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Environmental NGOs and strategic naming and shaming – Murdie & Urpelainen 2015 and Pacheco-Vega 2015

One of the things I have always wanted to do has been to engage in a dialogue with the authors of research papers whose work is along the lines of mine. This format of writing online commentary on other scholars’ research isn’t new (I was just invited to write a commentary on a colleague of mine studying water in the US/Mexico border), but to me, what is new in the way I want to write this blog post is how my own research “dialogues” with other academics’ work. The recently published paper “Why Pick on Us? Environmental INGOs and State Shaming as a Strategic Substitute” by Amanda Murdie (University of Missouri) and Johannes Urpelainen (Columbia University) fits the bill perfectly, as it is pretty much what I was trying to get at in my recently published book chapter, “Assessing ENGO influence in North American environmental politics: The double grid framework”. In the chapter, I posit a visual framework that attempts to evaluate which countries would be more amenable to be pressured through non-state actor mobilizations, and what would the domestic conditions look like in order to enable this pressure to function properly.

This framework is not quantitative, but could definitely be implemented using quantitative tools. With this chapter, I was trying to establish a conceptual model of NGO influence that simultaneously took into account domestic conditions and transnational activity (e.g. “is the country’s political climate conducive to being influenced by a transnational network of NGO activists?” and “is the NGO coalition highly skilled in lobbying?”). With the double-grid framework, I capture elements of political climate, networking capabilities, relationships with transnational organizations and lobbying strength (something I have lately come to call as the international-domestic nexus).

As I commented on Twitter, Murdie and Urpelainen basically wrote the paper I wanted to write, but never had the dataset to do. In their article, Amanda and Johannes analyze how and why do international non-governmental organizations strategically choose the target of their naming-and-shaming practices. It’s an important contribution not only because it focuses on an under-studied area, but also because they test their theoretical approach (country target as strategic choice) with a large-ish N. Knowing how non-state actors choose which countries to target helps understand what strategic choices these NGOs make and the factors that they take into account in making those choices.

Naming-and-shaming is a strategy that non-state actors use to put pressure on domestic governments through information dissemination. Because there is no overarching framework nor agency that could force countries to comply with (or enforce) specific regulations, soft-law approaches to domestic regulatory compliance such as non-state actor interventions are quite innovative. However, we don’t really know much about how do NGOs choose countries and why do they engage in specific strategic choices. What we do often tends to be quite context- and case-study specific. Thus the need for larger-N analyses, beyond the (still needed) case studies.

One of the things I liked the most about the Murdie & Urpelainen article is that, as they state, “[t]he environment is a particularly interesting area of study because there are virtually no statistical analyses of the naming and shaming activities of INGOs” (p. 354) Most of what I have read in this field is qualitative and case-study based. Even my own work (Pacheco-Vega 2015b) studying how North American environmental NGOs use first-order and second-order pressure transmission mechanisms to force Canada, the US and Mexico to comply with their domestic regulations is case-study based. In my published work, I have analyzed two cases, the Citizen Submission on Enforcement Matters mechanism and the North American Pollutant Release Inventory project (although I’ve also studied other initiatives within the North American context).

My research finds that Canadian, US and Mexican ENGOs often use intergovernmental institutions (e.g. the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America, the CEC) to put pressure on domestic governments (much along the lines of Keck and Sikkink’s work, the well-known boomerang model). The North American environmental policy case is an interesting one because the CEC Secretariat is overseen by the Council (aka the governments of all three countries, Canada, the US and Mexico) and thus has a complex relationship both with states and non-state actors.

Murdie and Urpelainen advance how we understand the ways in which, and reasons why in NGOs make strategic choices on which countries to name-and-shame. Their research also advances (even if collaterally) the double-grid framework I posited in Pacheco-Vega 2015a where I argue that environmental NGOs will target countries that have high-amenability to international pressure (using second-order pressure transmission mechanisms as I suggest in Pacheco-Vega 2005) and where the domestic political environment is also amenable to external pressures (both first-order or direct, and second-order or indirect).

While Murdie and Urpelainen 2015 doesn’t assess NGO effectiveness or degree of influence (something I do in my own work, and that can usually be better assessed using case-study, ethnographic and qualitative, small N strategies), their research does help us understand naming-and-shaming as a strategic choice and start developing more generalized (and generalizable) theories that evaluate effectiveness of non-state actor influence on domestic and international arenas. The design elements that Murdie and Urpelainen posit in their article shall not be overlooked either. Knowing why INGOs choose specific target countries can also shed light on what the best approach to tackle problems of global environmental governance. As Murdie and Urpelainen state in their conclusion (p. 368):

The empirical results show that environmental INGOs act as strategic substitutes for domestic activism in countries that lack political institutions (1) allowing environmentalists to hold their government accountable and (2) needed for good environmental governance. These findings shed light on how INGOs, considering domestic political conditions in different states, select their targets for naming and shaming. Instead of attacking easy or salient targets, in the environmental issue area their choice of targets is driven by the need to fill political gaps in global environmental governance.

I really enjoyed reading Amanda and Johannes’ paper and I think their contribution will help strengthen a growing research programme on NGO influence in the global arena.


Murdie, Amanda, and Johannes Urpelainen. 2015. “Why Pick on Us? Environmental INGOs and State Shaming as a Strategic Substitute.” Political Studies 63: 353–72.

Keck, Margaret, and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press.

Keck, Margaret E, and Kathryn Sikkink. 1999. “Transnational Advocacy Networks in International and Regional Politics.” International Social Science Journal 51(159): 89–101.

Pacheco-Vega, Raul. 2005. “Democracy by Proxy: Environmental NGOs and Policy Change in Mexico.” In Environmental Issues in Latin America and the Caribbean, eds. Aldemaro Romero and Sarah West. Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 231–49.

Pacheco-Vega, Raul. 2015a. “Assessing ENGO Influence in North American Environmental Politics: The Double Grid Framework.” In NAFTA and Sustainable Development The History, Experience, and Prospects for Reform, eds. Hoi Kong and Kinvin Wroth. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 373–389.

Pacheco-Vega, Raul. 2015b. “Transnational Environmental Activism in North America: Wielding Soft Power through Knowledge Sharing?” Review of Policy Research 32(1): 146–62.

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