Being bold: what Oxfam’s campaign on Yemen can teach us all about change

February 21, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

In recent years, one of the things that has made me really proud to work for Oxfam has been its stand on Yemen. Here, Maya Mailer (@mayamailer) distils the lessons from our campaign.

MayaMailerHow do you convince people to care about a place no one has heard of? When we first started our campaign on Yemen almost two years ago, it wasn’t simply a ‘forgotten crisis’.   As one of my media colleagues said to me at the time, a crisis needs to be known first before it can be forgotten. Polling in the UK proved almost impossible: people didn’t understand the question because they didn’t know where Yemen was. And in any case, the terrible war in Syria and refugee flows dominated media headlines.  There just wasn’t room for another Middle Eastern war.

How to turn that around? Our campaign on Yemen has highlighted the catastrophic humanitarian crisis and the urgent need for a ceasefire. It has sought to give a platform to Yemeni civil society and described how Yemeni women are striving for peace.

The most controversial aspect has been our campaign calling on the UK and US governments to suspend their arms

October 2016: Ahead of a UK parliamentary Debate on Yemen, Oxfam campaigners pose as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Photo: Andy Hall

October 2016: Ahead of a UK parliamentary Debate on Yemen, Oxfam campaigners pose as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Photo: Andy Hall

sales to Saudi Arabia. It helped move Yemen from a fringe concern to a humanitarian and political issue that cannot be so easily ignored.  The way we did this holds lessons for all of us who care about change.

But first, here’s the potted background: in March 2015, the conflict in Yemen escalated when a Saudi led military coalition intervened after the Houthi rebel movement ousted the country’s President.  The war in Yemen has been brutal and deadly – all sides have committed atrocities. The Saudi coalition, relying on British and American-made bombs, has hit schools, hospitals, mosques, homes and mourners at funerals.  The ground fighting has also been indiscriminate.  Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East, and the conflict and a de facto blockade have brought it to the brink of famine.  During this time, the UK government alone has approved arms sales to the tune of 3.3 billion pounds to Saudi Arabia.

We knew that by challenging vast and lucrative arms sales, we would be butting up against powerful geo-political and business interests. But a small group of us felt we had to go for it.

There were three main reasons:

  • Precisely because governments that we had a degree of influence over were so complicit in the crisis, we had an exceptional opportunity to reduce the suffering in Yemen.
  • Oxfam had been in Yemen for 30 years. We have a strong programme on the ground and we were one of the first NGOs to scale up operations in response to the intensifying conflict.
  • Oxfam had campaigned for ten years for an Arms Trade Treaty which was designed to prevent the carnage caused by just these kinds of arms transfers.

So on our side, we had both legitimacy from our on-the-ground presence and moral clarity.  We had a clear call



that stirred passions and could be easily understood. People get the connection between arms sales and suffering.

But calling out the Saudi coalition and its backers posed security and funding risks for Oxfam. I was involved in many difficult conversations as to whether we could afford to take on this level of risk.

We did so because ultimately even reticent colleagues were won over by both the moral and pragmatic argument:  the best and probably the only way to get desperately needed attention to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen was to focus on the scandal of arms sales.   We also had leadership from the top, with our CEO Mark Goldring, quickly getting behind the campaign, which was crucial in giving us the confidence to be bold.

This hasn’t been a straight-forward linear process. We’ve had to dial our campaigning up and down, depending on the risks to our programme.  But throughout, we’ve had trust between a small core group of campaigner, media and programme colleagues.  A clear goal has meant that our planning meetings have focused on action and opportunities. We haven’t consumed energy on introspective strategy sessions.  There has been space to be creative and responsive.

It all began with TV. We had our first breakthrough in the UK back in September 2015, when Oxfam, after weeks of painstaking work, facilitated a visit of BBC’s Newsnight to Yemen.  Eventually, more of the big TV broadcasters made it into the country, including Channel Four and BBC News (here and here). It was only when the shocking images started coming out of Yemen that it pierced the public consciousness. That made it possible to launch the Yemen Yemen DEC appealDEC appeal.

I’ve always been a big believer in the power of the images and this experience has reinforced that belief.  The day before that first 2015 BBC Newsnight piece, I’d sparred with a campaigns colleague who told me that there was no point investing in campaigning in Yemen because we could never get ‘cut through’. I threw arguments at him, but he wouldn’t budge. He texted me the next evening, the minute after the Newsnight piece ended, to say we had to do more to relay what was happening.   Sometimes it is only a human story unfolding before your eyes that will move you in the heart, rather than in the head.

So we got media coverage combined with excellent reports from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. And yet as we all know, evidence isn’t enough to bring about change.  When you’re up against vested interests, you need allies on the inside and you need to recognise that the power bloc you are seeking to influence is not necessarily homogenous. Oxfam, with others, has worked hard to cultivate unusual establishment allies and to mobilise unusual suspects to speak out.

So where are we now? 
Shortly before leaving office, against all the odds, the Obama administration suspended a major arms deal to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over targeting practices in Yemen. In the UK, Yemen has gone from being a concern of a handful of MPs to a controversial and mainstream political issue.  A cross-party parliamentary committee has said that UK arms sales must stop, pending an investigation. The government faces a judicial review. Journalists and broadcasters who told me they just couldn’t run the story are now regularly reporting on Yemen.  The DEC appeal raised £17 million from the British public for a crisis that was virtually unknown a few months previously.

This is a huge change from where we were. It is easy to think that of course such a staggering humanitarian crisis should have (at least some) media exposure and that of course governments fuelling the crisis should have their feet held to the fire.  But none of us believed this would be possible when we started out.

So let’s recap the main ingredients that helped get us here:

  • Moral clarity
  • Legitimacy from our programmes
  • Trust among the core group driving change + leadership from the top
  • Space for creativity and speed
  • Powerful images and human stories
  • Unusual methods and establishment allies.

But so far, there is little cause for celebration. The Trump administration is reportedly on the verge of revoking the arms sale suspension. UK arms sales continue as the government digs in its heels.

And worst of all, the people of Yemen continue to suffer. This type of change is always going to be two steps forward and one step back.  Perseverance is all. It’s a long hard fight – and that fight, for Yemen, and for the international norms we all hold dear, has never been more important.