The art of framing – Pushing NGO interaction

Civic Action,Development Policy01 Jul 2010David Sogge, Gisela Dütting

NGOs have been joining forces to increase their effectiveness. They need to form alliances with social movements as well, however, to avoid working in isolation from broader social currents.

A study conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Hivos, the Humanist Institute for Development Coordination based in the Netherlands, analyzed the nature of interaction between 55 NGOs with other NGOs.1 It focused on NGOs operating in southern Africa, the Andes region and India. Their work covered a number of fields such as rights for women, gays and lesbians, people affected by HIV-AIDS, and ethnic and caste minorities.

These for the most part experienced NGOs operate at local and national levels with aims to generate social change. Local interviewers probed senior staff members of each organization about what had driven or hampered interaction with other NGOs and what emerged from this. They concluded that NGO collaboration can yield substantial benefits:

  •  More influence over how issues are talked about. Strong coalitions can create channels and venues in which questions can be interpreted and debated from new angles. NGOs can extend their influence by shaping public discourse.
  • Organizations representing groups under threat (such as gays and lesbians) or working in politically repressive settings (such as Zimbabwe) see strength in numbers. They can shield themselves from attack and gain support by joining networks that address larger agendas, especially the pursuit of broad civil and political rights.
  • Collaborating with other NGOs can generate enhanced status and visibility.
  • Interaction can help NGOs access the media and people with political influence, as well as a wider range of social organizations.
  • Enhanced interaction enables NGOs to expand or adjust their range of themes (e.g. minority and women’s rights). Most of the organizations in the study, however, did not view these themes as anything really new, but rather as alternate dimensions of their own objectives.

NGOs tend to stress the first point, highlighting the importance of developing talk among NGOs. Resulting discourses offer ways to clarify identities, sharpen ideas and improve development and human rights practice.

Advocacy over skills

The most intensive collaboration, according to the study, usually takes place within a specific human rights sector. In India and Latin America, it sometimes developed on the basis of geography (typically in a metropolitan area), but thematic emphases – rights of women, minorities and other marginalized groups – tend to prevail in the long run. Collaboration persists when NGOs share similar political ideologies and values. Outright breakdowns, though infrequent, arise from disagreements about objectives and aspirations. There were few cases of short-term, joint operations for achieving specific goals. But most interaction is a routine matter, mainly for sharing information and ideas. Many see these routine activities as elementary parts of activism and its interpretive potential. A few of the older, more established NGOs in the study question the motives for collaboration. Some wonder whether the ideas and strengths emerging from collaboration could be justified by the time and resources spent. Donor-driven interaction in particular raises doubts. What is the added value of NGO leaders flying from one workshop or conference to another? Whereas much more can probably be gained by mobilizing and organizing constituencies. Are donors getting these messages? The study suggests they are not. Informants in southern Africa, for example, point out that most donor-supported ‘capacity building’ for NGOs overemphasizes ‘advocacy’ and ‘lobbying’, whereas the many sophisticated skills needed to animate and mobilize citizens for collective action get less attention. Donors as a rule don’t focus on social movements. Yet often that is exactly what is needed.

What advances NGO collaboration? What sets it back?

The research points to several factors sustaining NGO interaction:

  • Personal trust, particularly at a leadership level. Without this social ‘glue’ at the top, NGOs cannot easily keep inter-organizational links alive; some NGOs reported that connections developed first among junior staff or common members, as in the case with trade unions.
  • Specific socio-political settings and events. Local or national political crises often drive interaction. They were especially significant in Africa, where lawlessness and brutality create even more urgency for acting jointly and protecting one another.2
  • Forging common ways of talking about and projecting issues and values. Diversity on this front can spell trouble.
  • Pragmatism. Clear division and complementarity of tasks, transparency and readiness to publicly acknowledge everyone’s contributions to an effort.
  • Incentives to collaborate. These may be conscious but have less to do with short-term gains, such as campaign victories, than with long-term benefits for each organization, such as information and the protection that large numbers can provide.
  • Informal structures. Past associative ties, schooling and other allegiances creating social ‘blood bonds’ tend to combine and re-combine NGO staff together over and over again.3

The research also suggests a number of factors putting collaboration at risk, or blocking it altogether:. Among the most frequently cited were:

  • Irreconcilable differences in organizations’ ideologies and objectives.
  • Irreconcilable differences in leadership styles, leading to problems of transparency and insufficient mutual respect and trust.
  • Competition among NGOs for donor funding; withdrawal of donor funding for collaborative activities.
  • NGO fears of being submerged by others, with a resulting loss of visibility and means to claim accomplishments as their own.

The art of framing

NGOs working in isolation from broader social currents and from politics are not very effective. That has long been known but was not taken seriously until recently. Today, with NGOs and their donors under pressure to show tangible results, the quest for effectiveness is on. Good intentions no longer suffice. Given the remarkable achievements of emancipatory social movements – from cleaner air and water to votes for the politically marginalized – their potential political clout demands respect.

Some NGOs and a few donors have therefore begun focusing more on social movements. They try to find ways of working with them, but also to understand how these movements gain traction and move ahead. Movements are an older and looser form of organization than NGOs. Their informal nature – no bank accounts and no one to submit reports to – poses challenges to the ways the aid system does business.

One way of increasing movements’ effectiveness is through the art of framing. Framing is like using a lens through which issues can be viewed and talked about in new ways. This brings us back to the importance NGOs attach to the discussion and development of common idioms and frameworks for interpretation. Indeed, NGOs could draw on social constructivist theories on social movement framing found in the works of authors such as Anthony Bebbington, Margaret E. Keck, Kathryn Sikkink and Srilatha Batliwala.

Social constructivists pay attention to how meaning and collective identities are shaped and effectively conveyed. They underscore the importance of ideas, morality and emotions in social movements. Take the case of public systems of social protection. Most Europeans today take it for granted that the unemployed, disabled and others are entitled to public assistance. Whereas a few generations back, such entitlements were almost unknown. Their public status had to be constructed. This involved efforts to reframe public welfare as a right rather than an act of charity. Disadvantaged groups were recast as fellow citizens, not second-class recipients of arbitrary alms. This earned the idea public respect and political force.

Such reframing, born of continual interaction and discussion among constituent members with their varying identities and ‘blood relations’, helps build the basis for collective action and political leverage. This interaction helps draw in more people and mobilize them in broader and more effective campaigns.

For example, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations in India work to frame LGBT rights as human rights. LGBT issues then enter policy debates as human rights, making it more acceptable for local government, health authorities and the media to discuss them. Human rights NGOs may also be more willing to back LGBT issues, thus increasing the support base and political clout.

This approach was successfully used in the past by women’s organizations, who claimed that ‘women’s rights are human rights’. The women’s movement also managed to shift official talk about ‘population control’ to talk about ‘women’s reproductive rights’. It entered the political arena and challenged prevailing interpretations of the principles underlying power in order to advance its struggle against subordination.

Movements often fail in their efforts to challenge hegemonic discourses, however, which by definition mask or sugar-coat the realities of subordination. There is an urgent need today, for example, to reframe ideas governing the ‘self-regulation’ of business and catchphrases such as ‘self-correcting markets’. These ideas set the stage for today’s economic crisis, with its devastating impacts on pro-poor, emancipatory agendas. Yet such ideas are now acknowledged as bogus and have simply not been challenged with sufficient force.

Identities and framing

Identities in social movements are often multiple. Socio-economic and political roles shape the construction of identities. Identities can be anchored in many ways. For example, people may see themselves as Muslims and women and workers in the informal economy. They may see themselves as entrepreneurs and as consumers of public health services. They may see themselves as disadvantaged tribal minorities and as people affected by environmental destruction.

In her 2008 study of women’s organizations, Changing Their World: Concepts and Practices of Women’s Movements, Indian sociologist Srilatha Batliwala shows that women are organized according to ‘particular identities, categories and circumstances’, as opposed to the more generic classification of ‘women’.4 These multiple identities and affinities can be effective for mobilizing social resources, such as increasing movement membership, cultivating allies and building political collaboration. But because identities and affiliations can run far deeper than donor and NGO agendas, bottom-up drivers of social movements can be disconnected from the top-down drivers of outside interveners.

The British political scientist James Putzel argues in his 2004 discussion paper The Politics of ‘Participation’: Civil Society, the State and Development Assistance that ‘poor people often participate in politics on bases that objectively have little to do with their interest in poverty reduction, or that may be counterproductive to any goal of poverty reduction’.5 In other words, mobilizing the poor politically is often achieved on the basis of their language, ethnicity, geography or religion. ‘In fact,’ Putzel says, ‘it may be much more common for poor people to participate in these ways than around programmes or projects designed to directly improve their economic position in society.’6

This poses challenges, though not necessarily insuperable ones, of how to forge sufficient adherence to a common idiom and a common frame. NGOs may risk aligning themselves with visceral public sentiments that deny respect and exclude people. In India, for example, movements in support of rights for Muslims, tribal and lower-caste people have aroused ugly counter-movements. NGOs and donors have to respect the complexity of identities and interests as they look for common points to forge alliances with emancipatory social movements.

Today some NGO networks are shifting their focus from the territorial to the sectoral – from neighbourhoods to social categories as it were. Similar trends have been detected in European civil society, where actors have shifted from national to sectoral questions (environment, fair taxes, corporate influence) at supra-national levels. They thereby reduce risks of regional cleavages and of goals being displaced or momentum lost due to compromises and disputes at territorial levels .

Political de-nationalization

How can NGOs use collaboration to get a grip on changing power relations and gain access to political spaces? The study suggests the following:

  • The NGOs in question put priority on issues at the national level. However, stronger NGOs tend also to claim spaces in international settings, something weaker NGOs cannot achieve.
  • NGOs realize that effective advocacy also relies on strength in numbers and thus on bringing various groups together. Success here can depend on shaping interpretations, or framing issues as well as on seizing political opportunities. NGOs stress that these twin powers of shaping ideas and mobilizing people are vital for moving forward.

The de-nationalization of politics and emphasis on nationally strong NGOs suggests that more attention needs to be devoted to locally based NGOs that liaise with local institutions. Since many NGOs work at a national level, it will be interesting to see to what extent they ally themselves with social movements. This may require a form of collaboration different from what they are used to.

Indeed, NGOs grappling with issues at a national level must now also get to grips with supra-national levels. Decision-making power seems to be migrating outward and upward, moving from territorial to supra-territorial levels. NGOs today face local authorities, such as in cities, with less overall decision-making power, yet are burdened with more responsibilities to implement policies decided elsewhere and to deal with social problems generated by many of those policies. Some Latin American NGOs have started reporting on their links with local government institutions. But few NGOs have begun to adjust their collaboration in ways that robustly match these new realities.


Batliwala, S. (2008) Changing Their World: Concepts and Practices of Women’s Movement. Association for Women’s Rights in Development. See
Bebbington, A. (2006) Social Movements and the Politicization of Chronic Poverty Policy. Working Paper 63, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, UK. See
Keck, M. and Sikkink, K. (1998) Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press.
Liebert, U. and H.-J. Trenz, 2008, Conclusion, in U. Liebert and H.-J. Trenz (eds) Reconstituting Democracy from Below. New Approaches to Civil Society in the New Europe, Recon Report No. 5. See
Mouffe, C. (2005) The Return of the Political. Verso.
Putzel, J. (2004) The Politics of ‘Participation’: Civil Society, the State and Development Assistance. Crisis States Development Research Centre, LSE Research Online, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. See
Sassen, S. (2006) Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton University Press.


  1. This research was conducted in 2008 and 2009, and was commissioned by Hivos, the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation. Coordinated by Gisela Dütting and David Sogge, the local research was carried out by Daniela Sanchez, Nandita Gandhi, Nandita Shah, Venitia Govender.
  2. Crisis clearly helps intensify interaction, but pressures of long-term constraints (prejudicial laws or official neglect, for example) and the advent of new openings (new media, favourable legislation or friends in high places, for example) also draw NGOs into longer-term working relationships.
  3. This finding is consistent with Batliwala’s emphasis on the positive contributions that informal ties and norms can make to social movements.
  4. Batliwala, S. (2008) Changing Their World: Concepts and Practices of Women’s Movement. Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). See, p. 56.
  5. Putzel, J. (2004) The Politics of Participation: Civil Society, the State and Development Assistance. Crisis States Development Research Centre, LSE Research Online, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. See, p. 1.
  6. Putzel, J. (2004) The Politics of Participation: Civil Society, the State and Development Assistance. Crisis States Development Research Centre, LSE Research Online, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. See, pp. 1-2.