How Change Happens: a conversation with 25 top campaigners from around the world

Spent an exhilarating morning last week with Oxfam’s ‘Campaigns and Advocacy Leadership Programme’. Must have

Is Power zero sum?
Is Power zero sum?

been at least 20 nationalities in the room, with huge experience and wisdom. The topic was How Change Happens (what else).

To give you a flavour, here are some of the topics that came up, with my takes on them:

  1. Is power a zero sum game, i.e. empowering one group involves disempowering another?

My view: too simple. True in some cases but not in others – eg we have evidence from domestic violence work that both men and women report improved quality of life when domestic violence falls through women’s empowerment programmes. Zero sum games may attract the head bangers, but they are really hard to win – in my reformist view, we need to minimize zero sum and do our utmost to build bridges and alliances, for example by convincing the private sector that short term sacrifices on climate change will lead to long term viability.

  1. Is there still a role for INGOs, given emerging economies, more vocal southern civil society etc?

Yes, at least three roles – focussing on global governance and public goods (tax havens, climate change etc); targeting harmful northern practices (arms trade, migration, tobacco) and support for southern change agents (via exchanges, knowledge sharing , $ when we have it). The right balance between those three is anybody’s guess, but they all matter.

  1. The really difficult thing is sustaining change – preventing backlashes, backsliding etc once the campaign spotlight has moved on.
4 months to go....
(still) 4 months to go….

Very true, and not something we have really got our heads round. At the level of major campaigns, good to think about exit strategy from the start, eg by setting up specialist bodies like the Bretton Woods Project or Control Arms Campaign to keep going when the big agencies lose interest. Helping southern campaigns build their ability to raise domestic resources would help with the problem of short-attention-span in Northern campaigners.

  1. We’ve been working on indigenous health in Australia for a decade and have real successes, but how do you keep up the momentum once something has become mainstream and everyone is paying lip service to it?

Victory is tricky – it usually involves compromise, setting reformers and revolutionaries at each other’s throats. Campaigns are hardly ever long term, so at some point, you have to think about institutionalizing the gains via public bodies, however flawed, or watchdogs (see above). But just because mobilization has fallen isn’t necessarily a problem – it’s only one tactic, depending on where an issue is in the policy funnel.

  1. How do we get beyond extractive campaigning and genuinely empower and involve ‘beneficiaries’?

This is a real challenge – national campaigning can be as extractive as global campaigning. I wish we did more in the way of action research or other people-centred approaches to bringing about change, but they often seem incompatible with our business model of short term projects, results etc. And maybe individual empowerment is just not something international NGOs will ever be good at, compared to more deeply embedded local institutions and faith organizations?

  1. The Financial Transactions Tax is bogged down in negotiations in the EU and getting incredibly technical. How do we keep up the momentum and is it really the success we make it out to be?

It always surprises me how far we can follow issues down the policy funnel towards the extreme techie stage of final Robin Hood personnegotiations – I’ve seen Oxfam and other NGO staff play significant roles in negotiations on trade, climate change, arms control etc etc despite not being professionally qualified in any of those topics. But at some point, we need to say, ‘this needs to be handed off to the specialists’, and we retreat to holding them to account. As for whether the FTT is a victory – potentially it is absolutely huge. It is hard to think of a more significant long-term legacy of the 2008 financial crisis than a normative shift towards accepting the idea of global taxation. Doesn’t matter if it starts small – so did the income tax, introduced in the UK in response to the Napoleonic Wars!

  1. How do we pursue a rights-based approach (RBA) in a context of right wing governments and attacks on civil society?

I’m a bit of a heretic on this one. RBA often gets dumbed down into supporting ‘rights holders’ (aka ‘the people’) to demand stuff from ‘duty bearers’ (usually governments). That may work if the governments are sympathetic, but in more hostile environments we need to keep a rights-based analysis, but our tactics need to be smarter – building alliances with sympathetic individuals and departments, multi-stakeholder approaches etc.

All that plus a fascinating discussion on what is failure/success, when in the longer term, you find successful change processes often have their roots in prior campaigns initially deemed failures? There is a real challenge here to the ‘fail fast’, multiple experiment, venture capitalist models of change. Going to have to think about that one.

Overall impression? I hadn’t realized just how much the content of How Change Happens reflects the best thinking already going on across Oxfam. I think the book plays two roles here – adding a more theoretical, academic foundation to these emerging ideas, and communicating them to a wider public. Alternatively, I could just be nicking other people’s ideas and taking credit for them. And no, I’m not having a poll on that one…….

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3 Responses to “How Change Happens: a conversation with 25 top campaigners from around the world”
  1. “Victory is tricky – it usually involves compromise, setting reformers and revolutionaries at each other’s throats” – this is certainly the case with my own experience of activism in the UK on the issues of refugees and school reforms… A major challenge for campaigns is the need for an overarching message and set of asks for what you want to change, which often hides the realpolitik of how you actually get things done. Over time, the fragmenting dynamics of the latter can come to overwhelm the integrating power of the former… Or to put it another way, thinking and working politically is as important within campaigns as it is for making change happen…

  2. Andrew Mawson

    I’m with you on all of these points, and campaigning advocacy is an important and necessary civil society force. But I also feel that there is often insufficient analysis by campaigners of the deeper social and economic forces that contribute to creating the environment for shifts in power and reduction in poverty, and how the campaigning role fits into it. If you look back, for example, on changing attitudes to the exploitation and abuse of children, what have really been the catalysts for the significant changes that seem to have been taking place over the past 15 years, globally? Is it a by-product of political and social action for women’s rights? Is it campaigning by child rights advocates, enabled by the existence of the CRC? Is it changes in technology enabling new and extended forms of communication? Is it changing economic forces that have lifted many out of poverty but analysis of which suggests very complex relationships with violence against children? Or all of the above?

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