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Developing Advocacy Strategies for Avoiding Discourse Failure in Times of Populism

Wed, July 11, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Room, 5A 33


During recent years, more and more scholars as well as sector insiders have realized a need for NGO accountability standards (Hielscher et al., 2017). So far, most academic contributions and practical endeavors have a focus on donor accountability. In this regard, measures have been developed for addressing inefficiencies and reputational problems of NGOs, especially those which offer goods and services. However, such accountability standards may not be sufficient for advocacy NGOs (Bloodgood, 2011; Will & Pies, 2016). As we will show in a case study that analyzes the societal debate on the plant protection agent glyphosate in the European Union, the rise of new communication technologies and the collapse of the traditional media landscape may non-intentionally promote populist campaigns with many risks for NGOs even if the involved NGOs have noble aims.

We use the psychologically and empirically well-founded Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) (Haidt, 2012) to highlight how the scandalization of glyphosate counteracts NGOs’ long-term interests in problematizing ecological and social issues. MFT reveals that scandalizing builds on the six emotional dimensions of care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyal-ty/betrayal, authority/subversion and/or sanctity/degradation in order to make sense of triggering events. Addressing these six dimensions through scandalizing strategies is an efficient way of running an effective campaign. As we will highlight, such a campaigning may cause a high in-group cohesion among the NGOs’ target group, whereas it produces an increasing out-group divergence between the NGOs’ supporters and other stakeholders. As our glyphosate case study reveals, this may result in polarized public debates with intractable conflicts because of two reasons: (1) Such campaigns may cause strong emotional reactions, which limit cognitive capabilities to reflect complex questions of societal governance (in our case how to regulate plant pro-tection agent). (2) As MFT reveals, the six emotional dimensions are differently developed within the population; hence emotionalizing campaigns cause a divide between different groups and give rise to irreconcilable narratives.

Against the backdrop of MFT, we present strategies how NGOs might prevent such a polariza-tion that is a serious risk regarding the implementation of NGOs’ noble ecological and social aims. First, we present communication strategies that enable appropriate semantics for avoiding such a polarization. Second, we highlight how NGOs can encourage institutional changes within society and also within their organizations. Such governance structures may promote a construc-tive environment without populist debates that may risk NGOs’ important role for advocating sustainable solutions to societal problems. We argue that developing appropriate governance structures is a central strategic aim in times of populism. For doing so, NGOs can deliberately develop individual self-commitments or collective commitments, thus improving the institutional conditions for their organization or their entire sector.


Bloodgood, EA (2011): The Interest Group Analogy: International Non-Governmental Advoca-cy Organization in International Politics. Review of International Studies. Vol. 37. No. 1. pp. 93-120.
Haidt, J (2012): The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage Books, New York.
Hielscher, S, J Winkin, A Crack and I Pies (2017): Saving the Moral Capital of NGOs: Identify-ing One-Sided and Many-Sided Social Dilemmas in NGO Accountability, Voluntas, Vol. 28, No. 1562-1594.
Will MG, and I Pies (2016): Discourse Failures and the NGO Sector: How Campaigning Can Undermine Advocacy, Voluntas, forthcoming doi:10.1007/s11266-016-9770-8.