How NGO Representatives Can Find Common Ground with the Government

At the end of the last week,  Minsk Johannes Rau International Centre for Education and Exchange brought together 30 representatives of civil society organizations and initiatives for an international seminar, where they discussed best practices of advocacy and cooperation with the authorities. The event was organized by ODB Brussels and the German Society for International Education and Cooperation “Koopp Forum International”, with technical and information support from human rights organization “Human Constanta”.

What are the differences between government relations (GR), advocacy and lobbyism? How do you find common ground with representatives of state structures in promoting the interests of society? Six hours of almost uninterrupted communication and exchange of experience helped participants find answers to these and other important current issues.

GR, lobbyism, advocacy: theory and trends

Natallia Ryabova, Director of the School of Young Managers in Public Administration (SYMPA), made the introduction to the theoretical course: "Some researchers think that "government relations" and "lobbyism" are the same thing, while some claim that the former encompasses the latter. One point of view says: "GR is a much broader notion, which includes relations with the government, the state, various governmental authorities and aims to build trust”. People who call themselves GR managers attempt to earn trust of state authorities to their organizations, build a so-called “bridge” between government and businesses, so that lobbyists with “interesting” offers could easily walk over it to their desired objective. The goal is to show authorities that their initiatives are safe and useful and actually do not demand too much. As for lobbyism, it involves activities aimed at promoting some specific interests. The disadvantage is that this term has gained such an unfavourable reputation that when we hear it today, we immediately think of an organization pursuing its own selfish interests. This is common not just for Belarus, but all over Europe, so many people who engage in lobbyism try to give themselves different names, in order to make sure that other people have no additional associations – even though lobbyism itself is very common. Many use the term “public affairs” instead. Even in Great Britain, where, uncharacteristically for Europe, professional lobbyist services are very popular, all lobbyist agencies call themselves “PA consultants” or “public policy consultants”.

Natallia Ryabova, Director of the School of Young Managers in Public Administration (SYMPA), during the training on 30.08.2017 in Minsk

Advocacy is a very important and necessary phenomenon as it encompasses interaction with the government and public relations. Representatives of civil society organizations need to both have understanding at the governmental level and gain support from the general public. Advocacy is often performed by environmental, cultural and educational organizations, as well as initiatives representing interests of individual regions, human rights activists, entrepreneurs – in this scenario, the initiative comes from the grassroots level. That’s why, when you try to define it, it is better to say that advocacy means targeted actions by various actors aiming to changing existing policies or influence decisions of state institutions by promoting civic participation in achieving a common goal of public interest”.

According to the expert, a survey of Belarusian civil society organizations who advocate showed that, in the opinion of many representatives, the campaign did not achieve its goals but helped realize a number of intermediate tasks. Analysing the stories of these campaigns, SYMPA experts developed a number of recommendations for NGOs, which are useful for everyone who works in the social sphere. First, you need to better formulate your long-term goals for your desired changes in social attitudes towards the problem and the desired solutions. Also, do not be afraid of getting involved with public bodies, so that you have an opportunity to make joint decisions with the state authorities. Do not forget that you need to engage more with the media if you want to increase public support and promote your campaign ideas. Also, it is very important to document and present resulting campaign materials to the public and all the stakeholders in order to build trust in your organization.

During the seminar, the experts actively shared their experiences, which demonstrate that, without a dialogue with the authorities, the work of civil society organizations in Belarus will hardly be efficient enough to bring about positive changes to the country and its people.

Discovery No.1. State agencies sometimes take on board feedback

Andrei Sushko, lawyer and co-founder and executive director of Human Constanta, says: “It is interesting that 10 years ago we never spoke about government relations at the top level, while now it turns out that most of my activities were focused on GR! A good example of a successful project of ours is our effort to improve websites of government bodies when I cooperated with Lawtrend Legal Transformation Center. For several years we conducted research by analysing state Internet resources. We wanted to find answers to the following questions: “What information does it have?”, “How accessible is it?”, “Is it easy to use ‘search’ and ‘feedback’ sections?”, etc.

Andrei Sushko, lawyer and co-founder and executive director of Human Constanta, during the training on 30.08.2017 in Minsk


When we identified the shortcomings, we compiled a list of recommendation to improve these websites and suggested to the government bodies that we work on them together. It may sound surprising, but some of them agreed and in a short while managed to improve their web resources. In addition, we rated the website quality and made the ranking available to all its participants. As I was told later, some specialists in these government bodies were tasked by their bosses to make their electronic resources go to the top in our rating. As a result of this sort of competition, many achieved progress, and the websites became more usable. Working on this project, I had a realization: you need to see state authority representatives not as enemies but as partners that you have to work with. As a human rights activist, I will say that there is no other way to reach mutual understanding”.

Discovery No. 2. Why NGOs and state bodies need to work together

Hanna Harchakova, Director of Belarusian Children`s Hospice and ICPCN board member, shares her first secret of success: “Throughout my whole life I have great teachers, and I never quarrelled with anyone. In early 1990s, when I studied in America, a doctor listed four principles that you need to apply when you engage with state authorities in order to build something new. I have been using these principles since I started to work in the public sector. We engage, we inform, we explain and we gradually introduce. That’s it. We started our work on a new hospice during the times of perestroika! There was chaos, there was not any legislation, but, oddly enough, it was the time when we could actively promote our projects. No constant inspections. Only your brains and the desire to do something, if you are not afraid of taking responsibility and going forward.

Hanna Harchakova, Director of Belarusian Children`s Hospice and ICPCN board member, during the training on 30.08.2017 in Minsk  Photo by: Alyona Lis


In order to get an office, I needed one signature. I got it from my psychologist’s cabinet in the oncology centre. Everything was really simple. However you criticize the Soviet authorities, this time produced some experienced bureaucrats who worked in the same place for 25 years and knew every paper under the sun.

We started in a dilapidated building of City Hospital No.1. The idea to create a Hospice was not my dream, it was more of a task set to me by the state. We needed to develop a programme for terminally ill children. At the time, the number of successfully treated cancer patients was growing, there was some progress. Naturally, our government also wanted to see positive results. I was sent to do an internship in the USA, I came back and wrote in my report that, given our lack of funds, we can only set up a home-based hospice. To which they said: “So do it!”. When we began, we only had one doctor, one nurse and several other employees. We had 10 families as our clients”.

…Many years have passed since then. Hanna Harchakova described how difficult it was to work on initial stages, when they lacked knowledge: the experts had to translate foreign literature on their own. However, by 1996, the target audience grew to 96 families with sick children. Since 2000, the hospice has also organized educational programmes, acting as a platform for Belarusian Medical Academy of Postgraduate Education.

“In Belarus, one cannot provide palliative care to people and bypass state bodies, so we have to stay in touch all the time. In the beginning, we did not engage with the Ministry of Health but resolved many problems through regular health clinics. Often local specialists had no idea what to do, for example, with terminally ill patients, so it was not that difficult to make them understand. In 2011, we established ownership. I will not deceive anyone: we had a lot of help from Western donors, even on early stages. Up until 2003, 50% of our budget had come from exclusively Western organizations. Now we have 35 employees: 28 of them are full-time, others are part-time (clowns who visit children, endocrinologists whose services we sometimes require, etc). We think everything through to the smallest details: the focus of our work is not on the doctor but on the child and the family. We do many projects: from consultations and parents’ clubs to summer rehabilitation. We also have volunteers coming from abroad – thus we can ensure constant exchange of experience. By the end, our new building has been recognized to be the best among similar European institutions. When we were building it, I wanted to drop the word “hospice” from its name and create a Children’s Palliative Care Centre (to be the centre of Belarusian system of palliative care), but I never thought it was impossible under our legislation. We have no laws that regulate cooperation between state and public organizations on the basis of budgetary and extra-budgetary funding. As a result, I put forward an initiative to house two institutions in the same building: Republican Clinical Centre of Palliative Care for Children and Belarusian Children’s Hospice. We have no common legislative basis, but we are on good terms. You see, if we cannot change the system we live in, we have to adjust to it, so that we have an opportunity to bring some change. I know the “advantages” and “disadvantages” of both NGOs and state institutions in our country “from the inside”. Mobility, lability and individual approach are something that the government will never have. At the same time, state institutions have stability, standardization and often professionalism: a good doctor is unlikely to work in a public non-profit organization, giving it his or her all while not getting a decent salary. That is why, speaking about my field of work, I will sum up: it is only possible to organize palliative care for children as a system covering all the needs of terminally ill children if you cooperate with both medical and non-medical state institutions and public organizations working on these issues at a legislative, educational and economic level.”

Discovery No.3. One mistake – and you are blacklisted

Daria Chumakova, Deputy Head of Programme Activities at the Centre of Environmental Solutions, is convinced: “You can and should engage with state bodies in Belarus, but there is no universal recipe for success. A lot of time can pass between your first attempt at interaction and a real contact. You need to be patient and get into the mind-set of cooperation and engagement. For example, it is not a good idea to claim right away how terrible a piece of legislation is now. State authorities would be willing to hear you if you come in and provide reasonable arguments, saying that the current version of the law works but it can become better and more effective. Before you start cooperating, you need to make sure that they notice you, believe you and understand that you are an organization they can trust. A good example is the movement “Zrobim”. Every year, natural sites accumulate a lot of trash, which is harmful to the environment. For more than 4 years now, in cooperation with other environmental organizations we organize campaigns where we invite local residents, schools and universities, as well as business representatives, to take care of the polluted territories. However, after such clean-ups you need to somehow dispose of the waste. It is logical to ask for help from state institutions and of local authorities. Thanks to those efforts, representatives of state authorities have started to join these clean-up campaign recently. The movement gained prominence, and we managed to get the support of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Republic of Belarus. It is really great, because people are afraid of going to unauthorized events, albeit they have great intentions. Such close contacts and established relationships of trust help to lobby more prominent issues. Sometimes, the government can even provide your initiative with information support, which is what happened with By the way, remember that state bodies are more interested in unique projects: the more innovative the idea, the more likely it is to get promoted".

Daria Chumakova, Deputy Head of Programme Activities at the Centre of Environmental Solutions, during the training on 30.08.2017 in Minsk


The expert also underscored the need to carefully plan your approach to every topical issue, so that you do not start your communication with state authorities on the wrong, controversial footing. 

Daria Chumakova remembers: “Several years ago, we conducted independent research on the content of heavy metals in children’s toys. The results of the research were quite unfavourable. This information was quickly spread by the media, reaching all interested parties. However, it was for that reason, because we publicized the information too early, we could not get representatives of state authorities to talk to us and help us find ways to resolve this problem”.

What to do when the authorities show no understanding?

Enira Branitskaya, a human rights activist, OSCE election observation expert, former director of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, says: “In fact, I sincerely believe that everything is possible in Belarus! You will succeed sooner or later. Surely, we know that some topics are very sensitive for Belarusian officials, and in these cases it is better to engage in international advocacy. It is basically the same, except we wish to change laws, practices, etc. with the help of an international body. Here we often mean an intergovernmental organization (UN, Council of Europe, European Union, OSCE, etc.), but it is better to think bigger, taking into account all international legal entities. For example, sometimes you can draw attention to the country’s problem through an important international event, like a music festival or a sports competition… By the way, we often forget about sports federations – they are often used to promote campaigns against racism, discrimination, etc. It is also important to remember about foreign opinion leaders (politicians, movie stars or celebrities…) – people who can use their influence to help us bring about the desired change. As for international advocacy methods, they are all well-known: from letters, petitions, appeals to the government and state officials to preparing documents, conferences, demonstrations, personal meetings – all of it works. We mostly mean non-commercial lobbying here, even though in some foreign countries commercial lobbyism works fine as well, when representatives of some initiatives are ready to pay thousands of dollars just to get you in the same room with the right people.

Enira Branitskaya, a human rights activist, OSCE election observation expert, former director of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, at a training on August 30, 2017 in Minsk


First of all, you have to identify your objective and learn to formulate it clearly. There are people who claim “We want democratic elections for Belarus” but cannot explain what they mean by that. Clarity is the first rule not only for communicating with state authorities in your own country but especially when you put forward initiatives and explain problems at an international level. There, people may not understand you at all.

Next, you have to decide who you want to cooperate with. Creation of coalitions is something that definitely works at the international level. A coalition can have solely national-level partners, when you engage with Belarusian organizations, or it can involve international organizations. Of course, there will be more confidence in your campaign in the latter case. However, we must remember that creating coalitions takes a lot of effort, but brings results. An important rule is to ensure internal consistency and clear distribution of duties.

It is also important to monitor your situation of concern based on the responsibilities Belarus has at the international level. You can send your comments as recommendations to the UN international committee, where they will be considered and are likely to be included in the Committee’s recommendations to the Belarusian government. This work is very important for introducing changes to the legislation. For the past 7 years, I have worked with reports on the Convention against Torture. Belarusian criminal code had no definition of the term “torture” in accordance with the Convention, but we made it happen. The next step is to enforce it. From my experience, “international reports” work very well. In my opinion, individual’s complaints do not work in Belarus (even though there is always a chance they might). Remember that you have a reputation and you are an expert on these issues, you can lobby ideas at various international-level meetings and conferences. Do not forget that Europe has a number of organizations that are supposed to help Belarus, but they may not fully understand where we require assistance and are probably waiting for you to explain”.

Text by: Maria Vaitovich

Photo by: Vitaly Brazousky

ODB Brussels