Campaigning and Complexity: how do we campaign on a problem when we don’t know the solution?

Had a thought-provoking discussion on ‘influencing’ with Exfamer (ex Oxfam Australia turned consultant) James Ensor a few days ago. The startingyes-minister1_1527942c point was an apparent tension between the reading I’ve been doing on complex systems, and Oxfam’s traditional model of campaigning.

In my first days at Oxfam, I was told that the recipe for a successful campaign was ‘problem, villain, solution’ (heroes are apparently optional). And sure enough, if you look at good/bad campaigns, the presence or absence of all three ingredients seems pretty key.

But one of the characteristics of complex systems is that solutions are seldom obvious and often only emerge from trial and error. Elsewhere I’ve translated the offputting language of complexity theory into ‘how do you plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen?’ But in the case of advocacy and campaigns aimed at influencing government or international organizations’ policies, a better formulation would be ‘how do you campaign when you don’t have a solution?’

The first option is of course to pretend that you do anyway. Echoes of Yes Minister’s ‘we must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it!’ (see pic). Not that Oxfam would ever stoop to such a thing, obviously.

Alternatively, stick to problems that are less complex, at least at first sight. Campaign to give people money, or bednets, or vaccines, or food (although any of these efforts in practice are unlikely to stay neat and linear for long).

But there are a number of other options:

Bearing Witness: often the best role for INGOs is to use their communications capacity to amplify the voice of people on the receiving end of bad stuff – climate change, conflict, corruption, violence against women. This fits with Matt Andrews’ argument that the role of outsiders is to identify and highlight problems, but leave the search for solutions to local players.

Keep solutions very broad brush: ‘pay tax’, ‘make trade fair’, ‘respect human rights’, ‘end poverty’, but resist being sucked into the detail. Very difficult to do in practice – how do you respond when the targeted politician or civil servant says ‘we agree, what do you think we should do?’ Responding ‘dunno, that’s your job not mine’ doesn’t get you invited back.

Default to process: I’ve been dismissive of NGOs’ endless obsession with process, but am starting to rethink. Civil society participation, transparency, accountability all make a lot of sense as campaign asks in complex systems.

Other way around, sorry
Other way around, sorry

Convening and Brokering: The best thing we can do may be to help bring the relevant actors together until they come up with some possible solutions to try out. Often, an INGO or other outsider can keep them in the room there even when they are traditionally hostile to each other. This kind of approach, epitomised by our Tajikistan water project, fits with the Africa Power and Politics Programme’s findings that effective work on governance is not about fixing ‘supply’ or ‘demand’, but encouraging joint efforts to find solutions to collective action problems. But this kind of work is an awfully long way from popular campaigning – would NGO campaigners even recognize it as ‘campaigning’?

Solidarity: Focus on the actor rather than the solution. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of NGOs who adopt a holier-than-thou  position of ‘we support partners, we don’t impose our views’, not least because NGOs exert huge influence through the act of choosing one set of partners over another. But like default-to-process , complexity strengthens the argument for this approach.

All of these probably have trade-offs for campaigners, who are competing for attention from both press and public. Complicating your message, saying ‘we don’t have the answer’, saying ‘let’s try stuff and see what happens’ all blurs the edges of a nice crisp campaign message. But if the problem we are confronting is indeed complex, do we have any choice? Over to you, especially the campaigners among you.

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8 Responses to “Campaigning and Complexity: how do we campaign on a problem when we don’t know the solution?”
  1. Duncan

    Excellent post.

    I have a quibble, though, with the phrase, and perhaps the idea, of ‘default to process’.

    It would be good to explore the distinction between trying to bring about particular ends directly, and trying to change the dynamics of the complex system, which are the consequence of the way the actors interact.

    An analogy is preferring policies which make markets more competitive and contestable, rather than trying to select successful companies.

    The reason I got heavily into transparency is that I believe that it will change the system dynamics in a positive way.

    I don’t regard this as ‘defaulting to process’. I see working on system dynamics as intentionally disruptive. Focusing on process sounds to me more like trying to overcome the problems of complexity by more detailed analysis and consultation.


    • Duncan

      That’s kind of my point Owen. In the past, I was a bit scornful of the way NGOs often focus on process (civil society involvement, transparency, reporting) rather than substance – see ‘How to write the recommendations for a report on almost anything, Turns out that in complex systems, that may be the best option.

  2. I am sympathetic with your article´s general approach. But I think the holistic approach to problems that are anchored into complex systems. Above all, social problems involving social groups and institutions are by definition complex systems, and the main problem here is to ascertain where the boundaries and responsabilities begin and where these fade out. I have found that in many cases -environment governance, for instance- many problemas are connected t the diffumination of responsabilities of institutions, or worse the inability of legislation to make visible specific groups´rights and therefore, meking unable enforcement of these rights. Threfore, I always argue that there are two core aspects that campaigning and advocacy should put first: (a) to make visible whose´s rights are being affected in the more specific fashion (since when, why, cause-effect diagrams); (b) who are involved within the array of interactions between institutions-affected groups- intervening actors. Therefore, advocacy planning should ensure that facilitators can identify grievances, interests, risks within the complete view over the conflict area. Outlining these panoramic maps would need to engage in dialogue with narrative of involved actors. Therefore before planning we need to invest in exploring these narratives within a diacronic frame: how these relations have changed and might change. This of course can not be done from a distant desk in a donor country. It should be done in a systematic dialogue with people in the field. At the end of the day, these people will have their lives affected whenever campaigns alter power balances.
    Thans for your ideas and providing a good fora for debate.

  3. Only just getting to reading this, sorry. I like this post a lot and also yours and Owen’s thoughts re process. A related aspect is (I think) focus on the questions rather than the answers. Even within the context of convening and brokering there are questions that can inform the process…who is in the room, why? where have they come from? how are they connected to others in the room and others who are not in the room but who may be playing a part in what’s happening?…the list goes on and some of these questions (in fact most of them now that I think about it) will lead to more rather than less complexity…but may lead to a better understanding of key political/power relationships/intersections.

  4. Johan Verburg

    Interesting post, Duncan, thanks!
    If there’s a “problem” with campaigning, the “solution” may not only be in your excellent list but also in your introductary lines: Yes, campaigns need a problem and a villain connected to that problem. And yes they need a solution of some sort. Indeed, the optionality of heroes connected to that solution is remarkable. How could campaigning and advocacy identify, connect, or convene those that can be part of the solution? Complex problems can never be solved by individual actors and individual viewpoints (that is why they are complex in the first place).

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