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The chess game of changing power dynamics: ‘Advocacy can be a tricky business’ 

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In an age of growing authoritarianism, efforts to reduce power inequalities gain relevance. But they also become more complex and hazardous. In an in-depth interview, Paul van den Berg, Cordaid’s longstanding political advisor, expands on the art of advocacy and the drive to change power dynamics. 

Cordaid has a dual mandate of providing emergency relief and promoting structural development. This mandate has always been accompanied by endeavours to increase people’s access to decision-making in processes that concern them.

These can be about the quality of health care, education, justice services or how security is organised in times of armed conflict. Or about how food is distributed in times of famine, and how farmers get or do not get the support they need to face climate change. 

Communities that depend on foreign aid, not only want to have a say in local decision-making but also in how foreign aid is being designed, run and implemented in their localities. This means that critical democratic scrutiny of our own doings is also part of Cordaid’s lobby and advocacy.  

This access to power is a basic democratic principle. For all kinds of reasons, in fragile states, especially conflict-ridden ones, Cordaid’s main area of operation, this principle is often under threat.

For the past decades, however, authoritarian rule and democratic decline have globally expanded. Hence, more than ever, a need to defend and expand the values of dialogue, consultation and civic space. And to put people’s concerns and needs first, both in our field activities and in separate advocacy programmes. 

Paul van den Berg, Cordaid’s chief political advisor based in The Hague, has been involved in policy influencing for nearly two decades. His epicentre is Dutch politics, both foreign and domestic, but he is also closely involved in advocacy campaigns at local levels, from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as regional and international levels, from Brussels, Geneva to New York. 

Many people associate foreign aid with the ‘hardware’ side of support, like providing food, shelter, tools, or knowledge. How is advocacy and policy influencing linked to that? 

‘It’s very much interlinked. Our advocacy backs our work in health care, education, security and justice and other fields. And vice versa, the field work we do with partners, gives us the leverage and credibility to push for policy changes. 

‘Originally, when the Dutch government was our main institutional donor, Cordaid had three domains of intervention: programme implementation, capacity strengthening of civil society organisations in the global south, and policy influencing. These were interlinked and integrated domains. Even though the Dutch funding scheme no longer exists, we still combine these domains and lobbying and advocacy remain one of the main interventions in our focus countries, in the Netherlands and internationally.’ 

What is the common ambition in the wide spectrum of advocacy work across the globe? 

‘Our main aim is to support people with little access to power in having a stronger voice in decision-making processes that impact their lives, and thus to change power dynamics and reduce exclusion and inequality.’

Can you give some highlights showing the fruits of advocacy work, which often happens behind the scenes and below the radar in highly sensitive contexts? 

‘I can. But before I do that, I wish to stress that advocacy is a matter of being context-specific. One-size-fits-all approaches are doomed to fail. And yes, the fragile, volatile and conflict-affected contexts we work in are challenging. Powers that be are always reluctant to change, whether in The Netherlands or anywhere else. They like the status quo, and they fear critical voices. Where we work, this reluctance can take on very sensitive dimensions. You want to change things, but if authorities feel their position is undermined, you won’t get very far. How are we, as a foreign entity, perceived by ruling powers? What is our legitimacy? How big is our space to operate, without undermining our role, or worse, being forced to leave the country? These are thin and delicate lines. It’s like tightrope walking.

‘Shouting and sharing on social media has little to do with policy influencing.’

‘Secondly, it is important to say that Cordaid as an INGO is merely a passenger, an outsider, in the countries we work in. We are an intermediary funding and a facilitating agency. Most of the actual advocacy is done by local civil society partners, who themselves are much more part of the context they operate in than we are. They are the ones in the front seat, we mostly stay in the background. Like all aspects of international cooperation, advocacy too is very much a matter of locally-led development.

‘As for the highlights, I will just mention a few. The crisis in eastern DR Congo, one of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters, which has regional dimensions and is linked to the extraction of natural resources, has somehow disappeared from the international radar in the past years. Meanwhile, questionable mining deals are adding fuel to the fire. With a range of partners, notably the Brussels-based EURAC network and, of course, Cordaid’s team in DR Congo, we have actively contributed to putting the conflict back on the political agenda of the Dutch Parliament and the EU. To the extent that the EU will very likely soon send a special envoy to the region, which shows that at least the issue is on the radar again. It’s an example that shows advocacy is like a chess game on different levels simultaneously, where Cordaid can help manage connect local with regional and international levels.’

Cordaid’s political advisor Paul van den Berg (right) in conversation with corporate editor Frank van Lierde, the author of this piece, at a climate protest in front of the Dutch parliament. Image: Mickael Franci

Did the fact that Cordaid is based both in DR Congo and in Rwanda, two countries playing incongruous roles in the conflict, make it extra complicated? 

‘It means we have networks and a thorough presence in both countries, giving us leverage. But sure, presence in a country is something you must constantly safeguard, forcing you to weigh every word you utter. You want to change things, preferably through dialogue. You don’t want to blow up opportunities for change by being too antagonistic.’

Diplomacy is often called an intricate chess game. I guess, the intricacy of conflict, its multiple levels and parties involved, the game of policy influencing has more than two players? 

‘Indeed, it has dozens of players, making thorough power and context analyses an absolute necessity. Moving ahead without knowing the field you operate in will always backfire and can have disastrous effects. Advocacy can be a tricky business, especially in repressive contexts.’

In the past couple of years, you were also involved in the Global Health Global Access advocacy program. Do you consider that a highlight? 

‘This is one of the few dedicated lobby and advocacy programmes, together with Just Future which focused on security, justice and strengthening the role of civil society in Afghanistan, Burundi, DR Congo, Mali, Niger and South Sudan. And yes, we did achieve a lot. The ambition was to increase Dutch investment in and political attention to global health. The idea is that without this, universal health care will remain an illusion. With financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we chair the Dutch Global Health Alliance and managed to help increase Dutch investment in global health. COVID-19 did help us to increase awareness, also among Dutch policymakers, that investing in better health systems abroad is also in the interest of the Netherlands which is one of the most connected countries and open economies of the world. The narrative was that viruses do not know borders and solidarity can save lives, even your own. That resonated well and our campaign contributed to increased Dutch investment in global health. But also, to closer collaboration between the ministries of health and foreign affairs and to a Dutch global health strategy, which did not exist before.

‘Unfortunately, when the COVID crisis was over, political attention for global health and global health funding dwindled again. Costs for the growing number of asylum seekers in the Netherlands were increasingly covered by the Dutch budget for development aid. More asylum seekers meant less global health investment, one of many cuts in foreign aid. As a result, the political decision to use the foreign aid budget for purposes inside the Netherlands, instead of increasingly tackling root causes for forced migration, is something we have been actively advocating against in the past few years.’

What is more important to make change happen, mobilising political or public attention? 

‘It depends on the topic, the sensitivity, the setting, and many other things. Generally, they are two sides of the same coin. Communication and advocacy go hand in hand. Reaching wider audiences helps to influence policymakers. Often, we work on these two levels simultaneously, public space and social media and back chambers, parliament and Chatham House Rule meetings. Even if the topics we deal with are intense and serious, combining these two fields is also fun and exciting.’

What was the most intense advocacy work you were involved in? 

‘That would be the evacuation of Afghan colleagues after the Taliban took control in 2021. The intensity, day and night, for weeks, was insane. Hope, frustration, sadness and happiness constantly switched, and getting colleagues out of the country was a success as much as a tragedy.  

‘After the Taliban takeover, which created massive terror amongst many Afghan women and men who had been involved in activities the new leaders did not like, we immediately started mobilising the Dutch government to evacuate as many Afghans who could be linked to the Netherlands as possible. We asked them to stand in solidarity with people they had worked with or supported in the past. We helped to generate this political support and get more people out of the country. A small Cordaid team was constantly in touch with Afghan civil society members who had to run for their lives, with politicians in The Hague, with the Dutch embassy while hell was breaking loose in Kabul, in the streets, in people’s homes, and most of all in Kabul airport. On WhatsApp, over the phone, by mail, 24/7 we were in touch with people, connecting them to the right places and persons on the ground, just to get them on the plane and to be able to enter the Netherlands. Taliban were trying everything to stop people from fleeing in Kabul, while in The Hague we had to deal with a minister of Immigration who was strongly opposed to getting Afghans into the Netherlands. Speaking of forces of opposition… We did manage to get more Afghans into the Netherlands than the Dutch government originally wanted. But I wouldn’t call it a victory. Forced migration never is. 

‘I have great admiration and respect for every single colleague or other NGO staff who managed to get out in those incredible circumstances. Just as I deeply admire staff that chose to stay and continue operations against all odds, reaching out to people in the direst of needs. Being able to support them makes me proud. And everything they do, whether it is emergency aid, livelihood support or health care, is also advocacy, because they have to keep creating openings, seeking opportunities for dialogue, defending the relevance of their work under the new de facto rulers.’

What I understand from this example is that advocacy can be a success amid failure. 

‘True. The international community abandoned Afghanistan completely, and the US pulled out without any exit strategy, creating the confusion from which the Taliban profited maximally and leaving Afghans, especially Afghan women and girls, behind. This failure of epic geopolitical dimensions is the canvas, the wider context we work in. Or the mess. Within that canvas, we, Afghan and international NGOs and civil society members must keep reaching out on local, national and international levels to support the Afghan people. Not doing that would be the end of hope.’

‘We are indeed living in what I would call a geopolitical catastrophe. This strong wave of extreme right-wing populism and authoritarianism, in Europe, the US and many other parts, is daunting and dangerous. But it is a temporary backlash.’

We have discussed some advocacy highlights. What about outright disappointments? 

‘They exist, of course. Take our aims to convince the Dutch government to take corporate social responsibility by private sector companies more seriously. Unfortunately, efforts of alliances like the Dutch CSR Platform, of which we are a member, did not result in the kind of binding legislation that would force companies to implement CSR policies. On EU levels this has been a failure as well. It just shows the power of the corporate world, of multinationals. We’re dealing with huge opposition. It’s an uphill battle. Sometimes it’s a wall. 

‘But the reality is not as black and white as your question implies. Take the efforts to convince Dutch banks like ING, or Cordaid’s own pension fund, PFZW, to stop investing in the arms trade or fossil fuels. We’ve been doing that for years. And even though wrong investments haven’t stopped, we see the effect of our campaigns and dialogue. Small changes in the right direction. This shows that lobby and advocacy is not always about putting out strong statements, press releases and immediate demands. Very often, in the longer run, keeping the conversation going with parties or people you strongly disagree with, does result in something positive. This is the way Cordaid works. Others, like Milieudefensie or Extinction Rebellion, opt for stronger activism and generate public outrage. And rightly so. But to create social and political change, both dialogue and activism have a role to play and need to exist. Side by side, very often even with the same purpose.’

With others, you worked on a Cordaid lobby and advocacy manual. It was released a year ago and there will be an updated version soon. What is the idea behind the manual? 

‘Cordaid operates in different countries, in different fields and on different levels. The manual is intended to harmonize and unify our lobby and advocacy campaigns and activities while remaining context-specific. It has many practical tools and training exercises, and it contains inspiring best practices, to be used by all Cordaid staff dealing with all the contexts and sensitivities we discussed in this interview. It is meant not only for lobbyists but for all staff. Because advocacy isn’t done in splendid isolation, it is part and parcel of everything we do.’

We live in an age where everyone seems to be a social media lobbyist, advocating personal beliefs and convictions. What makes Cordaid’s advocacy approach stand out? 

‘To begin with, shouting and sharing on social media has little to do with policy influencing. Even though social media are important in our profession. 

‘Several factors make us stand out. We have a big private donor constituency in the Netherlands, making us a credible actor for change in this country. We are a Christian value-based organisation that is part of two global confederations, Caritas and Act Alliance, both rooted in societies all over the world. Within ourselves, we connect these two families, Catholic and Protestant. In most countries we work in, we have been active for decades, showing long-term commitment. We have our own advocacy approach. Our first intention is not to judge and oppose but to start a dialogue and have a conversation. This is the way we work. All these elements make us a different player than many others out there.’

More generally, what makes a good lobbyist? What are the secret ingredients? 

‘You must be a good listener, even more than a good talker. Listen well and show empathy. If you want to change a person’s convictions or behaviour, you must put yourself in that person’s shoes. Often, people think advocacy and policy influencing is about sending and convincing. They like to hear themselves. That doesn’t work. You must find the middle ground. 

‘Secondly, don’t try things on your own. To change unequal power systems and address inequality you need to join hands and have a long breath. Networks and platforms are imperative, also with the unusual suspects. Ecologists, humanitarians, human rights defenders, academics, companies, and even former military, can pull on the same rope, as long as they fundamentally agree on the cause they pursue. Combining the constituencies of different parties gives you more leverage and legitimacy. 

‘Global challenges, from climate crisis, declining democracy, and pandemics, to forced migration, force you to seek allies. We also need to do this to stand stronger vis à vis the globally growing authoritarian, conservative, populist and reactionary forces. People who still dare to think beyond borders and believe in the importance of solidarity have to unite.’

Would you even team up with the active military? 

‘Not active military. That would jeopardise their work as well as ours.’

Other secret ingredients? 

‘Make sure to enjoy the ride! The profession of policy influencing is fascinating and fulfilling. Inequality is ugly, but teaming up with different people across the planet, finding a middle ground and securing social change is beautiful.’

As stated in the introduction, we are living in depressing times. Power imbalances only seem to increase. Yet countering these imbalances is your trade. Can you really enjoy engaging in a losing battle? Doesn’t it make you feel like throwing in the towel sometimes? 

‘No. We are indeed living in what I would call a geopolitical catastrophe. This strong wave of extreme right-wing populism and authoritarianism, in Europe, the US and many other parts, is daunting and dangerous. But it is a temporary backlash. Waves come, but they also go. Maybe I am too optimistic, even naive. But this optimism makes me even more determined to counter the forces of evil, to use these inflated words. And to strengthen the forces of good.’  

Thanks for this interview, Paul. I enjoyed the ride. 

Written by Frank van Lierde, Corporate Editor

Header image: Cordaid’s political advisor Paul van den Berg (second from the right) at a manifestation in front of the Dutch parliament, calling for the evacuation of Afghan NGO staff. Image: Mickael Franci