1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009), Markets, Business and Regulation (2000 - 2009)

Noble Networks? Advocacy for Global Justice and the "Network Effect"



Civil society organizations in Western societies are widely reported to have significant political power. Policy makers increasingly emphasize the important role of such organizations as “equal players” in the political process, while outside institutional politics, civic advocacy recently regained attention through the rise of global and transnational social movements.

This paper draws attention away from individual engagement in social movements and from single non-governmental organizations (NGOs), toward inter-organizational networks of civil organizations and their role in public policy processes. Taking an inter-organizational perspective on civic advocacy, the paper starts with a theoretical reflection on two bodies of literature: social movement theory, and the literature on inter-organizational networks. The combination of insights from these two areas builds the theoretical background for analysing the “network effect” for joint advocacy by civil organizations in networks. The network effect, as discussed here, builds on a set of propositions about how organizing in networks affects the network members themselves, as well as how networks change the role of civic action in the policy process. These propositions are presented and discussed from two different angles: inside and outside networks.

The empirical data for the assessment of network effects derives from four civil advocacy networks working in the United Kingdom in the area of economic policy with implications for international development. The data for each case were collected by means of document analysis and a combination of interviews, as well as a survey including respondents from all four networks and representatives of their counterparts in the policy process. The presentation of each proposition is followed by a discussion based on the empirical data. While the propositions made from an “inside” perspective on the network effect are primarily discussed in light of the direct perceptions of network members, the paper draws upon the perceptions of public policy officials in order to validate the discussion of the external perspective on the network effect.

Starting from a classic resource-based perspective on social movements, the paper discusses the impact of network effects on resource pooling and mobilization. Following the “exchange theory” proposition that networks not only facilitate exchange between different actors but also lead to the creation of new network-specific resources and skills, this discussion is complemented by an assessment of the effects of networks on inter-organizational learning and the building of a shared identity. The authors state that the governance of a network is critical for the use of these internal network effects: governance can “steer” collective action and facilitate strategic alignment of individual organizations.

The paper then examines the potential of networks to influence their external context. It also looks at how joint action impacts on network members’ perceptions of political opportunities in the policy process; this is compared with the perceptions of actors, such as government officials, whom the networks engage in the policy process.

The findings indicate that the network effect on civic advocacy primarily functions inside networks, as it changes the way network participants perceive their role in the policy process. By working through networks, individuals in participating NGOs can exert some additional influence over public policy on global inequality. However, by comparing current practice with the networks’ promises identified in existing studies of organizations and social movements, it appears that many of the potential benefits are not being systemically realized by network participants. Instead, participation in such networks appears as a strategy by individuals to deal with a lack of focus on systemic, cross-cutting issues by their NGO, rather than a comprehensively resourced strategy from their organization. A consequent resource scarcity leads to a lack of investment in network learning and strategic planning, so that these civic networks do not utilize the network effect to its full extent. As a result, the impact of the network effect outside networks appears limited. The reasons for the limited impact identified in this paper were unintended consequences of organizing in networks: network activities appeared to be driven by governmental agendas rather than by the NGOs’ strategic goals; the aims of campaigns repeated existing political compromises and narratives rather than introducing challenging discourses; and coalition building through networks was prematurely curtailed.

While networks could be a mechanism for empowering civic organizations within existing societal structures, this would likely require an enhanced effort to align participant organizations with network-related activities, and the involvement of more groups who shape inequality, as well as those who suffer from it. Consequently, the authors draw the preliminary conclusion that some civic networks demonstrate a potential to enhance civic advocacy in policy processes, yet generate concerns over legitimacy and effectiveness. They may therefore appear to some people as inert and elite clubs of intelligent civic professionals—“noble networks”. The paper explores two of these concerns with civic network advocacy in the final section, and recommends a shift from a “noble” to a global strategic network approach. This conclusion is particular to the type of civic organizations researched, and greater connections to other civic organizations, such as trade unions, may help address some of the challenges identified.

The paper makes a contribution to the emerging field of critical and normative inter-organizational relations, and identifies some key areas for further work. It will aid understanding of how NGOs relate to social movements through their networks at a time when struggles for financial justice are set to grow.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 14 Feb 2009
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD