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Measuring influence in domestic and international environmental politics

Despite the increased emphasis given to citizen participation in environmental policy making in the past few years, skeptics can easily wonder how much influence can civil society have on public policy processes to protect our environment. One of the questions that has puzzled me for quite some time is under what circumstances and how do environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) exert influence on environmental policy making.

Powerful and boisterous cross-border mobilizations of environmental activists trumping projects that may have negative environmental effects have offered anecdotal evidence that civil society may possibly influence the way in which industry behaves and/or policy is made.

In two of my research projects, I have investigated the mechanisms used by ENGOs to exert pressure on national (domestic) governments. In Pacheco-Vega 2005a and 2005b, I proposed two mechanisms of pressure transmission. A first-order pressure transmission mechanism is a direct action by agent A specifically designed to change the behavior of agent B. An example of first-order pressure transmission mechanism would be direct lobbying of governments by civil society organizations. This is a direct mechanism.

A second-order pressure transmission mechanism is an indirect action, whereby agent A puts pressure on agent B so that in turn B can try to change the behavior of agent C. An example of a second-order pressure mechanism would be a civil society organization asking an international institution (e.g. the World Bank) to put pressure on a national government. This is an indirect mechanism.

The definition of influence is complex, however. Who influences whom to do what? This question makes us wonder whether we can really measure influence. Betsill and Corell (2001, 2008) have offered a framework to measure influence that is based on measuring outcomes (i.e. whether the influenced agent does change behavior or not) and analyzing what information does the influencing agent make available.

Interestingly, in the realm of social media, I have found something similar to what Arts and Mack (2003) found in regards to ENGO. Arts and Mack indicate that ENGOs are influential if they are perceived as such. When the target agent perceives the actor as being capable of exerting influence, and acts upon that perception, Arts and Mack say that influence has occurred. I argue that this self-perpetuating mechanism is actually one of the main elements that underlie the creation of influence in social media. Whether this self-reinforcing mechanism works in the realm of international and domestic environmental politics remains to be seen.

One of the important insights I have gained in my empirical research on ENGO influence in domestic and international environmental politics is that successful ENGOs will adapt and change their strategies to influence specific agents (industry actors or governments) depending on how receptive the influenced agent will be. This adaptive capacity enhances the ENGO’s influence and allows it to gain ground vis-a-vis the government agent, ground that it wouldn’t otherwise be able to gain.


Pacheco-Vega, R. (2005). Democracy by proxy: Environmental NGOs and policy change in Mexico. Environmental Issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. A. Romero and S. West. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Springer Publishers.

Pacheco Vega, R. (2005). Assessing indirect environmental consequences of NAFTA: Transnational coalitions formation and pollutant release and transfer registries. Trading Justice: NAFTA’s New Links and Conflicts, Memphis, TN, Center for Research on Women, University of Memphis.

Posted in environmental NGOs, influence, measurement.

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  1. Critical Mass, disruptive mobilizations and environmental awareness - Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on July 30, 2009

    [...] been studying transnational social movements for about a decade, and in my research I have found one of the most used strategies ENGOs tend to use is public protest. I’ve been fascinated by [...]

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