When dealing with the government to advocate for a specific policy, refugee rights leaders will need to decide on how they approach the government. This may vary from adopting a “naming and shaming” to a collaborative approach. This page will discuss the advantages of adopting a confrontational and a collaborative approach with the government. It will then highlight how you can build and maintain a collaborative relationship with the government. In particular, it will provide advice on (1) mapping government structures and identifying officials, (2) approaching the government, and (3) coordinating an unified approach.
Confrontational vs. collaborative approach
There are benefits to both adopting a confrontational or a collaborative approach with the government. A confrontational approach may allow your organization to maintain its independence. If an NGO, for example, is monitoring the government’s implementation of a certain policy or new law, the NGO must be able to freely identify problems with it so that the appropriate critique can be addressed.
On the other hand, there are benefits in building a collaborative relationship with the government, especially when advocating for refugee rights and in legislative change. Refugee rights organizations can benefit from engaging elected and appointed officials in their local and federal governments. Such an ally can increase the changes for wide scale reform, and potentially increase your organization’s resources for a specific cause. For example, an NGO can collaborate and join resources with the government to carry out public awareness campaigns. For more details in assessing your risk, refer to considering policy tools and risks.
Mapping government structures and identifying officials
NGOs must be strategic about their government relationships. To successfully build a strong and cooperative relationship with the government requires time and aligning yourself with the right allies. The following section provides advice to facilitate your interaction with the government.
Find government officials who both have the influence and can champion your organization’s advocacy goals. Just like with operating with NGOs, the first step when engaging the government is to do your research and become familiar with the government landscape.
To do this, build a relationship diagram that outlines local and federal government agencies and individuals. Identify your potential supporters and challengers and then map out how they relate to your organization. This can be challenging in countries that do not have a clear government structure – try to be as specific as you can! Some useful questions to consider when constructing the relationship diagram are:
- Is there a government ministry or department responsible for the issue?
- Is there a sub-committee or committee in the legislature that is responsible for the issue?
- Has the government issued any policy statements on the issue?
- Has the government signed any relevant international treaties?
- Are there any Members of Parliament interested in the issue?
- Have the political parties taken a position on the issue?
- Is there a National Human Rights Institution and can it freely conduct its work? Does it serve as a smokescreen or can it be a key ally?
Consider reaching out to customary or traditional leadership who themselves may administer customary law in the local area or may hold sway over formal government structures in certain contexts.
Moreover, it is important to note that establishing a relationship with the government may not be in the your best interest if the government does not have the citizen’s trust. Would relationship-building with the government to advance advocacy programs affect your legitimacy in the eyes of the community in which you run empowerment activities or legal services?
Approaching the government
The next step is to strategize how your organization is going to build these relationships. To do this, brainstorm on how the government officials can be accessed. Consider whether there are any formal or informal channels of access. Consider who or what will influence the government on a specific issue. Is it other businesses? Other countries? The media? Particular journalists?
The International Refugee Rights Initiative has a directory of refugee-sympathetic journalists that your organization can leverage. Use this directory, and also help contribute to it!
The most effective working relationships are built when the civil society involves the government in their efforts. For example, you may update the government about recent initiatives and research efforts, and invite them to events and training sessions.
In addition, remember that governments are more likely to be responsive and open if they perceive your organization to serve their interests. It is important to consider whether your advocacy goal may go directly against the state’s interests. For example, if your organization is seeking to enable refugees to become more autonomous and self-sufficient, this may go directly against the state’s interests in perpetuating aid income for economic and foreign relation purposes. In this case, you may choose to reframe your goals
Your relationship with the government can be seen as reciprocal: direct service providers need the government just as the government needs them. For example, the grassroots relationships that you have established in your communities may mean you can reach people that the government does not otherwise have access to. As you engage with the government, it is important to highlight the benefits that your organization can bring to the government.
Consider the composition of your board. Your board can be a great resource to help build relationships in the community. Having contacts and networks may even be an explicit requirement when selecting new board members.
While national-level advocacy and relationship-building is often vital, it is important not to overlook local authorities with whom you may also interact with on a regular basis. These actors may not react favorably if they feel overlooked by the organization. Therefore, make sure to involve both national and local level government actors. For more information, refer to the direct interventions with policymakers section.
Coordinating an unified approach
In maintaining a good relationship with the government, recognize that each formal and informal interaction between your organization’s staff members and the government reflects on the organization.
It may therefore be advisable that your team defines a clear strategy and standard operating procedure for working with government bodies. Consider, for example, whether interaction should be coordinated through one central person or department. It may be practical to assign a single person to communicate between your organization and a certain government office or official. This can minimize the government from receiving multiple, and potentially conflicting, messages from within your organization.
To avoid this situation, a good strategy is to inform your staff members and volunteers about your defined approach with the government from the beginning. Outline the status of the relationship with the government, as well as potential frustrations and risks. Let frontline advocates know the best manner with which to raise their concerns within your organization. For example, advocates may:
- Write a memo suggesting a policy change that is then strategically brought forth through the organization.
- Discuss their concerns with other refugee rights organizations to decide whether there is a larger, concerning trend that needs to be addressed in a strategic manner. This may lead to targeted policy advocacy or even litigation.
It is important to ensure that your staff members are aware of how your organization interacts with the government. One challenge that Asylum Access was confronted with was when zealous, well-intentioned advocates, who often had just arrived in the host country, would charge into a government office on their own demanding change because something unfair had just happened to their client. Unfortunately, while such frustration is understandable, this approach often leads to the opposite effect. The approach was detrimental to the client, jeopardized the organization’s overall relationship with the government, and affected the larger refugee rights movement.
In addition, while an refugee rights initiative should strive to have a cooperative relationship with the government, it should also not be afraid to let that relationship become confrontational. Achieving your aims may sometimes work best through collaborating with the government, while at other times it will come about through confrontation.
When confronting the government, however, it is important to have the necessary research and data to back-up any assertions. Such independence is a crucial tool for maintaining an organization’s effectiveness and credibility. Refer to the Research and Publishing page for more information on data for advocacy.
To be effective and credible, NGOs must ensure that the staff and volunteers who carry out monitoring of government policies or new laws are knowledgeable, well trained and impartial.