What are the pros and cons of positive, negative and global (i.e. post North-South) campaigns?

Oxfam’s launching a big global campaign on inequality in October and as always, there are some fascinating internal meta-discussions about the pros inequality braziland cons of different kinds of campaigns.

A few years ago, we launched ‘Grow’, an attempt to run a campaign based on positive framing (a positive vision for the future of food, life and planet, with a focus on sharing). Although a positive frame appeals to a much wider public than just activists, it’s hard to turn it into a hard hitting campaign. We ended up running lot of more traditional ‘problem, solution, villain’ campaigns (on land grabs, corporate malpractice etc) inside the Grow umbrella.

That may be right – to get real change, you need to shift the overall narrative, so that, for example, policy makers and publics realize that planetary boundaries are a genuine concern. But you also need to go beyond generalities and offer tangible actions both for individuals (‘what can I do to make a difference’) and for policy makers, not least because there’s nothing like a quick win to reinforce morale and a sense of the possibility of change.

The inequality campaign’s innovative characteristic is that, more than any previous Oxfam campaign, it completely supersedes the traditional North-South split – inequality is just as big an issue in the UK or US as it is in Brazil or Kenya.

On the face of it, you’d think a genuinely universal issue that arouses passions and anger in countries around the world would make a perfect campaign issue. The challenge is to channel the sense of malaise (which our 85 richest plutocrats = 3.5 billion poorest killer fact so graphically captured) into specifics. Arguably, that’s where Occupy and other inequality protest movements have fallen down. We need to be crystal clear on what we want people to do, how it will make a difference, and what success would look like.

Another issue is cash. Our market research (and we do a lot of it) suggests that people in the UK respond to inequality through association – ‘yes, that reflects the world I live in’. Activists get fired up, as do intellectuals– as Pikettymania demonstrates. But what the wider public don’t do is then put their hands in their pockets. OK this is not a fundraising campaign, but raising funds from the public is vital to Oxfam’s work, so if this harms our income, then Houston, we have a problem.

If inequality was a planeIn practice, a lot of our fundraising will focus on Oxfam’s work on the ground – people-to-people empathy will always be key. But you can’t insulate campaign messaging from fundraising – one is bound to affect the other. At the very least, our inequality narrative needs to avoid undermining that sense of helping real people, and preferably put a human face on what can be quite abstract discussions of inequality and injustice. And fundraising mustn’t undermine the positive framing of the campaign – a very tricky balancing act.

I’ve tried to summarize the different broad categories of campaign below, along with their pros and cons. The usual apologies for creating grotesque caricatures to draw out the contrasts

Type 1: Feed the Hungry (traditional, negative frame campaign)

Positives: Gets to Northern publics and raises shedloads of cash, which enables you to feed more people; can link to some good advocacy work (eg on aid, tax evasion etc)

Negatives: Reinforces stereotypes, offends many people in developing countries, may lead to compassion fatigue

Type 2: Be part of a fabulous future (positive frame campaign)

Positives: Appeals to broader group of people. More accurate portrayal of a world where many social/economic indicators are getting better.

Negatives: Difficult fit with traditional campaign formula of ‘problem, solution, villain’. Can all get a bit Cumbaya. Nightmare for fundraising.

Type 3: We’re all in this [bad place] together (globally shared injustice)

Positives: Immediate association, built on people’s lived experience, moves beyond increasingly outmoded distinctions between North and Southdilbert-income-inequality-and-fairness

Negatives: Hard to turn a global malaise into a set of plausible specific targets, either for individual choices or policy decisions. Oh, and Northern governments seem very sensitive to criticism, and start accusing you of being political (though perfectly happy if you make similar criticisms of southern governments).

Personally, I’m delighted that Oxfam is taking on a type 3 campaign that genuinely moves us beyond the old North-South divide. It feels radical, progressive and somehow more respectful – that’s the kind of organization I want to work for. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

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 .

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.


7 Responses to “What are the pros and cons of positive, negative and global (i.e. post North-South) campaigns?”
  1. Catherine Dom

    Not going to be easy but agree, the right choice. I think we need a lot more solidarity if we want the “place we are all in” to have a chance to be not worse for the children of all of us. And also, if Northern governments get nervous, that surely means it’s the right choice, no?

  2. Andrew Purkis

    Very good blog, but I too am uneasy about the oversimplified references to the “traditional North/South split” and “increasingly outmoded distinctions etc”. Look at Ebola and the pitiful results of near non-existent health services. Outmoded? The vague implication that we are all in the same boat is dangerous. In fact, a blog on how we try to acknowledge what we all do suffer in common, without glossing over massive and continuing inequalities between most Southern and most Northern countries, would be really helpful.

  3. Vinod Parmeshwar

    This 45 second video on inequality in the US is illuminating and disturbing simultaneously.
    It also demonstrates that we need some citizen action in the US on such issues and it is not a typical developing country issue.

  4. Tim Gore

    I’m with Andrew on this one. In GROW we also talk about common challenges facing us all wherever we live, but I think we’re clear that those challenges are certainly not the same everywhere. Eg Climate change affects us all, and the poorest worst in every community, but it’s definitely better to be in New York facing Sandy than in Tacloban facing Haiyan; rising food prices and declining choice/quality of food due to climate change affects us all, and the poorest worst everywhere, but paying more for a cup of coffee in the UK isn’t the same as being priced out of staple crops. Similarly for the inequality campaign, the gap between rich and poor definitely matters, wherever you live, but it’s still better to be at the bottom of the income spectrum in France than in Brazil (that’s why so many people risk everything crossing the Mexican border into the States, or die on boats from N Africa into Europe, right? Presumably for those people, their absolute income matters more than their place on the income gradient.) So yes, the North-South divide is changing, but the inequality we are left with is certainly more messy than a wholesale shift to a “common injustice” frame allows. The other challenges you note with each of the ideal type frames though I certainly recognise.

  5. Rocco Blume

    Great to hear about the upcoming global campaign on inequality. The challenge with any global campaign is to create messages that resonate with a wide (global!) audience and to be accepted as a credible voice. I concur with the above that not only is the North/South divide relevant, but we (in the INGO world) are part of the equation. Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save, for example, have no shortage of credibility at home yet in the global south are often seen as exclusive power holding institutions themselves and therefore campaigns may be perceived as an extension of unaccountable ‘Northern’ power. This was covered in an excellent FP2P blog a few months back that looked at how the use of ‘we’ in development circles often suggests vastly different groups share the same objectives and opinions which on closer inspection is not the case. By recognizing the distance between stakeholders early on at the campaign development stage; investing in co-creating a campaign vision with national civil societies; and supporting civil society partners to access power relationships (for example with donors) we can reduce this distance in perception and expectation.

  6. Vicky R

    There is so much over-simplification of campaign messaging and narratives in this blog to make your point the best point. I partly feel it’s not even worth debating.