Why do global campaigns succeed or fail?

Brendan CoxCampaigning for International Justice is a new report by Exfamer Brendan Cox (left), who went off to work for Gordon Brown and recently became Director of Policy and Advocacy at Save the Children (incestuous, nous?). It covers two big areas: a retrospective ‘Learning Lessons’ study of eight global campaigns between 1991-2011, and a ‘Where Next’ bit of crystal balling for 2011-2015. I’ll focus on the first part, as I found the second fairly standard (multipolar world, go digital etc, top tips for good potential campaigns: inequality, women’s rights, social protection, ending poverty, democratization, trade or climate change). Apologies for a long post, but there’s a lot of substance in here.

Part 1 starts with a strong whiff of Make Poverty History nostalgia, arguing that ‘in the last five years the sector has been unable to replicate the scale of previous successes. This is due in part to a change in the international context, but it is also because the sector has become increasingly bad at learning the right lessons from its past successes.’ Brendan then tries to distil those lessons.

The eight campaigns each get a handy two page potted summaries. They are Make Poverty History (MPH), Jubilee 2000, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Publish What You Pay (PWYP), the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC), Trade Justice—comprised of the Make Trade Fair (MTF) and Our World Is Not For Sale (OWINFS) campaigns, and the Global Campaign for Climate Action at Copenhagen (GCCA and TckTckTck).

The report distils the lessons of success and failure under: Collective Action, Structure, Campaign Objective, Leadership, Political Strategy, Branding, Celebrities, Internationalism and Funding.

His conclusions? My cut and paste may introduce a bit of incoherence, but here’s what jumped out for me:

“Coalition is king. The most successful campaigns are all coalitions— and generally big ones. However, effective coalition campaigns are harder to form by civil society because of their high transaction costs, the growing need for clear attribution and organizational differentiation, and the fact that many NGOs are now internal coalitions. A key consideration to ensuring effective coalitions is their structure. Three types of structures were identified as underpinning the coalitions studied: secretariat-led, collaborative and flotilla….. The recent trend toward lowest-common-denominator “coalitions,” in which groups loosely collaborate with each other but fail to align strategy, branding, or even policy, should be entered into only as a last resort.

The model that appears best able to deliver multicountry campaigning is the one followed by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and Publish What You Pay (PWYP). The structure in both cases was based on a clear delineation of responsibility, with national coalitions joining an overarching central campaign that was responsible for the overall direction. [In contrast] campaigns that start as nationally focused and try to go international struggle to achieve the sense of ownership and clarity of structure needed to make international work effective.

One of the most contentious areas of political strategy is the balance between insider and outsider approaches and the risk of being co-opted, generally by government. The insider/outsider division also tends to mirror an incremental/radical divide. This divide has become artificially enhanced over time. What is clear is that more radical groups and campaigns have a strong record of trailblazing, shifting the political center of gravity, and investing in controversial policy areas and making them safe over time. However, it is equally true that the evidence strongly suggests that campaigns willing to balance ideal policy objectives with political strategy are the most successful in actually achieving change. The opportunity for complementarity between the different strands could be increased by an acceptance of their respective roles and strengths, increasing dialogue between the different approaches, and more radical groups focusing on longer-term policy objectives that they want to bring into the mainstream rather than short-term campaigns where their radicalism can be ineffective. It is also clear that there will be circumstances where the more radical groups are actively counterproductive or irrelevant, and if progress is to be secured the more mainstream groups will need to have the confidence to push on without them.”

Brendan gets particularly down and dirty on Make Poverty History, slagging off GCAP, War on Want, World Development Movement and MPHChristian Aid for condemning the Gleneagles deal, while acknowledging the challenge of balancing access to governments with cooption by them:

“Overall, there was a strong symbiotic relationship between MPH and the U.K. government. The unspoken pact was that government would share information with NGOs about other governments’ positions to inform their lobbying and would spend political capital with core targets and build expectations around the summit in order to help the campaign in its objectives. On the other side, the campaign would push other countries domestically and create a constituency within the public that engaged in the political process and would welcome progress if it came.”

Then some thoughts on the campaigning nuts and bolts:

“The creation of a unified campaign brand helps the campaign have real impact, particularly in the case of mass mobilisation campaigns. Despite this evidence, civil society is increasingly averse to creating jointly branded campaigns, primarily due to concerns over individual brand visibility. It will take renewed leadership from the major players in the movement if joint campaign brands are to be built. In an era when those big organisations are facing budget pressures due to the financial crisis and campaigning competition from smaller, more agile Internet campaign groups that tend to be more brand precious, it seems less likely that this will be forthcoming without significant changes in the sector.

What all campaigns have in common is a need for resources. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the campaigns studied was initiated by an individual funder or group of funders. Many of those interviewed argue that this is critical to campaigns being seen as legitimate and ensuring that there is a group of committed people at the core of the campaign, rather than groups primarily interested in funding opportunities.”

He’s also interesting on climate campaigning, pointing out that what makes it different from other campaigns is the existence of a bottom line, in the shape of science.

“In the case of debt, landmines or conflict, the issues are moral questions, but the answers are subjective policies, so the asks that come from them can be fashioned by balancing the ultimate objective of the campaign with what is achievable and would have most political salience. In the case of climate change, most groups feel they do not have this flexibility because they see sticking to the science as critical to their credibility. As a result, the usually more moderate campaigners feel forced into more hardline positions. Campaigners feel that in many ways this is a strength; it gives their policy asks a basis in fact. However, several also accepted that it could also act as a constraint, making the movement unable to show flexibility or welcome incremental progress….. and thus build momentum.”

Overall, what comes across are the reflections of an astute practitioner on the tactics, tone, alliances, branding and inevitable compromises of campaigning. His grasp is less sure when it comes to the broader issues of political economy and shocks – the tides and events in public affairs that often play a huge part in determining whether a campaign succeeds or not. From the days of the anti-slavery campaigns of the 18th and 19th century, shocks such as war or economic collapse have been crucial to social change, but are systematically underplayed by campaigners. Just one example: the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London in the middle of the Gleneagles summit were a crucial reason why other leaders caved in to the British push for aid and debt relief, yet get no mention here. More generally, I have real questions about how the kind of giant, ramshackle campaign coalitions discussed in this paper can also be agile enough to react to the new opportunities presented by unexpected events, but Brendan, who seems happier in the steady state campaign planners’ world, doesn’t discuss this.

Minor quibbles – any campaigner should study this paper and reflect.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


2 Responses to “Why do global campaigns succeed or fail?”
  1. Ines

    useful summary and I will certainly read the report. What I will be looking for:

    – How does Brendan define ‘success’ and ‘failure’? and how does he deal with the ‘attribution’ question.

    – did he consider looking at different types of Campaigns, for example those that- like We Can -dealt not with changing policies but with people’s attitudes (in this case violence against women)

  2. JWM

    So, just based on what you wrote, it look like Control Arms failed. The Control Arms “partnership” of IANSA, Oxfam, and Amnesty fell apart last year, and is really stumbling. Agree?

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.