The summer is a time for relaxed chats in my Brixton office. This week it was with a seasoned NGO campaigner who’s been on a break, and wondering about re-entry into the UK/global development and environment campaign scene at the research-y end. Where are the gaps and potential niches that a bright, reflective, experienced campaigner-turned-researcher could help to fill? Here’s a few that came up, inevitably influenced by How Change Happens and attendant reading.
Implementation Gaps: A lot of successful campaigning targets the gap between policy and practice – what the government or the law has said v what is happening in reality. It may not have the intellectual appeal of starting with a clean sheet and saying ‘if I ruled the world, I would do X’, but the chances of getting somewhere are much higher. So how about a guide to IGap campaigning – how to identify them, work out which ones are the most promising, case studies of success, questions to ask etc?
Positive Deviance: I’m getting increasingly obsessed with this as a huge potential addition to the development repertoire. Instead of jumping in and opening a project or campaign, start by looking for the positive outliers that already exist on any given issue. Go and study them, and then use social learning to spread the message. The outsider acts as a facilitator, not a ‘doer/intervenor’. But all the positive deviance examples I’ve seen refer to programming – tackling on-the-ground
Which one is the most interesting?
problems like child malnutrition in Vietnam. What would a PD-based campaign look like? Go out and identify existing positive outliers on tax evasion, respect for human rights, or smallholders in value chains, then build a campaign to scale them up?
Critical Junctures: Look at a successful campaign, and you will usually find that breakthroughs were linked to events, often unforeseeable, that shake up politics, opening the minds of decision makers to new ideas. The Right totally gets this. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.
The development set are often much less able to respond to crises. We prefer to stick to our logframes, or agonisingly negotiated campaign strategies. We don’t do enough to plan ahead for future shocks, whether foreseeable (elections)
Learning from the Dark Lord
, unforeseeable (Arab Spring) or somewhere in between (Brexit, climate events). So how about a campaigners’ guide to Critical Junctures – planning , response, case studies etc?
Using the Law: Starting out as an activist in the 1980s, I had ‘Using the Media’ always at hand – a beginner’s guide to writing press releases, organizing press conferences etc. Is there a ‘Using the Law’ equivalent? I ask because, as a young Spanish lawyer once told me, ‘the state sees the world through the eyes of the law’. If you want to change public policy, the law is a pretty unbeatable way to go (see this recent post on the impact of a law on FGM in Burkina Faso. But campaigners are often intimidated by the arcane language, high costs and impenetrable processes of judicial reviews or public interest litigation. We leave it up the lawyers. Is it time to more actively bridge the divide and get lawyered up on climate change, tax evasion, bad aid etc etc?
Any other suggestions for gaps and niches that my campaigner friend could seek to fill?
And here’s a vlog version of this post – with apologies for living on the Heathrow flight path
This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’. This personal reflection is not intended as a comprehensive statement of Oxfam's agreed policies.