Evidence for influencing: why we’re excited about the first Oxfam Research Network conference

Irene Guijt Influencing, Research

For social justice what needs to change, who holds the power and how do we achieve it? Irene Guijt and Irene de Goede introduce Oxfam Research Network’s first conference on the evidence processes needed for influencing, where these questions and more will be discussed with 150 experts from Oxfam and the wider sector.

Credit: James Akena / Oxfam Novib

Credit: James Akena / Oxfam Novib

Influencing for social justice is a journey during which many kinds of evidence play a critical role. We need to know what needs to change, whether it be government policies, company practices or public attitudes and behaviours, as well as innovative solutions. We also need to know who has power to make the change and who/what influences them. If it’s the private sector, which company and why? If it’s the government, which department, parliamentarian or civil servant and why? If it is the public, which ones and why? And we need to know how best to achieve change including which influencing strategies and tactics work to shift policies, practices and norms, where, when and why? All these questions require research and other forms of generating evidence.

Imagine you want to end child marriage or ensure workers take home a living wage. Who needs to make what kind of policy decision? Or change a business practice? What will motivate business owners to give their employees a better share of value? Facts about inequality and suffering or evidence of potential business gain? Or maybe not facts at all, but putting a human face on suffering. The options are endless. So, over the years Oxfam staff have compiled business scorecards, global indices and tax monitors. Others have researched statistics and generated ‘killer facts’. Some have undertaken impact studies, while others have done deep dives to understand the whys of impact. And some have collected hundreds of stories of personal experience to detect options for policy and practice.  Many of these efforts have been collaborative, with CSOs, other NGOs, universities and think tanks.

At Oxfam, we use trends and horizons scanning to inform our strategic positioning, audience research to develop our global campaigns and evaluative research to enhance the effectiveness of our programmes. In addition, we conduct many thematic policy studies and stakeholder analyses as input for advocacy strategies to change the terms of debate.

In the process, Oxfam has developed a pretty reasonable reputation for an NGO that seeks to be evidence-informed. We often get it right, when the data is robust, packaged well and hits home. And sometimes we clearly don’t. Decent research may not make a dent or we make a splash, but the data used is not as good as it should have been. So how can we do better?

The Oxfam Research Network wanted an opportunity to have a good, long discussion on this question, which was evidence-informed of course. On October 23 and 24, 150 people involved in many types of research will descend on Kontakt der Kontinenten in the Netherlands. We’ll listen and discuss what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and above all, how to get better at leveraging our research for influencing. Participants include Oxfam staff from over 20 different country offices and affiliates, as well as people from 45 other organizations.

Now what’s there to talk about you might ask? Well, we’ve noticed assumptions made about how change happens. Many change organizations have pored over the challenges and implications of rising populism and fragmentation of the political landscape. So we’ve invited Inge Hutter, Steve Price-Thomas, Tom Black and Sandra Kidwingira to shine their light on the meaty topic of doing research for influencing in an era of populism and devaluation of facts. Perhaps we should be trading more in emotions and less in facts? Perhaps we need to listen differently to those who think differently?

And how agile are we about our views on influencing? Since Oxfam started 75 years ago, our influencing work has evolved in response to issues and context. So in the conference, we’ll hear how ways and theories of influencing have evolved over time. We’ll learn from more than 30 research efforts. Work on the displacement campaign has looked specifically at the role of research when emotions rather than data, influence the public and political discourse. The experiences, successes and challenges of, for example, work on the Fair Finance Guide, will be shared alongside how to do research in a closing or restricted civic space. We’ll be learning about how research on digital advocacy organizations that campaign on refugee rights can inform our influencing tactics. And we’re excited by sessions that will show us the untapped potential of research for influencing.

None of these processes have been a walk in the park. Everyone has a first-hand experience with the tensions and challenges of embedding a robust evidence base in the influencing journey. Most of us are painfully familiar with having too few resources such as money, time and people, to get to robust insights. We juggle the needs of influencing tactics with research integrity. Researchers’ desire to share every nuance struggles for space alongside those who need simple messages and simple asks. Global advocacy may want to emphasise different findings than country-specific efforts. Honest conversations are needed to identify what works and to figure out how we can ultimately do (even) better.

You can join the conversation and share your views. Follow #OxfamEvidence on Twitter and follow our Facebook page for selected live streamed sessions.


Marc Cohen


Johannes Meuer