Are policy wonks in NGOs a good thing?


Definition: a person who takes an obsessive interest in the minor detail of policy

The etymology of the term wonk is a derogatory one used to refer to geeks, but it sometimes seems nowadays to be a badge of honour within development circles.  Undoubtedly we need wonks in the world, including development wonks, but are NGOs the right place for people to indulge any wonkish tendencies?

I’m not sure they are for three reasons:

1)      Most NGOs even sizeable ones like CAFOD have relatively few policy or research staff.  We can’t afford to have people who get too immersed in the detail even if those we are trying to influence have hoards of experts.  We are not an academic institution, we are an NGO – the two things should not be confused, although of course we work closely with academia, and I am not arguing that academia is full of wonks (oh dear have to be careful here)!

2)      The purpose of NGO policy and research is to make a difference to the lives of people living in poverty.  By working with our partners we have direct access to those people and our added value and indeed primary duty is to bring their experiences and voices into the policy debate and corridors of power – to show how policies and practices impact their lives and what change is needed as a result.

3)      People who are too immersed in the detail can fail to see the bigger picture.  At CAFOD we believe that it is not just policy that can be at fault but the values, the principles and the beliefs that inform that policy.  Our deep and living roots in the Catholic faith mean we take seriously Catholic Social Teaching and Gospel Values in informing our policy and advocacy work and we have an excellent Theology team who helps us to do this. And we believe there is a fundamental shift in worldview that is needed by those in power.  Most other NGOs I know have a strong sense of values and principles that inform their work whether that be a Rights Based Approach or an implicit belief system.

I hope I haven’t stirred up a hornet’s nest.  Views and comments as ever are welcome, particularly from self-confessed wonks.

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3 Responses to “Are policy wonks in NGOs a good thing?”

  1. Martin Williams Says:

    Although I understand where you are coming from, the danger of leaving wonks (or wonkish tendancies) out of NGOs is that the organisations then lose some of the rigour that should underpin both the general belief system of the NGOs and the more specific policies. It would be reasonable to have a separate body of wonks who advise on core values and/or policies (the first of which religious organisations are not lacking in), but to have no established guide from wonks is as dangerous in development as in any other field.

    • Joanne Green Says:

      Hi, thanks for your thoughts Martin. I am not arguing against NGOs doing their evidence and policy analysis well – far from it – but I think there is a danger of becoming too technocratic and forgetting the role of NGOs as part of civil society which is not to replicate the state but challenge and counterbalance its power.

  2. Steve Lewis Says:

    The NGOs that have strong and effective influencing ability are those that have the resources to employ a good number of people – in research, policy, advocacy and in campaigns teams. Research and Policy are the crucial starting point. Where you fail to get any impact is the large number of NGOs that have one or two ‘Advocacy Officers’ trying to do everything, and without any research capacity behind them. So its OK to have some wonks, as long as they part of a wider team that actually takes research and learning from the field and can translate it into policy messages for decision makers.

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