Findings from a meta-review of influencing initiatives

Ruth Mayne Active citizenship, Governance, Influencing, Real Geek, Research

Ruth Mayne shares learning from a recent meta-review of Oxfam and partners’ policy influencing, citizen’s voice and governance initiatives around the world. 

NB. This blog post deals with the findings of the influencing meta-review. In the next couple of weeks we will publish a separate post from the authors of the review explaining their methodology. Sign up for our Real Geek email alerts to receive a notification of this.

Oxfam invests an increasing amount of resources in influencing for social justice. But how successful are these influencing initiatives in achieving change? We’ve conducted a meta-review of 24 national and regional influencing initiatives supported by Oxfam between 2003 and 2017, 14 of which focused wholly or in part on gender issues.

The review found that influencing was successful in expanding civic space and changing government policy (see definitions at the bottom of this post) in most cases. Successful initiatives combined different influencing strategies, adapted them to the external context (including capitalising on windows of opportunity) and supported domestic civil society to take the lead.

What changes were achieved?

15 influencing initiatives out of 22 cases successfully expanded civic space
.Overall, the review found that 15 influencing initiatives out of 22 cases (68%) successfully expanded civic space, and 8 influencing initiatives out of 15 cases (53%) successfully changed government policy on a range of poverty related issues from health, to gender equality, to climate change, to land rights.

These are encouraging results given the well-known difficulties of changing government policy, the short duration of some of the initiatives (mostly three to five years) and the attacks on civic freedoms and human rights defenders experienced in some countries. Of the initiatives reviewed, seven (29%) were in countries categorized as having ‘restricted’ civic space, ten (42%) were in countries ‘in transition’ and seven (29%) were in ‘open’ countries.

What is the relationship between civic space and policy change?

Among the 13 influencing initiatives which sought to both expand civic space and change policy simultaneously there was only one instance in which an influencing activity successfully changed policy without also having expanded civic space. In other words, to change policy it helps to have first widened civic space.

But the successful expansion of civic space does not guarantee a change in policy. Only half of the 13 cases that were successful at expanding civic space were also successful at changing policy. In other words, access to decision makers does not necessarily equate with influence.

What combination of influencing strategies works in different contexts?

Using Qualitative Comparative Analysis the review identified the combination of influencing strategies or success ‘pathways’ – that widened political space or changed policy in a range of different contexts where Oxfam works. Some of the key insights are outlined below, but I recommend reading the full review to see the different success pathways.

For expanding civic space the findings show that:

  • Outsider strategies are successful when combined with multi-level influencing, particularly when seeking to raise the voices of marginalized groups, such as women
    Taking advantage of a window of opportunity is important for success in most contexts. An illustrative example was when local civil society, with Oxfam support, actively used the introduction of the new National Political Constitution in Bolivia in 2005 to strengthen and widen political participation for previously marginalized indigenous groups and women.
  • Outsider strategies are successful when combined with multi-level influencing, particularly when seeking to raise the voices of marginalized groups, such as women, who have less access to the levers of power. For example, in Liberia local civil society used a supranational policy – the Maputo protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa – to strengthen its national policy influencing efforts
  • A prominent role for Oxfam is not important for success in most cases. However, in countries with more restrictive civic spaces, a prominent outsider role for Oxfam can help increase the credibility and legitimacy of domestic civil society organizations. This happened in Myanmar where Oxfam prominently coordinated a strategy to help build civil society membership organisations.

For changing government policy the findings show that:

  • The use of an insider strategy is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy to successfully change policy.
  • To be successful insider strategies needed to be accompanied by either a strategy to take advantage of a window of opportunity or in the case of marginalized groups a combined insider-outsider An example is the Routes to Solidarity initiative in England which empowered women to lead local, regional and national lobbying alongside large scale campaigns to pressure decision makers at a national level.
  • Influencing initiatives are more likely to be successful in changing government policy when Oxfam’s northern based affiliates play a supportive and less prominent role, reflecting government concerns about political interference and Oxfam’s desire to support, and not supplant, domestic civil society.
  • There were no cases of Oxfam and its partners successfully changing policy in a more restrictive context (at least during the short periods evaluated).

Tapping into and strengthening domestic civil society alliances and networks that have strong ties to supportive policymakers, and creating institutionalised spaces for domestic civil society organizations and policy makers to interact (e.g. via learning events about policy impacts and solutions), were also found to be effective.


The review provides an evidence base that validates much of our existing understanding about how to achieve change, but also contains new useful insights and challenges for how we can strengthen strategy and impact. The review’s findings are a testament to the initiative, skill and often courage of Oxfam partners and staff around the world.

The meta review was conducted for Oxfam by consultants Daniel Shephard, Johannes Meuer, Anne Ellersiek, and Christian Rupietta.

Download the influencing meta-review

Marina Torre

Definitions used in the meta-review

Types of outcomes:

  • Widening civic space: expanding political spaces within which civil society organisations and citizens can exert power and have their voices heard on policy topics
  • Changing policy: Bringing about change in the programmes, policies, procedures or budgets of the government, public officials or politicians/parties at any level.

Types of influencing tactics:

  • Insider (persuasive): developing relations with decision makers, engaging in dialogue, lobbying, providing evidence, suggesting solutions, convening stakeholders, sharing learning, running workshops and offering technical assistance.
  • Outsider (pressure): community and public mobilisation, high profile media, protests, sit ins etc.
  • Opportunity: making strategic use of a window of opportunity i.e. opportunities for change related to changes in government, decision making processes, donor interests, pressure groups, shifts in public opinion, crises etc. (NB. Civil society may have helped create the windows of opportunity).
  • Multi-level: targeting multiple levels of civic space and policy change in parallel (i.e. combing efforts at the local, regional, national, and/or international levels).

Note: Both outcomes and influencing tactics involved strengthening the capacity and influence of domestic civil society.

Oxfam role:

Oxfam’s role varies according to partners’ and/or governments’ amenability to external support and/or whether or if there is not yet a strong local actor on the policy topic.

  • Localized: Oxfam provides support to domestic partners but deliberately restricts the prominence of its role so that the domestic partners lead the influencing activities.
  • Prominent: Oxfam plays a strong, visible and active role.