As an exponential growth in technology in recent decades has facilitated the acceleration of communication across the world, advocacy campaigns appear increasingly transnational. However, building transnational networks has been an important aspect of successful advocacy campaigns for centuries. In this article, I will review some of the key literature on transnational advocacy groups and networks and compare various case studies to analyse the key factors underlying the building of transnational networks. I refer to advocacy groups and actors as organisations or individuals who advocate for a change in both public opinion on an issue, and/or a change in government or corporate policy. The target of such advocacy movements can therefore be the national or international public, national governments, or transnational corporations.

For the purpose of this article I will use the definition of transnational networks from Margaret Keck and Katherine Sikkink in their seminal 1998 work: a "transnational advocacy network [is] a set of relevant organizations working internationally with shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information".1 Therefore, the main factors that will define a transnational network in my work are: 1) a shared aim and discourse within the network; and 2) a clear and relevant exchange of information. This article will argue that there are three main conditions in advocacy movements that drive the creation of transnational advocacy connections: 1) the existence of a block between a domestic advocacy group and its national or colonial government; 2) a sense of moral responsibility from a social group in one state to impact the lives of a group in another state; and 3) a target or issue which is transnational in nature.

The Boomerang Model: Circumventing a Block between Domestic Advocacy Groups and National or Colonial Governments

A significant proportion of both current and previous advocacy campaigns moved to develop transnational networks in response to blocked access to local governing bodies.  This limits their ability to domestically change public policy.  Keck and Sikkink describe this process as the "boomerang model".2 This model argues that often local advocacy groups petition their colonial or national government (State A), however, they are blocked from having an impact. As a result, they turn to transnational allies and international advocacy groups who will either directly put pressure on State A to change policy, or will pressure their own government (State B) to put pressure on State A. In her opposition to government plans to build on Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, activist Wangari Maathai first wrote letters to her government to petition them to stop, and to the local press to garner support for the movement. However, she was blocked by the Kenyan government, so she reached out to her connections in the international community, UNESCO, the UNDP, and the British High Commission, and to the international press. Through these channels she was able to both put pressure on the British shareholders of the Uhuru Park project and threaten the economic and political support of the international community to the Kenyan government.3 As academic Richard Price comments in his article analysing seminal works on transnational advocacy, campaigns are successful if they can show the government (State A) that there is a cost, economic or reputational, in blocking the campaigners. Building strong transnational connections with influential international parties, as Maathai did, legitimised the threat of such a cost.4

Blocks between campaigners and domestic governing bodies can take many forms in driving campaigns to become transnational. In the case above, Maathai was blocked by a lack of support within the ruling party, however she was also blocked financially when the government stopped funding to the public body supporting her movement. Furthermore, threats to Maathai’s personal safety during the end of Moi’s presidency also strengthened her connections with international NGOs and bodies who helped her go into hiding. The threat to personal safety is a block still used today, and, as we see with the protesters in Hong Kong currently, it motivates campaigners to build transnational connections to gain the protection of observation by the global community.5 Finally, blocks can often also come from what Bloomfeld terms "anti-preneurs" or those advocating for an opposing continuation of the status quo against progressive advocacy groups either inside or outside government.6 Particularly during the global fight for female suffrage, the strength of the opposition groups in many countries served to strengthen the transnational connections between different national suffrage parties to share tactics and ideas.7

Adaptations of the Boomerang Model: Neo-Colonialism and Neighbourhood Solidarity

Academic and peace campaigner Alex De Waal considers a similar framework to the boomerang model in which colonised countries turn specifically, to Western governments.8 However, as we can see through the female suffrage movement, transnational networks are not only established from developing countries to developed countries. De Waal brushes over the transnational connections built between movements in neighbouring countries in the Pan African Movement which were important for building popular local support for independence in addition to sharing tactics. Similar connections were also seen during the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, where citizens fighting for increased democracy in the Middle East were blocked from their government and as a result built dense exchanges of information and tactics between neighbouring countries.9 Particularly in recent times with the rise of digital activism, pressure no longer has to go through international organisations or other states. Activists blocked from impacting their own government can build transnational networks through social media pages to share tactics and publicly shame their government into action. However, I would argue this often still follows the traditional boomerang model because campaigns, such as Fridays for Future, the recent transnational student movement campaigning for stronger policies against climate change, frequently do not gain traction until legitimised by international organisations. Greta Thunberg rose to fame after her iconic speech to the UN, showing while the boomerang model can be applied to regional solidarity, traditional global power structures are still prevalent.

Colonial overtones are also still relevant in the analysis of transnational advocacy campaigns when established advocacy activists or organisations reach out to perceived oppressed peoples to advocate for them. In De Waal’s work, in addition to his "anti-colonial" and "anti-neo-colonial" solidarity models, he considers humanitarian solidarity with or for "faraway oppressed" peoples as the other determinant for transnational advocacy campaigns. A number of transnational campaigns can be traced to this approach, particularly the Kony2012 campaign to support the Ugandan government in capturing militant leader Joseph Kony. However, as De Waal critiques, it is unsurprising that they garnered notable support in Uganda as they brought significant funding from the US government, yet arguably due to a lack of understanding of local realities, the campaign was unsuccessful.10 As a result, such cases can not only represent humanitarian solidarity, but also a residual neo-colonial influence where Western organisations appear to continue to impress their values on ex-colonies.

The thin line between humanitarian solidarity and neo-colonial influence is particularly noted in the campaigns to end foot-binding in China, and female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya. While De Waal presents a timeline of advocacy movements from supporting people’s right to sovereignty to supporting their human rights under that post-colonialist sovereignty, transnational advocacy in the form of Westerners taking on the cause of oppressed peoples traces back centuries, through religious missionaries. In China, the missionaries were able to build on strong relationships with both the women affected and the Chinese establishment on the issue, and from an early stage, there was Chinese leadership within the movement. In comparison, in the campaign against FGM, the missionaries were unsuccessful in building supportive networks amongst the Kikuyu population or the increasingly influential Kikuyu Central Association. Particularly in Kenya the campaign was therefore perceived as a neo-colonial attempt by the missionaries and Western powers to continue to impose their values on Kenyan people. Both campaigns were to stop damaging maltreatments to women through the cultural practices, and the transnational networks between the missionaries and local communities, were both driven by a form of humanitarian solidarity. However, in Kenya this was also perceived as neo-colonialism and was, as a result, much less successful.11 As International Relations scholar Thomas Risse-Kappen’s work describes, countries have very varied domestic power structures, and this impacts the success of transnational campaigns.12

Transnational issues: The Future of Transnational Advocacy?

Finally, if the target or issue of an advocacy group or actor is transnational by nature, transnational support is often seen as vital to legitimise the movement. As with both the female suffrage and Maathai’s environmental campaigns, their focus on a transnational issue, was also crucial to building their transnational network. A transnational target could be both a societal norm or public policy that transcends borders, such as environmental degradation or the issue of land mines, or a corporation that works across borders. In recent campaigns against transnational corporations, movements such as "SumOfUs" and "Avaaz" have built large online transnational networks through online petitioning. As their target corporations, such as Nestle or Coca Cola, have a wide transnational customer base, they must demonstrate support for change from this base. While they focus extensively on "information politics", the movements do not need extensive norm change to succeed, but sufficient support from the perceived customer base to influence key stakeholders in the business. This is reminiscent of the campaign to stop Nestle selling baby formula to vulnerable women in Africa in the 1970s, but the speed with which information can now be disseminated has facilitated a boom in anti-corporate campaigning.13

In the public campaigning sphere, however, successful global policy change is often also preceded by challenging the related established transnational norm and challenging the different definitions of success. Where success is reliant on normative change in international opinions, campaigns focus on building transnational networks that can run wide information campaigns to challenge transnational perceptions. In comparison where success relies solely on policy change, transnational networks focus on targeted campaigns and conferences towards policymakers. In the case of the campaign to ban land mines, Price describes in detail the campaign first to change public opinion through a global information campaign against the mines, and then to influence policymakers through international conferences.14 The multinational nature of growing support for the movement allowed them to make use of what Finnemore and Sikkink termed a "tipping point" in the adoption of a new norm, where once key states had signed up to the land mine ban, other states were more supportive and as Price argues, more susceptible to "shaming" into support.15 The ban on landmines is a transnational issue because the use of landmines was prevalent in many countries, therefore united transnational campaigning was vital in banning their use. Transnational networks are built and used in very different structures dependent on how a movement defines success and how to get there.


In conclusion, Keck and Sikkink’s boomerang model is still a useful tool with which to analyse why advocacy groups build transnational connections, however, to be relevant in today’s increasingly digital world, the model should be broadened. The proliferation of digital communication methods means domestic advocacy groups have increasingly direct access to changing public opinion and to shaming governments into action. However, despite the internet being a valuable tool for information dissemination and gaining support, transnational norm change and policy change is predominantly only cemented with significant international organisation and government support. Moreover, the varied nature of possible blocks between domestic advocacy groups and their government defines the varied nature of the transnational networks built.

Humanitarian advocacy remains a key part of transnational advocacy campaigns where established groups, often in the West, will reach out and build transnational connections to campaign for groups often without a pre-existing consolidated movement. However, the success of such movements lies significantly in whether their support is perceived as neo-colonial and whether local groups take up the campaign.

Finally, transnational advocacy networks are seen as fundamental to legitimacy in a campaign against a transnational corporation, global public policy, or a transnational norm. Yet the nature of these transnational networks differs significantly based on the definition of success for the movement. Where success is changing the policy of a transnational corporation, the network can often be more superficial as it is simply designed to show enough support for the movement in that corporation’s customer base to threaten board members into action. However, for transnational norm change a much more comprehensive and engagement focussed network is needed, while global policy change requires a strategic network of influential players in international power structures and at international conferences. Many transnational advocacy networks demonstrate a combination of these key determinants and as the digital world changes how the public and policy makers interact with advocacy, campaigners will continue to adapt how they build transnational networks.


1 Margaret E Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 46.
2 Keck and Sikkink, 46.

3 Wangari Maathai, Unbowed (New York: Knopf, 2006), 164-204.
4 Richard Price, "Transnational Civil Society and Advocacy in World Politics" World Politics 55, no.4 (2003): 593.
5 John Sudworth, "Simon Cheng: Former UK consulate worker says he was tortured in China", BBC News, November 20, 2019,

6 Alan Bloomfield, "Norm anti-preneurs and theorising resistance to normative change" Review of International Studies 42 no.2 (2016), 311.

7 Keck and Sikkink, 56.
8 Alexander De Waal, "Genealogies of Transnational Activism", in Advocacy in Conflict (Croydon: Zed Books, 2015), 25-26.
9 Alok Choudhary, "Social Media Evolution of the Egyptian Revolution" ACM 55, 5 (2012), 74-80.
10 De Waal, 18-22.
11 Keck and Sikkink, 59-71.
12 Thomas Risse-Kappen, Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Non-State Actors, Domestic Structures, and International Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 22.
13 Keck and Sikkink, 14.
14 Richard Price, "Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines." International Organization 52, no.3 (1998), 635.
15 Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, "International Norm Dynamics and Political Change." International Organization 52, no.4 (1998), 895.

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