Campaigning around Elections: Some smart South-South learning

Just before Christmas I eavesdropped on a fascinating conversation between Oxfam’s teams in Peru and South Africa

The Good Old Days? South Africa in 1994
The Good Old Days? South Africa in 1994

(all nationals, not a white man in shorts to be seen). The topic was election campaigning, with Oxfam South Africa currently designing its strategy for the 2019 elections in a state of extreme uncertainty about the state of SA politics (when we spoke, Cyril Ramaphosa had just been chosen as the new head of the ANC).

From Peru, Alejandra Alayza talked us through their election strategy, some of the highlights of which were:

– A combined focus on youth and content. The Peru team found that a funky, social media based approach to election campaigning works (check out this website), but only if there is solid content behind it. So they built alliances with investigative journalists and academics, resulting in some excellent, and substantive work around state capture by mining interests and others.

– Convening and brokering: As an INGO, Oxfam tries hard to avoid going it alone (cue accusations of imperialism, sucking up the oxygen from local organizations etc). In any case, in most countries it is too small to have much impact, but it can play a role in pulling together a disparate group of players on issues such as inequality and trying to find common ground for joint work.

– Critical Junctures are a given: electoral politics is never smooth, so a lot hangs on your ability to spot and maximise windows of opportunity, which are often short-lived. Relationships with decision makers are essential, but so are political smarts.

She lost. And her Dad's still in the nick.
She lost. But her Dad’s been pardoned anyway.

– The Peru team put a huge amount of energy into the 2016 national elections, but now wish they had thought more about the morning after. A single election seldom changes the kinds of structural problems that underpin Peruvian inequality, so it is perhaps better to see them as part of a wider effort to shift public debate. In the South African case, the coming months will tell whether the best bet for civil society is to press for reform within the ANC, or spread its bets and concentrate on the kinds of political coalitions that will become more prominent as the ANC declines (see below).

In the discussion that followed, some interesting questions arose to which we didn’t have answers – please step forward FP2P hivemind and give us your thoughts (preferably with references – the rest of Oxfam is evidence-based, even if I’m not):

Are coalition governments easier/harder to influence, or just different? With the rise of coalition governments at subnational level in South Africa, NGOs are having to learn a new way of working. Some NGOs say it’s easier to have influence (smaller players in coalitions may be more open, more in need of analysis, or have disproportionate influence over their coalition partners). Others tell me it’s harder because all the negotiations are internal, and no-one cares about civil society. What do we know about how to do advocacy with coalition governments at any level?

What aspects of inequality worry elites? A decade ago, IDS published some fascinating research on elite perceptions of poverty and inequality, based on interviews with rich people in South Africa and four other countries. The researchers found that some aspects of poverty (eg education) offended elites, and made them want to take action, whereas others (eg health) did not. Surely we must know a lot more about this by now, in which case what does it tell us about how best to construct win-win anti-inequality coalitions with fragments of the elite?

What campaign promises do governments keep, once they win an election? The standard activist lament

There has to be a better option than this
There has to be a better option than this

is that politicians never keep their electoral promises, but is it more subtle than that? Are there some promises that politicians are more likely to keep, for example those that don’t threaten their financial backers in the short term? How does the way issues are framed or raised affect their political prospects? How much does it matter whether the promise is in the manifesto, rather than improvised on the campaign trail?

This kind of cross-country exchange is exactly what INGOs should be doing more of – please help them with your thoughts and suggestions.

And here’s the Peru team’s very funky slides (mix of Spanish and English).

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5 Responses to “Campaigning around Elections: Some smart South-South learning”
  1. Nice post Duncan. This effort in South Africa and Peru reminds me of Chukua Hatua (Take Action) initiative of voter awareness and Election Promises Tracking. I am sure you must have covered that one, more than once 🙂

    In India the general discourse is split on what government is easier to influence – coalition or a single party. In general, single party governments, the UPA comes to mind, have been easier to influence. At least that influence has been tangible. I have mixed feelings about that since most of the social protection interventions were piloted and pushed by the immensely powerful National Advisory Council ( which reported to Sonia Gandhi the power behind the government. While I agreed with most of what the NAC pushed, I was (and still am not) happy with an extra constitutional and unaccountable body having so much power. This present government, led by the BJP, distrusts most NGOs that do anything other than service delivery. The influence that civil society is likely to have is marginal.

  2. Jay

    Interesting reflections, Duncan – which resonate a great deal with the advocacy on child malnutrition that CARE and others have carried out around and between electoral cycles in Peru over the last decade. Using the “windows of opportunity” created during elections, a coalition called the Child Malnutrition Initiative ( has got and kept this issue onto the national agenda, since 2006 – contributing to halving stunting in children under five over the last ten years (from 28% to 13%).

    Don’t just take my word for it! This has been well documented by IDS (, the Gates Foundation ( and the World Bank (, amongst others.

    So what were the key factors? As you note, having an organization playing the convening role that you talk of is essential, including the rather unglamorous, often neglected aspects, such as arranging meetings, circulating notes, keeping alliance members informed, etc. Having a diverse alliance has also been critical – with members from international and national NGOs, academia, UN agencies, and donors, as well as the “National Roundtable for the Fight Against Poverty”, a multi-sectoral, government-civil society forum to facilitate dialogue and participation in public policies on poverty reduction. Importantly, the alliance managed to get the heads of these organizations actively involved, rather than leaving all the work to nutrition specialists, so there were credible, high-level representatives who could meet with a new Prime Minister, say, and keep on message.

    Clear, concise and shared messaging also helped: the initial commitment that Presidential candidates signed in 2006 was to reduce stunting in children under 5 by 5 percentage points in 5 years (“5 by 5 by 5”), and with each change of Government, the alliance developed a list of 10 recommendations for the first 100 days. Developing a common shared narrative amongst alliance members, despite our different areas of focus, also ensured a common message, avoiding the confusion that can often arise when everyone pushes their particular take on an issue.

    But perhaps the most important factor that has ensured ongoing success – with four successive, but different, Governments maintaining the commitment to tackle malnutrition as a national priority – has been persistent involvement over time. Working not only before elections, but afterwards too, alliance members provided support to help Governments live up to their commitments, and also promoted accountability ( to make sure they did so. The commitments promoted at each election have also adapted over time: in 2016, candidates signed up to reducing stunting in rural areas and the poorest quintiles from 34% to less than 20%, and anemia from 43% to 20%.

    But of course, this is stunting in young children, not state capture by elite economic interests – and so while there were vested interests (in 2005, government was spending $250m a year on food distribution programs, but with no impact on stunting over the last 10 years), these were of a different nature to those faced by Oxfam, Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana and allies in their campaign. So, as with any effort to Do Development Differently and promote locally-led coalitions for change, our theories of change need to look very different, depending on the specific issue being targeted, and the political economy around that in the local context.

  3. Ken Smith

    Maybe it’s so obvious as to be not worth saying but I thought it interesting to compare the websites of Oxfam Peru , Oxfam South Africa and Oxfam GB.

    For Peru , the main headings are “Who we are – What we do – Join us – Inform Yourself” if my Spanish is OK
    For South Africa it’s “Who we are – What we do- Resources-Media-Take action”
    For Oxfam GB it’s “What we do- Get Involved- Shop online – Donate”

    As long as this idea of development as transferring resources from South to North is so built into the architecture we still have a long way to go.

  4. Allan Moolman

    Also some very good work in the Oxfam programme in Malawi around access to health and essential medicines that would be useful for this discussion Duncan, as well as more recent work from Oxfam in Kenya’s ‘Vota Dada’ campaign to increase women’s participation in political leadership.