What are Oxfam’s top tips for effective campaigning? Interview with one of its gurus.

October 6, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Richard English, Oxfam’s in-house wizard on all things to do with campaigning, on its new Influencing for Impact Guide. Do please listen to the full 25m conversation if you can, but here are some extracts.

Duncan: In your 25 years campaigning at Oxfam, what have been the high points? Examples where Oxfam really got it right?

Richard: One or two of our global campaigns – for example the Control Arms campaign, which started way back in the late 90s, focussed on achieving an International Arms Trade Treaty. How they engaged with the UN system by first finding their champion countries and building relationships with key people within those countries. They then took a regional approach, got some regional wins, and built a popular campaign into it. Over time, they recognized that they had to build up the pressure and recruit more champions to tackle the big fish. It was smart influencing, and enabled them to really achieve something. One of the main reasons behind that was their persistence, but also adapting as they went along and learned more.

Duncan: How have your views of campaigning changed over the years?

Richard: I think we’re clearer now that people at the local level, seeing change in their lives, have to be involved, to own the change process. they have to be persistent, join with others, and gain more voice in the governance systems in their countries and challenge and reflect on power. Then they have to persuade or put pressure on those who make decisions to bring about change.

Duncan: But this guide is aimed at professional activists, whether NGOs or others. Don’t you think guides like this turn activism into a professional discipline, with its own techniques and tools? That can lead to effective campaigns, but the risk is that it somehow puts a wedge between professional activists and the grassroots movements you are talking about.

Richard: This guide was originally developed for Oxfam Country Teams and their partners. We only later decided to make it publicly available. So there is a lot of depth in it – it is at quite a high level, and most people who engage will probably be professional activists. But it’s also designed so you can choose which bit you want – if you’re interested in particular tactics or approaches you can go straight there. You don’t have to read the whole lot. And these approaches go down well with our partner organizations! In a training, when you work with people on what they are trying to change, all the basic issues come up – understanding their context, understanding power, working out the opportunities and barriers, then coming up with the best strategies and tactics – they are very relevant to local activists working at the community level as well as professional organizations at the national or global level.

Duncan: There are a lot of campaigning guides, what’s different about this one?

Richard: The central part of this guide is part 2, on the process for designing effective strategies. Then there are the detailed sections on different tactics, with more information and links. And one feature is that it’s an internal guide – how we train our own people.

Duncan: A lot of campaigns win by accident – something unexpected happens and you get a breakthrough. But then afterwards it is rewritten as a brilliant piece of planning – we foresaw all of this and aren’t we great! I thought the importance of accidents and serendipity didn’t come through in the guide – it has more of a planner mentality; that you can plan your way to victory in a campaign. If you can, good luck to you, but that’s not what happens in a lot of campaigns.

Richard: Yeah, I know you’re big on this! Of course there is uncertainty, and opportunities arise when things change. What the guide does cover is that you need a plan, then you go out and do some things, and then you learn, you test your assumptions and adapt. You have to be flexible – you might have a plan, but then something happens and you have to change course.

Duncan: That raises the question that you can have planned and unplanned forms of adaptation. The planned kind is that you say every 3 months we’re going to stand back and examine our assumptions and adjust accordingly. A kind of comfort zone form of adaptation. The unplanned adaptation is ‘Oh my God, something terrible’s/great’s just happened – what do we do?’ My experience is that people get very anxious with that more chaotic version.

Duncan: One last, big question. What is the single biggest message for the next generation of people who want to change the world?

Richard: I would say (again) think about the context in which you are trying to make change happen. At what level can you operate at to make a real contribution, as an activist who’s passionate about making social change. Think it through, then do everything to bring people with you, to work with others in an empowering way. And then track it, learn as you go, adapt, be flexible but be persistent.

Duncan: ‘Knowledge, self-knowledge, respect, relationships, think, adapt and persist’. Love it!

October 6, 2020
Duncan Green