What are the secrets of some recent campaign successes?

May 28, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

 This guest post comes from Hannah Stoddart, Oxfam’s Head of Economic Justice Policy hannah stoddart

 It feels like Oxfam campaigners have been celebrating a lot recently. First – after nearly 10 years of hard slog as part of the Control Arms coalition – we got an Arms Trade Treaty. Then just a few weeks later two of the companies we’d been targeting in our Behind the Brands campaign agreed to change their policies in response to public pressure. Then, after months of targeting the World Bank with our land grabs campaign, President Jim Yong Kim issued a public statement acknowledging that the World Bank must play a role and agreeing to improve its standards in line with human rights obligations.

So are some of the most powerful interests and institutions beginning to bend quicker in response to campaign pressure? Are NGOs getting better at campaigning? Or would they have done it anyway? These are the kinds of questions that campaigning organisations ask themselves all the time. How can we really measure the extent of our influence? And what tactics are likely to yield the best results?

I can’t speak on behalf of all organisations, or indeed all of Oxfam’s campaigns, but having managed Oxfam’s global land grabs campaign for the past year, which targeted the World Bank, I have learned some important lessons about what works.

Firstly, be a bit outrageous – there is so much noise these days that you have to shout even louder to get attention. At Oxfam, rather than just asking the Bank politely to take action on land grabs, we told them to freeze all their agricultural land investments. This is probably the last thing a Bank ever wants to do. It goes against the very essence of what they see as their job – getting money out of the door. So naturally the ask both outraged the Bank but also got us noticed.

Secondly, have an insider/outsider strategy – it’s crucial from the outset to have a strategy that mobilizes the public on the outside, but also engages critically on the inside.  Alongside more populist stunts including auctioning off famous landmarks and crowdsourcing thousands of videos and setting them to a Coldplay track, Oxfam was also developing detailed and legalistic documents outlining how the Bank could improve its safeguard policies. If that sounds impenetrable and wonky, it’s because it is. Good campaigns need to be both fun and appealing, as well as being backed up behind the scenes by serious analysis.

There was one point at the recent Spring meetings in Washington when colleagues were engaged in serious technical discussions with Bank officials, while a van drove past outside bearing a huge placard entreating the Bank to ‘stand and deliver’. That seemed to me to exemplify the insider/outsider approach. It also meant we were developing relationships with officials within our ‘target’ institution who would be able to help implement the changes we were calling for.


Tanzanian Independence monument

Tanzanian Independence monument

Thirdly, think about how you will react to different kinds of ‘success’.

Though in the end – with this particular campaign – the Bank didn’t freeze its investments, we had thought through lots of different scenarios and how we would react depending on what the Bank eventually conceded. We were not fixated on only one outcome and were prepared to respond to positive developments as and when they arose. In the end, we felt we had ‘sufficient wins’ to welcome progress made, but we still criticized the Bank where we felt there hadn’t been enough progress.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons for campaigning organisations from the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 was that resting everything on one outcome compels you to announce a failure if that outcome is not achieved, even if there have been other significant successes beneath that. Sure, there was no global deal at COP15, but getting one would have been well-nigh impossible, and rarely did you hear NGOs celebrate the significant commitments that were made.

Related to this – a good campaign needs to use both carrot and stick. Powerful institutions should expect to – and indeed should welcome – being held to account in the public eye, so no campaigning organization should cave in if the target gets stroppy and accuses you of being unfair.

Equally, NGOs too often refuse to welcome progress made or cast commitments by their targets in a positive light. This can undermine goodwill on behalf of the target, and also disillusion campaigners who feel that it’s impossible to make a difference. When President Jim Kim made his statement on land, Oxfam welcomed the positive commitments made. We also published a critical blog addressing the areas where less progress had been made, but we were prepared to publicly welcome steps in the right direction. This made a big difference in building trust with people within the Bank who were supportive of our goals.

Fourthly, use online social media as a lobby as well as a campaign tool – as well as allowing much wider sharing of campaign actions and stunts, there’s also an increasing role for social media in communicating with your target. Outlining your critique and your asks in a blog means they are more likely to read it before everyone else does.

Lastly, working with allies is crucial in building legitimacy for your campaign. This doesn’t necessarily have to be through co-branded coalitions, neither does it mean aligning every single message. But it does mean reinforcing each other’s messages at crucial points – through blogs, letters, press releases and official submissions. Oxfam worked closely with Inclusive Development International in our detailed submission to the Bank calling for a land safeguard – and others also supported our asks in roundtable discussions and consultations. Equally, Oxfam puts its name to wider civil society calls for human rights to be at the heart of the Bank’s approach to development, even if that wasn’t the core message of the campaign.

One other thing.. get celebrities involved if you can – one of the best moments of the campaign was when the World Bank tweeted Coldplay. We never thought that would happen, but it shows that even the most conservative institutions are vulnerable to popstars telling them to do stuff.

There is clearly no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving change, but campaigning organisations arguably don’t reflect enough on successes when they do happen. Given decades of feeling disappointed in the global campaigning space, its high time we all reflected on what really works.

And here’s that Coldplay video again