How do we stop Bad Stuff Happening? And does it differ from Supporting Good Stuff?

April 17, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

A few weeks ago, I was in Papua New Guinea, where I support a fascinating programme to build citizen engagement with the government. On the margins, we were discussing influencing (as ever) and in particular, focussed on how civil society deals with threats – bad ideas from government, unintended consequences from new laws etc.

This was interesting because so much of the way we think about advocacy is ‘front foot’, how to get a policy passed, or implemented. All the tools (problem analysis, points of entry, stakeholder mapping, the bridge to strategy and tactics) have a front foot ‘making things better’ underlying frame.

But many of the examples we heard in PNG (and I suspect in many other places) were about stopping bad stuff – a kind of whack-a-mole activism that spots threats and stupid policies likely to do more harm than good, and try to block them.

Two examples:

Back in the early noughties, I was part of  a massive global civil society mobilization around the WTO (World Trade Organization, if you’re under 30 and have never heard of it). Much of that work was about the rules that govern global trade, with the EU and US busily trying to expand their remit into areas such as investment, competition policy and intellectual property, as well as preventing poorer countries from using tariffs to protect their producers.

Our argument (echoing Ha-Joon Chang’s seminal book) was that the rich countries were effectively ‘kicking away the ladder’ of prosperity– trying to ban the very policies that they themselves had used in their early development. We were trying to stop bad stuff, and I think we were at least partly successful (although proving attribution is even harder than when you achieve good stuff!)

More recently, I’ve been working with Kivu, an interesting organisation that supports local partners to influence policy and practice in several countries, and came across this description of how they worked with their Zambian partners to block a damaging government proposal to replace VAT with a sales taxes:

Nature of the policy influencing challenge: The challenge here was to stop a bad policy idea from being implemented. Zambian experts argued that if enacted the Sales Tax would have severe negative effects, including raising costs for businesses and consumers and causing job losses during an already difficult economic climate. However, there was strong and senior (Presidential) political momentum behind the changes making it difficult to overturn.

Policy influencing strategy adopted: The overall strategy was to (a) discredit the proposed reform and (b) offer alternative policy options. However, overcoming the political opposition required a phased approach. Kivu and our partners first concentrated on generating evidence on the likely negative impact of sales tax to delay implementation.

This required framing around the politically salient government concerns of inflation and jobs, using a mix of insider and outsider advocacy to demonstrate the likely severe consequences of the sales tax on the economy. This pressure helped delay the introduction of the sales tax.

Then a change in finance minister created an opportunity to advocate for the full abandonment of the proposed policy. The new finance minister was known to have doubts about the sales tax, so in order to exploit this, our partners developed policy proposals intended to improve VAT, which gave the minister an alternative reform to sales tax.

Impacts: The proposed tax change was first delayed and then abandoned. In place of the move to a sales tax the government introduced reforms to VAT that had been recommended by Kivu’s partners.

The rhythm of these blocking campaigns seems very different to that of front foot campaigns:

  • A ‘big noise’ rapid escalation of protest to alert the government (usually) or international institution to the consequences and political costs of its latest bonkers idea
  • Quickly assemble a  sufficiently broad coalition with a clear division of labour: often the CSOs take the media work, think tanks manage the research, business does the insider lobbying. Such a coalition is likely to be full of discussions, and occasionally strife, so a big investment is needed to keep it together until the win is achieved.
  • Fast analysis to work out whether this is about malign players or just poorly designed policy
  • Rapid research on the negative impact to back up the protestors’ claims
  • Proposing a less harmful alternative as a faced-saving climbdown for decision makers

On that last point, we didn’t propose much of an alternative in the case of the WTO, so maybe it’s just be a ‘nice to have’. However, if you don’t get something better, the danger is that some variation of the dumb idea will resurface once the public spotlight has moved on.

Suggestions please – what to read on theories of change for stopping bad stuff?

April 17, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. This very much reminds me of the six types of impact models created by Liz Ruedy (see here: I use this with teams when trying to develop theories of change. There are three models that are about stopping bad things from happening:

    (1) stabilizing impact: this is when the status quo is likely to get worse at a steady rate over time, but the program is trying to maintain the status quo (straightline it) – you can see the helpful images in the handout. “For example: a civil liberties protection program may follow a stabilizing model: while we may not expect to see substantive expansions of legal protections for marginalized populations, we may be able to maintain the protections that currently exist and ensure their continued enforcement.”

    (2) preventative impact: when the program is trying to create resilience in the system to respond to crisis situations. The status quo will suddenly get worse, but because this strenght / resilience was built up, it will not be as dire. “For example: crisis communications work, in which a crisis event could lead to sudden negative shift in public perceptions/behaviors.”

    (3) palliative impact: the system is doomed to fail, but the program helps it fail less abjectly…”For example: providing direct financial support to a struggling organization or sector until a new, more sustainable business or service model emerges.”

    We’ve included considerations of the type of impact in our theory of change workbook. It’s critical to consider the type of impact when figuring out the TOC! See step 3, part A.

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  2. Hi Duncan

    Your post makes a crucial point: Bad Stuff can do a lot to undermine and negate all the Good Stuff that is done, so it is if often as important to stop the bad stuff happening.

    But am I not right in thinking this is the same argument as combating illicit financial flows that undermine governments’ ability to raise tax or stopping the dumping of subsidised European agricultural produce on West African markets where they undermine local production? In other words this is all about Policy Coherence for Dervelopment (PCD) or, as the 2030 Agenda calls it, Policy Coherence for Sustainable Developemnt (SDG17:14) for which there is a lot of both official and independent NGO and academic background literature and thinking.

    Talking about PCD or ‘Do No Harm’ is however not nearly as appealing or self-explanatory language as ‘Stop the Bad Stuff Happening’. So I welcome this new formulation. Thanks

  3. This reminds me of when a former regional director at Oxfam walked in towards the end of a theory of change workshop I was facilitating in Brazil (and feeling quite proud of), and said this all looks great in a ideal world but did you forget that Bolsonaro has just won the election!?

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