Kevin Watkins on the power of stigma and shame as a driver of change

November 23, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Kevin Watkins, a fellow Prof in Practice at the LSE, came along to talk to my students last week (review by Masters student Haisley Wert here). Kevin is a bit of a research and campaigning legend in the aid biz – the brains behind a lot of epic Oxfam campaigns on trade and debt in the early noughties, he went on to write some of UNDP’s best Human Development Reports (on Climate Change, Water and Aid, Trade and Security), galvanized UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report and then ODI and most recently moved across to run Save the Children UK.

His topic was children, armed conflict and impunity, and what caught my attention was his emphasis on the importance of shame as a driver of change. He went back to the campaign to abolish slavery, SCF’s founder Eglantyne Jebb’s fight against the blockade of Europe after World War One (Kev showed some period poverty porn – but in 1919 the starving kids were Austrian), and the campaign against US use of napalm against children in Vietnam, to argue that invoking stigma and shame is one of the most effective ways to bring about change.

Kevin talked of the job of campaigners as ‘restoring the proper sense of moral opprobrium’ over the abuse of children during conflicts, and sees the link between norms/rules and behaviour as mutually reinforcing. He also believes that international rules do exert some kind of traction on leaders – ‘Even President Assad feels compelled to report to the UN on violations of child rights. There is a power in normative documents and processes.’

But he later clarified ‘stigma alone is not a powerful vehicle for change. It has to be linked to a practical and achievable strategy for change that enables people to make a difference.

The reason I’m interested in stigma and shame is that they are closely related to the internalisation of norms that shape how people behave – far more powerfully so than hard law.’

His key reference was The Honor Code, by the brilliant British-born Ghanaian-American  philosopher Kwame Appiah. According to the excellent review by the Guardian:

‘Appiah discusses four different historical episodes. In three of them moral revolutions took place, and in the fourth another may be brewing. They are: the demise of duelling in England in the early 19th century; the end of the centuries-old, agonising practice of foot-binding for women in China at the beginning of the 20th century; the abolition of slavery in the British empire; and finally the barbaric treatment of women in much of Pakistan today. These revolutions did not come about as a result of specifically moral argument. The moral arguments against duelling, foot-binding, slavery and disfigurement and execution of innocent women were known long before they influenced public attitudes. And when they did so, it was not because of any intrinsic appeal to rationality, or even humanity or sympathy. Rather, a shift had to occur in which people began to feel that their honour was compromised by the practice. Reformers had to mobilise contempt and shame, the sense of being dishonoured even by belonging to a society in which such things took place.’

I read The Honor Code while researching How Change Happens, but for some reason, did not reference it. That feels like a mistake – the focus on norms, and the link to shame, seems really valuable, in particular in what you could call ‘moral high ground campaigns’ on subjects like violence against children or slavery. Maybe I’ve got too caught up in the evidence-based wonkery and ‘economism’ of some modern-day campaigning, where you spend all the time talking about effectiveness, return on investment and results, and forget there are such things as good and evil, which often make for a much more powerful narrative, for both public and decision makers, than a load of regressions or survey results.

Not that good and evil are unproblematic of course. Back in the 1990s, while researching Hidden Lives, a book for Save on child rights in Latin America, the book that had the biggest impact on me was Philippe Aries’ ‘Centuries of Childhood’, which chronicles the social construction of the modern day view of childhood as a private ‘walled garden’. Part of that construction is that adults tend to have a polarized view of children as either ‘Oliver Twist’ – innocents in danger of corruption by adults, or ‘Lord of the Flies’ – little savages in need of socialization. Kevin’s narrative seems heavily weighted towards the former, which raises some tricky questions we didn’t have time to go into, such as at what point does children’s increasing agency as they grow older (as established in the Convention on the Rights of the Child) also mean that they become responsible for their actions and cease to be Oliver Twist? Students raised this in the context of child soldiers: Kevin seemed inclined to stick with Oliver Twist by saying circumstances (eg lack of job opportunities) were forcing kids to do bad things. True, but an argument with limits I think.

Huge thanks to Kevin, who I had to drag away from the students after 2.5 hours on a Friday afternoon!