Campaigning around Elections: Some smart South-South learning

January 16, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Queueing to vote in Soutt Africa, 1984
The Good Old Days? South Africa in 1994

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

Protest in Peru
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

Vote for nobody, because nobody tells the truth
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).

January 16, 2018
Duncan Green