At what point does an advocacy NGO cease being ‘ahead of the curve’, ‘visionary’ etc (choose your own cliché) and instead become simply bonkers, a prophet ranting in a wilderness uninhabited by anyone with a smidgeon of decision-making power? This subject kept cropping up at an Oxfam internal discussion the other day. Unfortunately, I framed the discussion in terms of being ‘sensibilist’ v ‘swivel-eyed’ – it was distinctly odd hearing various colleagues arguing passionately that the organization should become more swivel-eyed (one participant had a powerful image of everyone at Oxfam looking like Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter (see pic). One speaker even seemed to be calling for
The reason, as usual, was climate change and the argument (see my blog on a recent presentation to the Quakers) that the world may have to accept some form of rationing of growth. The intellectual abyss between scientific and political reality seems to be widening – how should we react? The role of an NGO is of course not simply to reflect the mainstream, but to challenge it, based on our experience on the ground and (in the case of climate change) reading of the science.
There is a tension there – if you are 4 years ahead of the orthodoxy you can hope to influence it, if you are 40 years ahead, you are likely to be dismissed as a nutter. It’s as if some invisible thread of credibility snaps if you stretch it too far. Much of the distinctive identity of different NGOs come from where they position themselves on that spectrum.
But as one veteran of this debate also stressed, it’s not just about content. Tone matters too. The language we use needs to make sense to the people we are trying to influence. Yet in too many lobby meetings I have seen NGOs with perfectly reasonable messages alienate rather than convert decision makers. Ineffective advocates seem oblivious of the flesh-and-blood person sitting on the other side of the table, and merely see ‘the government’ or ‘the corporate’, duly haranguing them in a way that may be cathartic, but is largely pointless. I have serious doubts about the over-used phrase ‘speaking truth to power’, if power doesn’t actually take any notice.
Yet excessive caution is also a risk. Ten years ago, raising the issue of environmental limits on growth would have undoubtedly broken a major taboo and seen us dismissed as anti-developmental cranks (even though the rationing idea is about limiting growth in the rich countries, not the poor ones). But is that still true? The mainstream is constantly shifting, incorporating new ideas and narratives, so there is a danger for any ‘sensibilist’ NGO of waking up one morning and finding that you have been overtaken by events and outflanked by governments, commentators etc – Adair Turner supporting the Tobin Tax, Nicholas Stern talking about limits to growth, the Sustainable Development Commission stressing the widening gulf between well-being and growth. Those developments would imply that NGOs need to become more, rather than less, radical over the next few years, but the resurgence of the right (in European politics at least), may point in the other direction. Tricky business, triangulating between the way the world needs to be and how it currently is.