What kind of a campaign calls itself ‘GROW’? Answer, a different kind. My first reaction on hearing the aural equivalent of puffs of smoke was a small jolt of surprise, and then a pleasurable ‘hey, that could be interesting.’ I’ve seen the same baffled curiosity on a few other people’s faces when they hear the name, so I’ve talked to some of the people responsible to find out how Oxfam arrived at ‘Grow’ rather than some variant on ‘Hungry for Change’ (Oxfam’s 1980s food campaign) or even (shudder) ‘Food Justice in a Resource Constrained World’ – the new campaign’s working title for the last year or so.
The campaign’s identity, summed up in its strapline ‘Grow: Food, Life, Planet’ marks a significant shift in thinking about how public campaigning brings about change. It moves from a focus on specific policy changes (e.g. on trade rules or debt relief), to something much deeper – changing the way people think. And not just (or even mainly) activists – the target audience is a much wider global audience of ‘world aware’ people. The intention is to tackle the underlying issue of ‘framing’ – the way people see the world, rooted in individual and collective psychology, culture and experience, not just the comparatively restricted and arcane world of ‘evidence-based policy making’ that we normally inhabit.
To be honest, as more of a policy wonk than a campaigner, I struggle to grasp the full implications of framing, but it’s prompted a lot of interest among NGOs (see this paper co-authored by Martin Kirk, head of Oxfam’s UK campaigns). What I think it is saying is that any campaign has to operate on multiple levels – sure you target bad guys, policy changes, etc, but over the long haul, the messaging has to reinforce the kind of world views that are needed for lasting progress, and not undermine them. And for that, tone matters at least as much as content. Positive or negative? Threat or opportunity? Caring or angry? The classic example is fund raising – ‘poverty porn’ images of misery and starvation may raise more cash in the short term, but they create a frame of passivity and hopelessness that is both misleading and insulting, and which undermines long term progress.
Where it gets interesting is that when we (or rather some professional pollsters) went out and tested these theories in eight countries, five of them developing (India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, along with the USA, Netherlands and Spain) we got a common response on the kind of frame that would attract people to a campaign – a positive vision for the future, with a focus on sharing. None of the original ideas for the campaign identity worked on this level, so we ditched them. ‘Grow‘ emerged from the subsequent soul-searching/brainstorming and then stuck in people’s heads.
What about all the normal language of activism – justice, rights, end this, stop that? Turns out it is just that – the language of activists, but non-activist-but-potentially-sympathetic people (North and South) often find it harsh and offputting – all throwing rocks and donning hair shirts, and not much joy.
Yet to achieve ‘food justice in a resource constrained world’ a degree of conflict is inevitable. Greed, short-sightedness and the increasing likelihood of distributive conflicts over land, water or license to pollute make that certain. Food riots in 30 countries in 2008 show the limits to the Big Hug approach. We will need to make sure that the emphasis on positive, sharing, win-win type campaigning does not downplay the struggles that are unavoidable if we are to end poverty while staying within planetary limits.
That means finding a language that works both for that wider public and for activists. It won’t be easy – I felt that tension in the media work around the launch, where being repeatedly asked ‘who are the bad guys?’, ‘what’s the problem?’ etc reinforces a crisis narrative that rapidly squeezes out any positive vision.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the campaign title is the way it deliberately takes on the issue of economic growth. We want to reclaim the ‘grow’ in ‘growth’ for what really matters – growing good food to eat, watching your children grow up healthy and fulfilled, ensuring that planet and people flourish in the long term. That means recapturing the true meaning of ‘grow’ from the dead hand of GDP, which still holds sway over decision makers, despite doubts creeping in on the margins, expressed in the ‘beyond GDP’ and well-being work of Stiglitz, the OECD and others. On the other side of the debate are the hairshirtists and degrowthers, whose negative framing – limits to growth, degrowth etc – has signally failed to get much purchase. In the run-up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit next June, we’ll be trying to find a way through this minefield. Daunting but very exciting.
My only remaining fear? An avalanche of bad puns on the go/grow theme – grow figure; grow well etc etc. This could get ugly.
So over to you, the target audience (sort of – you’re probably all a bit too wonky). Vote on the poll to the right and let’s see if ‘Grow’ passes the test (no idea what we do if it fails……..).
And here’s a nice little animation that illustrates what we’re on about.
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