Where are the gaps in the way we campaign?

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 Mind-the-Gapgovernment 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?
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 crisisactual or perceivedproduces 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
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

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3 Responses to “Where are the gaps in the way we campaign?”
  1. As the “seasoned NGO campaigner” in question….I think this is great. But we need to get beyond writing guides about how to do things, to thinking about the ecosystem that supports campaigns and campaigners. For example, in the private sector, you get groups or departments who deal with things at every stage of a supply chain. In Campaigning, we all campaign for policy change, but there are few groups who pick up the ball to do the tough work of monitoring and implementation, maybe testing a legal case once a law has been won. Our campaign strategies rarely involve follow-through. Should this be in-house? Should there be different organisations that do that? Occasionally it does happen, but quite often funding is pulled out and harder to secure because that side of things just isn’t seen as being sexy.

    • Duncan Green

      Interesting Deborah, and glad you were willing to out yourself as my co-conspirator. The idea of a separate follow-up campaign branch raises the whole question of thinking about campaigning as a system, with multiple actors, diversity, weak spots etc. Wd be great to get some systems people to take a look and see what other ideas they come up with

  2. Re Deborah’s point about “few groups who pick up the ball to do the tough work of monitoring and implementation, maybe testing a legal case …” – the Publish What You Pay coalition & campaign are in exactly this place in the UK, EU, Norway and Canada now that oil, gas and mining in these countries – and due also in the US in a year or two – are obliged to publish their payments to governments in all countries where they operate. With support from Omidyar and others we are starting to monitor the results – see http://www.publishwhatyoupay.org/our-work/using-the-data/, http://www.publishwhatyoupay.org/the-data-extractors/, http://www.publishwhatyoupay.org/shell-reports-2015-payments-to-governments-using-open-data/ and http://www.pwypusa.org/welcome-to-extract-a-fact/

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