What can Activists do in a Political Downturn?
The recent discussions with the International Budget Partnership also got me thinking about the options facing activists in political
downturns. IBP sees these as potentially multiple: the crackdown on civil society in increasing numbers of countries is closing the space for budget activism, and there may also be a kind of ‘peak transparency’, where the issue passes the summit of the hype curve and descends the other side, either into the dustbin of history or (one hopes) to a plateau where it is both genuinely useful and no longer over-sold. We were meeting in Washington, and the conversation was also probably affected by the depressing state of US politics on these issues.
Trawling back through the blog, I stumbled across this 2012 piece from Central America, covering similar topics at a more local level. The downturn there was driven by drug trafficking, elite capture, and the retreat of the progressive Catholic Church. Some of the possible directions sketched out there also came up at IBP:
‘Pursue a defensive strategy, trying to minimise the reversal of past gains on say, women’s rights or agrarian reform. Stay faithful to our traditional partners, helping them weather the downturn.’
To those I would add some other options:
Positive Deviance/pockets of progress: even in a downturn, there will be good stuff happening, but it may not be in the usual places, or involve the usual suspects. As I blogged recently, IBP has identified litigation, the rise of activist Supreme Audit Institutions and working below the national level with progressive cities or provinces as grounds for much-needed optimism.
Target durable institutions that can keep the flame alive during the downturn. Campaigns and NGOs can be short-lived and driven from one issue to the next. University departments endure. So if public activism isn’t getting very far at the moment, it might be better to think about how to influence existing university curricula (eg on public financial management), or set up training institutions for future generations of civil servants and activists on transparency/accountability/budget-related issues. Same goes for trade unions and other more long-lasting institutions.
Broaden the coalition and the language. During the upturn, work on a topic professionalizes, becoming more specialist. That creates a cohort of insiders that can work together to influence a system that wants to be influenced. If the system turns hostile, that degree of specialism ceases to be useful – you could end up with a clique of geeks that no-one (either in power or out) understands or listens to. So a downturn may be the right time to look for wider narratives, build new ‘myths’, make links with wider groups of people by, eg making connections with religious concepts of stewardship and tithing. For example, look at what the Jubilee 2000 campaigners achieved using pretty obscure Biblical stories to build the movement for debt relief from the mid 1980s, at a time when Thatcherism/free market fundamentalism dominated official public debates.
Stay ahead of the curve: Try and renew/refresh/anticipate the issues and strategies that could keep the interest in transparency and accountability alive, despite the downturn. That could include a bit of entryism and bandwagoning: In the downturn, identify where the political energy is bubbling up, and try and find an angle for your issue. Migration and budgets? Brexit and budgets? All sorts of risks of doing the wrong thing, damaging your credibility etc, but worth looking at.
There’s always a temptation that in a downturn, organizations abandon their area of expertise, casting around for something that still gets traction, headlines or funding. That could be a real loss, if it endangers what organizations like IBP have achieved through decades of struggle, so this topic seems pretty important right now – any thoughts?