Working with unlikely bedfellows to turn BP Deepwater Horizon fines into local jobs: How Oxfam America adapted to doing advocacy in the Deep South

June 19, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Next up in the series of case studies on ‘active citizenship’ is an impressive bit of campaigning by Oxfam America’s domestic programme, in response to the horrendous BP oil spill of 2010. Here’s the draft case study (Draft AC case study Gulf RESTORE campaign June 2014: comments welcome), which I summarize below.

‘We started with two Senators and ended up with 74 Senators supporting the bill.  A House member said, ‘I didn’t think Jesus could get 74 votes in this BP oil spillCongress.’’ Oxfam Ally

On April 20, 2010 an explosion in the Deepwater Horizon oil well started a spill that would ultimately release 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-two months later, President Obama signed the Resource and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revised Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act into law, in July 2012.

The final bill requires that 80% of civil fines (which may reach as much as $20 billion) are placed in a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, to be distributed directly to the five Gulf Coast states and to a newly created Gulf Coast Restoration Council that will oversee how funds are utilized in the affected region.

While individual states retain significant decision-making authority, the law establishes a series of guidelines, restrictions and oversight mechanisms to ensure that the funds are allocated for economic and environmental restoration. This was where Oxfam America, its Coastal Communities Coalition (CCC) partners, the Gulf Renewal Project, and a broad range of allies concentrated their efforts, representing the concerns of poor, coastal communities disproportionately affected by the spill and pressing an agenda that included focused investment in socially vulnerable communities, work force development and preferential hiring of local people, and the establishment of participatory governance mechanisms.

The opportunities for influence were particularly great as Oxfam was the only large social justice NGO involved in a field dominated by environmentalist organizations, whose priorities often did not include the immediate interests of local communities.


An upbeat January 2013 evaluation found that the campaign had ‘largely’ or ‘significantly’ achieved its goals on ensuring adequate long-term federal funding for Gulf Coast restoration, investment in resilience to strengthen communities, investment in transitional workforce development and contracting practices promoting access to opportunity.

It gets better. Oxfam America estimates the total investment in the campaign over two years at approximately $740,000 (USRO, 2013). It asked Mather Economics to model the potential impact of that spending in the area most clearly attributable to the campaign – workforce development and local hiring. Among the national NGOs engaged in the campaign, workforce development was considered Oxfam’s niche area and the area in which it had the greatest influence.

Mather Economics’ modelling gave a mid-range estimate was some 22,000 jobs created over a ten year period. While only a rough estimate (eg it assumes attribution to the campaign at 100%, when there must were probably other factors at play), this provides an approximate figure of 1 job created for every $34 spent on the campaign, a truly remarkable return. Moreover that does not include other benefits from the campaign.

Success Factors

The evaluation highlighted feedback from external allies and core partners on the key factors contributing to the campaign’s success. These included:

  • Oxfam and partners’ long-standing relationships with affected communities;
  • The campaign’s ability to create a broad-based coalition, especially its work with faith-based groups and the private sector;

Partners working closer to the ground pointed to different factors, including:

  • Intelligence from Washington, regularly conveyed to the Coastal Communities partners, about the political dynamics surrounding the RESTORE Act and progress on the bill;
  • The research products that were developed in consultation with them and which conveyed in layman’s terms their situation and policy positions. These were an important resource for partners’ outreach efforts to community members and local officials;

For their part, Oxfam staff stressed the impact of working with non-traditional allies, especially conservative evangelical churches and the private sector, and working with Republican lobbyists. Staff also highlighted the importance of media work and the many lessons learned from its Katrina advocacy, including the need to engage in policy discussion immediately after an emergency, before deals “begin to be cut”.

Theory of Change

Power Analysis: Understanding the nature of Gulf Coast politics and power was an essential prerequisite for the campaign. Republicans, Conservative Democrats, and evangelical Christians dominate the political map. Political relations at local and state level are highly clientelist, based on personal relationships. Working in this kind of environment was a challenge for a social justice/rights-based organization like Oxfam.

Change Hypothesis: The Gulf Coast campaign illustrates several aspects of ‘shock as opportunity’ – the idea that social and political change is often linked to disruptive events that open up new directions by weakening the powers that sustain the status quo, creating demands for change among both public and leaders, and dissatisfaction with ‘business as usual’.

The BP oil spill hit a region still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina had also left several lessons, both in terms of failures and successes, upon which advocacy could build. One negative experience was the way reconstruction had relied on shipped-in undocumented labourers, with few jobs going to local people. Local hiring emerged as one of the key demands of the campaign.

Oxfam’s Change Strategy: Luck matters in campaigning and the timing of the BP oil spill could not have been better, coming just a month after the launch of Oxfam’s Coastal Communities Initiative, focused on addressing both environmental destruction and poverty as two of the root causes of social vulnerability. Moreover, off the back of Katrina, and prior to the BP spill, local communities had already formulated their demands for restoration – all that was needed was cash and political will, and the spill and subsequent fines provided both in abundance. The change strategy had three main thrusts.

  • Advocacy directed at the federal level in support of the RESTORE Act, which included extensive alliance building and direct advocacy with policy-makers in Washington, DC.
  • State level advocacy around workforce development and local hiring.
  • Support for partners’ programs, including local level advocacy on issues that were not directly related to the RESTORE Act, but which proved vital in establishing the relationships and partner capacity on which the campaign subsequently relied.

What have I missed? Your comments please. And in case you missed them, previously posted case studies were on Campaigning against Violence Against Women in South Asia, promoting Women’s Leadership in Pakistan, Labour Rights in Indonesia, and Community Protection Committees in DRC

June 19, 2014
Duncan Green