Monday, September 26, 2011

Rethinking campaigns

Following a session at the DSA conference Duncan Green reflects on the thinking behind the new Grow campaign at Oxfam .
I would argue that (comparatively rare) NGO campaign victories rely on a combination of the legitimacy derived from field experience and good research, the ability to move publics in the rich countries, working in coalitions of dissimilar bodies, and skill in constructing a compelling narrative for decision makers and media. It is important to combine insider and outsider strategies and use power analysis (political economy + lobbying skills) in designing influencing strategies.
There are several weaknesses to this model, including uncertainty over how to relate to developing country governments, a degree of planners’ sclerosis when it comes to responding to events and new opportunities, and a tendency to focus on policy detail rather than politics or big picture narratives. It may well be that this model has to change, not least because the NGO default demand of more money is unsuited to a downturn.
I outlined these points in a session I participated in at the DSA conference last week, also involving Oxfam and Exfam (former Oxfam) staff and an ex Action Aider (Claire Melamed, now head of the Growth and Equity team at ODI).
Rob Bailey, (senior research fellow, Chatham House), introduced the Grow campaign report, which he wrote prior to leaving Oxfam. He highlighted the multiple challenges of achieving food justice in a resource constrained world (for a summary of the Grow campaign, see here). Bailey saw Oxfam’s distinctive contribution as introducing issues of power, politics, equity and justice to a debate (how to feed the 9 billion without destroying the planet) that often confines itself to technical issues of yields, productivity and carbon intensity. He pointed to several encouraging examples of developing country leadership, such as Brazil (reducing hunger), Vietnam (smallholder-based development) and the Maldives (decarbonisation), contrasting them with India’s failure to turn growth into benefits for its poorest citizens.
Kate Raworth (senior policy researcher, Oxfam) presented work in progress on ‘Economic growth for a hungry and fragile planet’, explaining the nature of the pressures for growth, the problems with growth (especially environmental impact), the prospects for sustainable growth and finally, the politics of talking about (and questioning) growth. She pointed out that the traditional growth-sceptic argument in rich countries (it doesn’t contribute to greater wellbeing, or does so with diminishing marginal returns) has been undermined by the financial crisis, which leaves all governments desperately pursuing growth as a solution to their debt crises.
Within Oxfam, the climate change campaign launched in 2008 crystallised doubts over its previous overarching model of ‘Growth with Equity’, and could well lead to a major paradigm shift in its attitudes to growth. However several factors may constrain that move. Firstly, we don’t know what a capitalist non-growth economy would look like (and there is absolutely no appetite for it among decision makers and elites), secondly, enough progress has been made in relative (and in some cases absolute) decoupling of growth from resource use to make some form of ‘green growth’ worth pursuing. The question then becomes what kind of conditionality is placed on growth – when is it green enough?
Martin Kirk, Head of UK Campaigns , discussed the concept of ‘framing’, arguing that campaign organizations have become intellectually lazy due to operating for many years in relatively benign political environments. This has allowed them to ignore the deep frames held by the public, many of which are stuck in the ‘charity + starving baby’ stereotypes of yesteryear. By telling a story of difference (rather than common ground) NGOs add to the problem by undermining solidarity, and selling a vision of grandious hope lays them open to accusations that  ‘nothing ever changes’. In this discourse, power, morality and agency rest with the rich – a grotesque misrepresentation of the reality of development.
Martin saw other blocks to campaign effectiveness arising from focussing on what people say they think, but being bad at knowing why, or what they actually think (often much more regressive – ‘No one believes it is possible’; ‘It’s their fault’ etc); not having a credible long-term vision for engaging the public and not tapping into existing expertise on cognitive frames, language and discourse. Martin declared he would die happy if all campaigns began with a discourse analysis of their issue.......
Claire Melamed (ODI) commented that she had not heard the word ‘paradigm’ (employed liberally in this panel) used anywhere else in the conference and saw two contradictory stories in the presentations. A traditional campaign story from Martin and I in her view contrasted with a message from Kate and Rob that presented an extremely complex, well researched problem, but neither villain nor solution. ‘Are you trying to run a traditional campaign, or do something new – very much more long term, complex and difficult?’ she asked
Martin Kirk, replying, argued that these were two different sides of the same coin – a more comprehensive problem needs a different and more profound kind of campaign. In addition, a big global issue will in practice be broken up into bite-sized campaign chunks that often follow a more traditional model of ‘problem, solution, villain.’
Others in the audience raised issues of campaign design – how to find metrics and an end point, in such an all-encompassing campaign.
I would conclude that if the rest of the conference have avoided the world ‘paradigm’, the problem lies with the DSA, not this panel. Given the state of the economy and planet, if we aren’t advocating new paradigms now, then when should we do so?
Duncan Green is Head of Research at Oxfam and author of the forthcoming 3rd edition of ‘The New Economic Diplomacy’.   Read his Oxfam blog here

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