoing investment in, and commitment to, the process of building internal cohesion and organizational and political capacity rather than focusing solely on delivery of outputs
  • A recognition that coalitions need time to discuss and debate the division of roles, appropriate strategies, relationships with stakeholders, government and non-governmental actors and consequently do not function well in three to five year funding cycles
  • An understanding of the complexity of policy-influencing processes and the fact that while local actors can and do have an impact in many instances, there is no linear causal relationship between a coalition's actions and the policy change itself.

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