International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler


  • John D. ClarkEmail author
Living reference work entry


The word “advocacy” derives from the Latin ad vocare – “to speak to,” in other words to argue for a particular position. Initially coined for legal professionals (advocates) who argue for one side or the other in a dispute, in recent decades the term has become increasingly associated with groups of citizens who argue for a particular position, or set of positions, on a given issue.

While individuals, political lobbyists, and lawyers can conduct advocacy to advance their points of view, civil society organizations have become increasingly prominent in influencing the policies and programs of governments, corporations, and other institutions. These CSOs may primarily exist for other purposes, with their advocacy being ancillary to these purposes. For example, professional associations and consumer associations primarily exist to provide services, support, and advice to their members but may also advocate policies and actions that would benefit those members. And many operational charities (e.g., in the fields of development, humanitarian relief, disability, or conservation) undertake advocacy to seek policy shifts that would advance the causes they serve.

Some organizations exist primarily or solely to conduct advocacy. Again, these can be divided into those which primarily serve the mutual interests of their members (these are typically political lobbying organizations, such as those that exist in profusion around Capitol Hill in Washington, DC) and those that focus on public interest issues (such as pro- or anti-abortion, environmental activists, and women’s rights campaigners). The former are often referred to as lobbies or lobbyists, while the latter are often called pressure groups. This entry provides a brief history of advocacy, describes tactics and organizational forms used by advocacy groups, and traces emerging trends.


Civil society advocacy includes influencing decision-makers, media outreach, citizen education, and various forms of civic engagement. It has grown strongly in recent decades, not least because of the increasingly multifaceted nature of politics in today’s cosmopolitan world, which makes it difficult for a small number of political parties to adequately represent the diverse concerns of citizens. This pattern contributes to a clear shift from representative to participatory democracy – with a profusion of cause-focused pressure groups and the relative decline in membership of, and respect for, political parties in most democracies. The civil society organizations (CSOs) and networks that result have a variety of forms, largely reflecting the degree of formality of their alliances.

Given that the policy issues of popular concern are often global in nature, the rise of transnational civil society – uniting people who share common concerns everywhere – is one of the most important developments, and CSOs have been more adept at shifting to working globally than have conventional instruments of democracy: political parties and independent media. This, however, presents CSOs considerable challenges concerning their organizational and governance arrangements, and there are clear limitations; CSOs represent those who agree with their particular cause, not the general public; they must recognize that their advocacy is a complement to, not substitute for, traditional party-based democracy.

This entry explores these issues – the reshaping of democracy as citizens’ concerns become increasingly global in nature and as traditional political parties are no longer the natural home for the issues people care about – after providing a brief history of advocacy; summarizing the tactics used by civil society; and describing the organizational forms that are typically found.

It finishes by setting out three important emerging trends: (a) an increasing focus on “how” rather than “what” in CSO advocacy, with attention broadening from policies (whether governmental or corporate) to questions of governance, accountability, and inclusion; (b) the rapid diversification of approaches and organizational forms as the political landscape changes and modern information and communication technologies (ICT) open new avenues; and (c) the backlash against CSOs as their advocacy becomes more influential.

Historical Background

The growth of civil society advocacy relates closely to the evolution of democracy. In its earliest manifestation, in ancient Greece, citizens were directly involved in decision-making. All free men could go to the forum and vote on issues they cared about. From this derives the term “democracy,” from demos kratein or “people’s rule.” Such direct democracy is impractical, of course, in larger societies, and hence indirect or representative democracy evolved and took root – first in seventeenth-century Britain, through the civil wars and the “Glorious Revolution” that established supremacy of the parliament over the monarch. The system’s most evident deficiency was that there was no ready quality control over those early Members of Parliament; they could be “bought” by vested interests, or could be delinquent in their duties. Political parties emerged as the response. A party was defined by Edmund Burke in 1770 as “an organized assembly of men, united for working together for the national interest, according to the particular principle they agreed upon.” Hence, through its collectivity of members, parties provided something of a guarantee that its elected representatives would stay true to that “particular principle.” They therefore offered a wholesaling of representative democracy. This institution has been the cornerstone of politics for centuries.

There have long been traditions of seeking to influence individual legislators outside the context of their party, however. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those seeking to influence a debate in either chamber of the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom would congregate in the Central Lobby (an area to which the public have access), waiting for the chance to beard the MP in question to win support for their point of view. This custom has given the world the term “lobbyist.”

Citizens coming together to mount CSO advocacy are also not a new phenomenon. The Anti-Corn Law League was an early example of successful campaigning, ironically in support of free trade. It was founded in 1839 to protest the extortionate price of staple foods, due to high import duties and market restrictions designed to protect British landowners. After 6 years of struggle and bread riots, the government gave way and repealed the Corn Law.

Most party-based democratic systems evolved with just two or a few political parties. This is to be expected in societies where there are just one or two defining political concerns, each of which can be addressed in just two or three ways. This was broadly the case in Western Europe during most of the nineteenth century, where the defining issue was between industrialization, trade, and the urban sector on the one hand and landed interests and the rural sector on the other. In the United States, the defining issue at the same time was more a geographic one, between North and South. By the late nineteenth century, reflecting the progress toward universal enfranchisement, the fault line in politics became the issue of equity and class, particularly the massive inequalities of wealth, income, and working hours. This was the case on both sides of the Atlantic but particularly in Europe. The various manifestations of socialism that evolved, all gave central importance to the issue of the ownership of the means of production.

Since World War II, progressive taxation, universal education, national health systems, unemployment benefits, public housing, and other policies have gradually reduced the urgency of this debate. At the same time, and partly because sheer survival can be increasingly taken for granted for most in the wealthier countries, citizens have increasingly become concerned about a host of political issues beyond class and equity.

And citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with party politics. While political apathy is a major factor, this also reflects a variety of newer ways in which citizens exercise their political voice: joining advocacy CSOs, taking part in demonstrations, confronting local officials or employers, writing to newspapers, mounting petitions, etc. The growth of civil society advocacy can be seen as a response to the deficiencies of electoral democracy. Indeed, election of delegates is only a small part of today’s democracy. A transformation is underway, particularly in rich countries, from Representative to Participatory Democracy (Cardoso Panel 2004; Clark 2003a; Castells 2008). Held (2002) argues that this new dynamic of “cosmopolitan democracy” is because people now live in a world of overlapping communities of interests and fate, and hence a political system in which one is represented just according to physical locality is anachronistic. Modern communications and the growth of civil society make possible more direct engagement between citizens and decision-makers.

Key Issues

Advocacy Tactics

Civil society uses a wide range of tactics including direct engagement with decision-makers (lobbying), media work, public education campaigns, petitions, protests and other forms of direct action, boycotts, presenting testimony to parliaments, defending court actions, mounting court actions, shaming campaigns, street theatre, etc. This array embraces three broad goals:

Seeking to win the argument: showing that something being done at present is wrong, or that there is a better approach that could be taken.

Seeking to demonstrate that there are large numbers of people who demand and expect change (and that at least some of them are well-informed).

Insinuating or inflicting costs: this can mean generating a “nuisance factor” in terms of the costs incurred by a target institution of not giving way to the campaign (the time its officers spend defending the institution’s position; reputational damage due to negative publicity, etc.) and it can mean incurring real costs such as through consumer boycotts and even inflicting physical damage to property (as with animal rights groups injecting glue into the locks of laboratories that use live animal testing).

Organizational Forms Used in Civil Society Advocacy

Civil society advocacy mechanisms, whether national or global, generally fall into one of six organizational forms representing a trade-off between campaign coherence and breadth of support (see Clark 2003b; Lindenberg and Dobel 1999). They comprise:

Centralized organizations: Unitary organizations with a clear HQs and branches at local or national levels, albeit these may enjoy some degree of autonomy. Examples would include Greenpeace and Social Watch. Some are in effect national organizations in terms of their governance (i.e., their secretariats and boards) but have members and supporters elsewhere (such as the US-based Human Rights Watch or the US-based International Forum on Globalization).

Federations: Networks comprising member CSOs with a common name and charter, single governing body, but also local self-determination. Examples would include Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the global union federations (such as Public Service International or Education International).

Confederations: Looser structures in which the members are autonomous but agree on a set of common ground rules and work together on specific activities where there is mutual advantage. For example, Friends of the Earth International has 75 national members which decide by majority vote what campaigns to adopt globally, but allow each chapter to choose which of these it will actually promote.

Informal networks: Fluid networks on a self-selecting basis; any group having broadly similar aims can join, but membership bestows few advantages (other than information and “belonging”) and demands few responsibilities. While they bring together CSOs in different countries for the specific cause, these CSOs may have widely differing objectives and concerns otherwise. The single-issue transnational advocacy network that set a powerful pattern was the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) – formed in 1979 by the NGOs attending the first ever multi-stakeholder meeting (organized by the World Health Organization and UNICEF) on the threats posed by the marketing excesses of artificial baby milk manufacturers. Within months, hundreds of NGOs from North and South had joined IBFAN, which became pivotal in persuading governments to adopt, at the 1981 World Health Assembly, an international code to regulate the marketing of breast-milk substitutes.

Social movements: These are not true organizations, but loose networks or affinities of people, lacking formal decision-making processes and leadership. Though not CSOs as such, they are an increasingly powerful form of civil society on the global stage. Examples include the feminist movement and the anti-globalization protest movement;

“Dot-causes”: These are the Internet-based campaigns that have little or no physical infrastructure, but which can have considerable impact due to their ability to respond swiftly to changing situations (not having an elaborate governance structure) and to reach large numbers of like-minded people. Examples include the Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines, ATTAC (the campaign to stem inequality through introduction of a Tobin Tax) and a smorgasbord of protest groups. Some, such as 38 Degrees, are multipurpose cause promoters, offering a “one-stop shop” for like-minded radical activists. (Clark and Themudo 2006)

Civil Society Advocacy and the Reshaping of Democracy

The Rise of Advocacy Groups and the Decline of Political Parties

While pressure groups have a much longer history (e.g., the Anti-Slavery Society dates back to the eighteenth century), it was not until the 1960s and the 1970s that they mushroomed, with the profusion of issues of citizen concern that political parties largely eschewed – such as civil rights, feminism, the environment, nuclear power, nuclear disarmament, the Vietnam war, and racism. Pressure groups on such issues grew rapidly and formed a new political culture of the “baby boomers” that differed radically from the previous generation’s prewar political contours. And from this period, the decline of party membership can be traced. For example, in the United Kingdom in 1971, Greenpeace was formed – then, an obscure organization concerned primarily with the protection of the marine environment. At that time the British Labour Party had 700,000 members – close to its peak. By 1990, Greenpeace had grown to about 320,000 members and had overtaken Labour (Clark 2003a).

The decline of the UK Conservative Party’s membership has been even more dramatic – from over 2 million in the mid-1960s to about 140,000 in 2019. Similarly elsewhere, about 25% of the New Zealand electorates were party members in the 1950s, as were 15% of Italians and 10% of the French; by the 1990s this had declined to below 5% for all of them (The Economist, July 24, 1999).

There is other evidence for dwindling public confidence in the party-based democratic processes. Opinion polls in a range of countries reveal that public respect for politicians has declined rapidly. One survey of 14 OECD countries by Robert Putnam (2000) showed that public confidence in legislatures declined from the 1970s to the 1990s in 11 of them. Public trust and confidence in politicians declined in 13 countries (all except the Netherlands). A 40-country survey, commissioned by the World Economic Forum in 2002, showed that of 17 leading institutions of influence in these countries, those least trusted were parliaments, large corporations, and the IMF; and those most trusted were NGOs and the military. Politicians are widely seen as making false promises, dishonest, self-serving, just interested in getting votes, out of touch, and not caring.

There are many reasons for such trends – scandals, broken promises, apparent impotence on issues of public concern, etc. – but a powerful factor is the broadening of issues that people care about. Political discourse is no longer dominated by the binary contest over the ownership of the means of production; instead it houses more diverse debates about what is produced, how, and for what sort of society.

Advocacy groups have a growing role, said the former Director of Friends of the Earth, UK, only because the public is “dissatisfied with traditional political institutions and processes that drive public debate and decision-making”; if the parliamentary process, the media, industry, etc. “adequately represented the particular interests of citizens, ensured their direct participation in community affairs, and dealt with their concerns, there would be no pressure groups” (Secrett 1996).

Democracy in a Globalizing World

International campaigns to shape international policy are not entirely new (notably the Anti-Slavery Society – which started in the United Kingdom – was supported by citizens in various countries). However, it has only been in recent decades that transnational advocacy has become prominent and a new cast of civil society actors have emerged as a result. Transnational action on environmental issues has been the longest and strongest – dating back to 1972 and the first parallel NGO forum to a UN event (the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm). The membership of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) grew from 572,000 in 1985 to 5 million in 2019. In 2019 it employed 6200 staff and had an annual budget of $336 million. Greenpeace grew similarly to reach 63 million supporters globally in 2016 with an annual budget of Euro 345 million. By 1986 it had linked its network of 30 national offices via an international computer network – well before most multinational corporations had done. By 2015, Friends of the Earth comprised 75 autonomous national groups with, collectively, over 2 million members, 5000 local groups, and a staff of 1200.

Similar growth has been seen on other sectors. In human rights, Amnesty International has about 7 million supporters with branches in 70 countries. The Jubilee Debt Campaign, promoting the cancellation of Third World debt relief, orchestrated both the world’s largest and the world’s most international petition, with over 24 million signatories from 166 countries (Goldman 2008). And many NGOs that were previously considered to be humanitarian or service-delivery charities, such as Oxfam and Sight-Savers, have given increasing attention and resources to advocacy on issues that affect their programs or their partners. Other civil society actors, such as trade unions, professional associations, and consumer groups, have also evolved strong advocacy programs.

NGO lobbying is widely credited for securing debt relief for poor countries, the Rio Earth Summit agreement on controlling greenhouse gases, the creation of the International Criminal Court, Antarctica being declared a world park – protected from mining, major reforms at the World Bank, and the international landmine treaty (Florini 2000).

The transnational advocacy phenomenon reflects an important paradox in traditional democracy: while much of the substance of politics has been globalized (climate change, trade, economics, HIV/AIDS, the SARS pandemic, terrorism, etc.), the process of politics has not. Its main institutions – elections, political parties, parliaments, and even the media – remain largely rooted at the national level. It is increasingly evident that meaningful democracy requires processes that enable citizens to help shape a framework of global values, policies, instruments, and governance; this cannot be achieved by powerful democratic nations imposing their will on the rest of the world.

One indicator of the growth of transnational advocacy is the number of NGOs participating in global conferences. For example, with the women’s conferences, 114 NGOs attended the Mexico event in 1975, 163 went to Nairobi in 1985, but 2600 went to Beijing in 1995. Even more attended the parallel NGO forums at these UN conferences. Hence 6000 took part in the parallel NGO event at Mexico City, 13,500 went to the equivalent event in Nairobi, and 300,000 to the NGO forum in Beijing (Cardoso Panel 2004).

Transnational advocacy has helped change the geography of democracy. It allows individuals to aggregate differently – with others who share burning concerns wherever they live. In other words community of neighborhood is being supplemented by community of interest – and, thanks to information technology, such communities can be global as easily as local.

Future Directions: Key Emerging Trends

From What to How: Increasing Attention to Issues of Governance

From the early 2000s on, civil society has given much greater attention to issues of governance in their analysis of global challenges and in their resource allocation. In this they set out four key principles necessary for a healthy relationship between states and citizens: accountability, transparency, participation, and inclusion. These principles are essential foundations for the self-evident virtues of greater accountability by governments toward their people, greater transparency by and effectiveness of state institutions (especially in their handling of public finances), active participation by citizens in policy-making and processes that affect their well-being, and meaningful inclusion of all, especially disadvantaged groups, in socioeconomic life (Carothers and Brechenmacher 2014).

While some assert that these principles have come to comprise a new development consensus, in practice the different schools of practice, while all using the same terms, may mean very different things by them – ranging from a stronger emphasis on stakeholder consultation to a transformation to pursuing people-led development priorities. All agree that monitoring and constituency-based advocacy – based on and using these principles – is vital and should be strongly encouraged, but some see this as no more than a tool to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector; others find this too narrow and emphasize the politically transformative potential inherent in these principles.

Illustrating this ambiguity, very many governments publicly endorsed these principles – as in the Open Government Partnership, whose 79 government members (as of June 2019) include ones widely considered to be hostile to them, including Azerbaijan, Brazil, Israel, Kenya, and Pakistan.

Nevertheless, civil society monitoring of the public sector and related advocacy has been successful in a variety of signal initiatives for holding governments to account (Fox 2016) including in greatly reducing “leakages” in safety-net schemes for the poor (Bhargava and Raha 2015) and stemming corruption and inefficiencies in the production and distribution of school textbooks in the Philippines in partnership with the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movements (Arugay 2012). International NGOs have emerged to support the national and grassroots initiatives including Transparency International, the International Budget Project, and the Partnership for Transparency Fund.

Diversification of CSO Advocacy and the Blurring of Lines

The inadequacy of traditional party-based systems to meet the democratic aspirations of today’s citizens leads to two trends.

Firstly, there are shifts in the landscape of political parties. Increasing use in elections of proportional representation allows more differentiation of parties by policy priorities, at the expense of geographic representation, but this falls short of the participatory democracy for which citizens of cosmopolitan societies increasingly thirst. They are unlikely to find a single political party whose platform matches their particular palette of interests. When there is a dominant national policy debate, specialist parties are increasingly likely to be formed explicitly to campaign on one side or the other of this debate. In Western Europe political parties have been formed in recent years specifically to focus on women’s rights, youth concerns, climate change, immigration, species conservation, animal rights, reform of the health-care system, religious issues, globalization, leaving/strengthening the EU, corruption, abortion rights, legalization of narcotics, installing a national basic income, and other issues. In this way there is a blurring of the distinction between pressure groups and parties. The leadership of parties and CSOs focusing on the same issue may well overlap, as party formation is in effect seen as a new CSO campaign tactic.

Secondly, modern ICT greatly facilitates CSOs’ ability to identify and work collaboratively with others who share their concerns wherever they live and to develop policy platforms and responses to events almost instantly. Given that people increasingly identify with the issues they care about rather than the place where they live – and these issues are likely to be global, rather than national or local in nature – web-based advocacy is mushrooming (Mathews 1997; Carothers and Youngs 2015). The blurring of lines here is between these web-based pressure groups (or “dot-causes”) and CSOs. The former have characteristics more in keeping with social media websites than CSOs and often even function as “protest malls,” inviting adherents to pick up one cause today and a different one next week (Clark and Themudo 2006). In that their decisions are typically made by just a small handful of people – rather than the committee-centered, participatory style of working that CSOs conventionally use – they can be very fleet of foot. The cost of this is that they are unlikely to have consulted widely (and certainly not with those with little or no internet connection) in fixing on their position, they rely on the research and analysis done by others, and they easily give the impression that what motivates them is catalyzing activism rather than the causes they espouse. Because of their strengths in fast-pace, sound-bite-driven constituencies, however, their advocacy can present a significant challenge to more conventional CSOs.

The Backlash Against Civil Society Advocacy

As pressure groups have become increasingly influential, so too have the efforts of their targets to make their life difficult. Over 50 countries have passed laws that restrict the freedom of association and hamper CSOs in recent years; 40 of these laws were enacted or were in preparation in just the 2 years of 2017 and 2018 (Amnesty International 2019; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law various years). Restrictions hamper CSOs’ ability to register, operate, raise funds (especially from other countries), impose strict government oversight, and may entail summary closure.

A disturbing newer phenomenon is the growing practice of reprisals against staff and supporters of CSOs who speak out against government policies or programs, including beatings, sexual abuse, and – at the most extreme – assassination. In 2017 (the last year for which statistics are currently available), some 120 human rights defenders were murdered (Amnesty International 2019), as were 201 environment and land-rights activists (Global Witness 2018) as a direct result of their campaigns. Many other development and humanitarian aid workers also lost their lives.

There are also many instances of governments and corporations seeking to discredit CSOs with whose campaigning they are uncomfortable. This can include claiming that top CSO executives are extravagantly paid and exaggerating any errors they may make in their policy analysis. The media relish sensation and therefore spread such slurs. Some vociferously challenge the legitimacy of CSOs to speak out on political issues – even claiming that they are eroding democracy.

After the street protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, 1999, there was a chorus of such attack. The Economist (September 23, 1999), for example, said: “The increasing clout of NGOs, respectable and not so respectable, raises an important question: who elected Oxfam, or, for that matter, the League for a Revolutionary Communist International? Bodies such as these are, to varying degrees, extorting admissions of fault from law-abiding companies and changes in policy from democratically elected governments. They may claim to be acting in the interests of the people – but then so do the objects of their criticisms, governments and the despised international institutions. In the West, governments and their agencies are, in the end, accountable to voters. Who holds the activists accountable?”

More recently, some of the best-known CSOs – such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Amnesty – have been at the center of unsavory claims of sexual malpractice, bullying, and harassment. While there is undoubtedly some substance behind the claims, the media and government attention to them is out of proportion to the misdemeanors. For example, it came to light that six men in Oxfam’s team working on reconstruction after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti had been using prostitutes. They were fired or let go immediately when this came to light, but internal Oxfam documents were leaked to The Times, and in 2018 the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper launched a vitriolic and sustained attack on the organization. While these six men (out of the team of 200 in Haiti) behaved atrociously and deserved to lose their jobs, the media outrage, and subsequent investigations by the UK government’s Charity Commission have been punitive in ways that many see as a bid to “cut Oxfam to size.”

To defend themselves against such charges, many of the best-known international CSOs have greatly elevated the attention given to their own transparency, accountability, participation and inclusion, and instituting robust mechanisms for investigating malfeasance, handling complaints, and protecting whistle-blowers. Some 25 such organizations have committed to a set of “accountability commitments,” and they subject themselves to periodic scrutiny of their performance (including in their advocacy and campaigning work) by an independent panel (Accountable Now 2018).

A Cautionary Note: CSOs to Reform Not Subvert Democracy

While the welter and diversity of attacks on civil society are disturbing, there is a legitimate concern that CSOs must recognize. The profusion of pressure groups can lead to the atomizing of politics into a scatter of ad hoc responses to myriad interest groups. This can result in a drift toward elitism, since pressure groups are often middle class and capital-city-based. It is also likely to leave important gaps. There are no pressure groups for things one takes for granted, until those things – like sewerage, postal services, and tax-collection – disappear.

Hence, civil society advocacy is most effective where democracy is working well. It achieves influence by persuading people to use the democracy at their fingertips – not just through their voting choices but as consumers, shareholders, lobbyists, demonstrators, educators of their children, workers, employers, and investors. “Pressure groups demonstrate that individuals do matter and can meaningfully help shape society” (Secrett 1996).



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Further Reading

  1. Edwards, M., & Gaventa, J. (Eds.). (2001). Global citizen action. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.Google Scholar
  2. Gray, J., Lämmerhirt, D., & Bounegru, L. (2016). Changing what counts: How can citizen-generated and civil society data be used as an advocacy tool to change official data collection? Johannesburg: Data-Shift, CIVICUS.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Partnership for Transparency FundWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Formerly World BankWashingtonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany