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How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

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The Power of Advocacy

The Power of Advocacy

(p.212) 11 The Power of Advocacy
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at how advocacy works. ‘Advocacy’ here is defined as the process of influencing decision makers to change their policies and practices, attitudes, or behaviours. It typically targets the institutions described in this book, be they formal (states, courts, political parties, corporations, and international bodies) or informal (norms and public attitudes). The chapter analyses advocacy work in the systems thinking framework. It argues that getting advocacy right requires political maturity, the right combination of tactics and allies, and making the most of windows of opportunity as they come along. More subtly, good advocacy requires a mindset that finds each different context fascinating, one that embraces ambiguity and complexity, one that empathizes with how different people see the world, and one that learns from mistakes and responds to changing events.

Keywords:   advocacy, lobbying, campaigning, formal institutions, informal institutions, systems thinking, good advocacy

The bacon rolls were to die for. They sat alluringly at the entrance to the ‘breakfast meeting’ at Number 11 Downing Street, the residence of then Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. finance minister) Gordon Brown. But the risks of grabbing one on my way in were too high: lobbying the number two in the UK Government was scary enough without bacon fat dribbling down my chin. I walked resolutely by. Such are the heroic sacrifices of the lobbyist.

The occasion was one of Brown’s periodic breakfasts with faith groups (I was working for the Catholic aid agency, CAFOD, at the time). About thirty people were around the table, each of us given two minutes to pitch whatever was on our minds. On mine was an obscure but important issue in the nascent Doha Round of talks at the WTO: the EU (which at the WTO negotiates on behalf of the UK) was intent on adding investment to the already overloaded agenda, probably to distract attention from Europe’s notorious Common Agricultural Policy. A large number of developing country governments were opposed, backed by international NGOs.

I was armed with a short summary of the arguments and academic evidence for our position.1 As the paper made its way round the table, I used my two minutes to summarize its contents. When it reached him, Brown scribbled something and the spotlight moved on. I later discovered that as he left the room, he said to his officials ‘Why are we (p.213) supporting this?’ The UK subsequently distanced itself from the EU position, a small victory, but as good as it gets for an NGO lobbyist.

A couple of months later, this seemingly obscure topic was a major factor in the spectacular collapse of the WTO summit in Cancún. The media room was a shouting, shoving, frenzy of journalists on deadline, desperate to find someone to interview; some were even interviewing each other. I was in spin-doctor mode, regurgitating the same sound bite—the EU is ‘chief suspect number one and number two for the collapse’—to anyone who would listen. We were hoping to pre-empt the inevitable attempt to blame either developing countries or NGOs for the collapse. My quote made The Guardian, so CAFOD was happy.2

Dodging bacon sarnies in Downing Street or spinning at global trade summits are hardly the kinds of activities the public normally associates with international NGOs. When CAFOD asked its youth supporters for a picture of its work, they drew cartoons of nuns throwing bags of food out of planes. But over the last twenty years CAFOD, Oxfam, and others have devoted a rising proportion of their efforts to influencing government policy through campaigns and lobbying (still amounting to only 6 per cent of Oxfam’s spending, far less than long-term development and emergency response).

The turn toward policy work came partly as a result of hard lessons learned during the 1980s and 1990s heyday of World Bank structural adjustment programmes, when it became apparent there was little point in constructing islands of project success only to see them swept away by a tidal wave of bad public policy decisions. Growing size, capacity, and self-confidence no doubt also played a role.

The rise of campaigns and lobbying has produced a proliferation of training manuals and toolkits, some of which can be found on this book’s website. Organizations such as Oxfam now also provide (p.214) considerable support to local groups to develop their advocacy skills—generally known by the rather condescending term (to my ears, anyway) of ‘capacity building’. This chapter will steer clear of the fine detail, and instead sketch in the broader nature of the beast, as well as addressing some of the dilemmas it poses for activists who want to bring about change.

First, some definitions: ‘Advocacy’ is the process of influencing decision makers to change their policies and practices, attitudes, or behaviours. ‘Campaigning’ usually refers to mobilizing the public or influencing the public’s attitudes and behaviours. And ‘lobbying’ is going directly to policy makers to get them to do something in particular. For simplicity, I will use ‘advocacy’ as an umbrella term for both campaigning and lobbying.

The tactics employed usually fall somewhere along a continuum from sitting down with those in power to help sort out a problem (at the ‘insider’ end) to mayhem in the street (at the ‘outsider’ end). One study defined five points on that spectrum: cooperation, education, persuasion, litigation, and contestation.3

Advocacy typically involves a combination of these elements, and the balance shifts over time. One reason Gordon Brown was willing to listen to me prattle on about trade rules was the public pressure and media coverage generated by campaigners in the Trade Justice Movement, a large, noisy, and media-savvy civil society coalition. Often a public campaign is required to get an issue onto the table, at which point a more insider approach can help move it towards a decision on policy or spending. And public action may be needed at any stage to prevent backsliding and foot-dragging.

When it comes to campaigning, the playbook was pretty much written two centuries ago, after a dozen people met in a print shop in London’s East End, brought together by Thomas Clarkson, a twenty-seven-year-old Quaker. Thus began a campaign to end slavery that (p.215) lasted fifty years, brilliantly captured in Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains.4 The abolitionists invented virtually every modern campaign tactic, including posters, political book tours, consumer boycotts, investigative reporting, and petitions. Fast forward two centuries, and today’s energetic activism on issues from climate change to disabled people’s rights, corruption, or same-sex marriage is built on the foundations laid by Clarkson and his colleagues.

The abolitionists combined immense stamina and courage with an inspirational moral vision and a deep understanding of power and systems. Over their fifty-year campaign, they adapted to massive critical junctures, in the shape of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and Caribbean slave revolts; they combined insider-outsider tactics between street petitioners and parliamentary debate; they recruited ‘unusual suspects’ as allies, such as repentant slaver John Newton who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’ to work alongside freed slaves and Christian ministers.

How advocacy works

Advocacy typically targets the institutions described in this book, be they formal (states, courts, political parties, corporations, and international bodies) or informal (norms and public attitudes). During my brief spell as a civil servant at the British aid agency DFID, I witnessed good and bad advocacy in action in the space of a morning spent shadowing the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn. The Minister’s first visitor was an NGO that seemed content to bask in the presence of power, with no clear asks beyond ‘We hope you will take a strong position on labour rights’. Benn was charming and kind, small talk took up most of the time and nothing was agreed.

A few hours later, the Fairtrade Foundation bustled in, led by its dynamic boss Harriet Lamb. She politely curtailed the introductions, (p.216) gave the Minister some of the Foundation’s new products to play with and moved on to a series of specific asks: since Asda’s headquarters were in his constituency, would the Minister kindly sign a letter asking them to do more on Fairtrade? She would of course be happy to draft something for him. As she left the room, Benn turned to me and said we should definitely fund them, a promise we ‘civil serpents’ subsequently managed to turn into a £750,000 grant.

Harriet’s half hour was well spent because she followed the rules of good lobbying: know what your targets can and can’t deliver; treat them like human beings; persuade by appealing both to altruism and self-interest.

Often advocates are unable to reach decision makers themselves, and instead reach out to those who do have access. These ‘influentials’ might include journalists, members of parliament, donors, faith and business leaders, public intellectuals (usually academics), and key people in other government departments or trade unions. And celebrities, of course—even world leaders love a selfie with Bono or Angelina Jolie.

Perhaps the most impressive (if disturbing) exercise I ever witnessed of ‘influencing the influentials’ came during an internal British government seminar in the run-up to the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen. The Foreign Office hired former Greenpeace campaigners to help it identify a hundred individuals from the Indian elite best placed to influence India’s climate change policy; for each of them, they put together a dossier on how best to persuade them to act.

Retired influentials, sometimes known as ‘grey panthers’,5 can make great advocates. The Amnesty International Business Group was founded by a classic old-man-in-a-hurry, Sir Geoffrey Chandler, a former senior manager at Royal Dutch/Shell who was more than willing to march into boardrooms and unleash his cut-glass accent (p.217) to promote human rights in the private sector. Such people understand how to get around internal obstacles and spot management excuses for inaction, but the brand risk posed by a bunch of stroppy pensioners doing their own thing would challenge any organization.6

When the advocacy target is the public at large, star power can draw massive attention to an issue. I have worked with some great ‘celebrities’ over the years, like Bill Nighy (Robin Hood Tax) and Gael García Bernal (global trade rules), who lent themselves to the cause with dedication and humility. In Peru, celebrity chefs have been at the forefront of changing public attitudes towards the merits of traditional Peruvian foods, challenging the burger culture that is depressingly omnipresent in Latin America.7

The range of possible advocacy tactics is limited only by the imagination of the advocates: street protest, litigation, insider persuasion, media campaigns, demonstration projects, and many more. Key considerations include the appropriate balance of conflict and cooperation, the risk of cooptation or dilution, impact on alliances and the nature of the message.

In his delightful book Blueprint for Revolution, Srjdja Popovic, a leader of the Serbian uprising that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic, surveys tactics from non-violent protest movements around the world and concludes that food is one of the best entry points. Activists have built movements around cottage cheese (Israel), rice pudding (Maldives), and, most famously, salt (India) and tea (US). ‘Food has a special way of getting people to come together’, he writes, and is low-risk in dangerous places.

But there are other small starters too: in San Francisco, future City Supervisor Harvey Milk’s political career took off when he switched (p.218) from campaigning for gay rights to campaigning against dog excrement in city parks. The trick is to learn what people really care about, even if it’s not top of your priority list. If you don’t, you will only rally the people who already believe in what you have to say—a great way for coming tenth at anything (as Harvey Milk initially did).8

Tone and language matter too. I find that a combination of tactical self-deprecation and humour can disarm critics expecting a bout of self-righteous NGO finger-wagging. The British comedian Mark Thomas specializes in the subversive use of humour. Dressed as cartoon character Shaun the Sheep, he recently protested against the privatization of public space by walking up and down outside the London Stock Exchange in the square owned by Mitsubishi. Baffled security men ended up wrestling a cartoon character to the ground on camera, before frogmarching him from the square, bizarrely addressing him as ‘Shaun’ throughout.9

Humour can add an edge even in altogether riskier protests. In Aleppo, Syrian protestors buried loudspeakers broadcasting anti-regime messages in smelly dustbins, so the police would make themselves look ridiculous, and less scary, rummaging around to find them.10

Often, however, protest movements succeed by provoking repression from the authorities, which acts as a catalyst for further protest and can motivate reformers within government. In 1967, US police beat demonstrators demanding national civil rights legislation. Martin Luther King Jr commented ‘Sound effort in a single city such as Birmingham or Selma, produced situations that symbolized the evil everywhere and inflamed public opinion against it. Where the (p.219) spotlight illuminated the evil, a legislative remedy was soon obtained that applied everywhere.’11 Provoking violence from the system is, of course, a dangerous game, especially when there are few checks on the state’s power.

Because getting new laws onto the statute books is so difficult, many campaigns zero in on enforcement of laws and policies that already exist. Decision makers have a harder time publicly opposing things they have themselves approved. Getting down among the weeds of existing legislation and policy can be unattractive to campaigners seeking more fundamental ‘transformative’ change and it can be highly technical. But done right, it can set the stage for larger changes.

One example comes from India’s new state of Chhattisgarh, home to marginalized traditional communities that make a living from forest products. Despite the protection of the 2006 Forest Rights Act, their livelihoods were under threat from mining and other commercial activities. An impressive local NGO, Chaupal, launched an advocacy campaign based on this ‘implementation gap’. After negotiations, petitioning, and community protest, backed up by solid research, dozens of villages gained the forest and grazing rights promised under the Act.12

Research is often an effective weapon in the advocate’s armoury. Pleas to Gordon Brown over the Downing Street breakfast table would have had little impact without credible analysis to back them up. My colleagues Ricardo Fuentes, Deborah Hardoon, and Nick Galasso have hogged headlines and shaped the policy discussion at recent Davos (p.220) business summits with ‘killer facts’ on the extreme levels of inequality in the contemporary world. At last count (it keeps falling), the sixty-two richest individuals on earth owned as much wealth as the poorest half of global population—3.5 billion people.13

That said, in democracies decisions are made rather more often on the basis of power, institutional inertia, received wisdoms, and vested interest than by a dispassionate review of the evidence. As noted in Chapters 4 and 9, good research may be more persuasive in closed political systems like China’s, Russia’s, and Viet Nam’s, where government technocrats and political leaders are more insulated from political pressures.

In the ideas ecosystem, new approaches and concepts bubble up all the time. Many remain on the fringe, but some start to have real influence. I find the image of a ‘policy funnel’ helpful.14 At the broad, open end, are ideas that are only starting to make it into public debates and onto decision makers’ radars. An example would be the impending threat of climate change in the 1990s and 2000s. Broad general messages on such ideas are more important than detailed policy proposals. In the early years, the climate change debate was dominated by its impact on Arctic wildlife. Oxfam’s first, and to my mind still most effective, contribution was to dress activists up in polar bear outfits, carrying placards that said ‘save the humans’.

Once ideas start to move down the funnel and be incorporated into policies, laws, and spending decisions, activists’ task is to build alliances, target blockers, and win over waverers. We also need to find ways to express our concerns in ways that fit the policy process underway. ‘Stop the world and start again’ is unlikely to get much (p.221) traction, whereas ‘change the agreement on agriculture by adding this paragraph to allow governments to protect small farmers’ is more likely to get a hearing.

At the tip of the funnel, when negotiations over policy changes are well advanced, we need to grapple with the fine details, pushing for very particular demands, which requires working closely with allies inside the institution, all the while maintaining public pressure to prevent backsliding.

Advocacy has lifted much from the field of advertising, since it is, after all, a form of salesmanship. An essential lesson is to craft the message to fit the audience. What we say to a finance minister may not work for a parliamentarian or allies like health professionals, and certainly would not suffice for the general public.15

We activists need to stand in the shoes of the people we are trying to influence, and view the world as they do. Empathy is critical if we are to build a bridge to people who see the world very differently from ourselves. I have seen government ministers visibly turn off when preached at by finger-wagging activists more interested in ‘speaking truth to power’ than building a relationship.

The messenger is often as important as the message. African activists speaking about the challenges of development carry far more weight with most people than European academics, however long their publications list. Government ministers listen to other government ministers, the World Bank, or their supervisor from university days. Captains of industry are likely to listen to (and believe) something from a fellow master of the universe (like Amnesty’s Sir Geoffrey) or a leader of their church, rather than a nerdy researcher or zealous campaigner. (p.222)

Advocacy and systems thinking

Advocacy has been my natural habitat for most of my working life, whether in think-tanks and NGOs or government departments. The way I have presented advocacy up to this point fits well with the central argument of this book regarding how change happens. But what led me to write the book was partly my dissatisfaction with the way advocacy was practiced in the 2000s by northern NGOs and others.

My doubts began while lobbying on the WTO for CAFOD. I was on a roll, generating press coverage and loving being on the inside track. Then my colleague Henry Northover burst my bubble by asking why I thought global trade rules were more important to people on the ground than his area of work, helping civil society organizations in Africa counter the ‘structural adjustment’ policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF that were slashing public spending and causing serious hardship. I had no answer.

My disaffection grew when I joined Oxfam in the middle of a massive global campaign, ‘Make Poverty History’. The campaign’s implicit premise was that increasing aid, forgiving debts, and making trade rules fair could end world poverty. But I was becoming increasingly convinced that real change happens at the national level, and that such a campaign was aiming at the wrong target.16 I remember standing in Trafalgar Square listening to Nelson Mandela declare in his magnificent way to an overwhelmingly white, European crowd: ‘Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.’17

(p.223) All I could think was, ‘Right generation, wrong audience’. Henry had been right. In my lobbyist’s hubris, I had lost sight of what really matters. Not only had the campaign mistakenly (in my view) drawn attention and resources away from the national arena, it had arrogantly imposed its analysis on affiliated national campaigns around the world.

In many ways, this book is a response to my doubts about Make Poverty History. Allow me to conjure up a caricature of an old-style advocate: he would be arrogant, sure that he knows best both what poor people need, and how to bring it about; he would know in advance who to work with (probably people just like him); he would concentrate on generating media coverage and speaking ‘truth to power’, even if power wasn’t listening. And no matter the problem, he would know the solution lies with the great global powers. A caricature, certainly, but not without some ring of truth.

Alex de Waal argues compellingly that Western campaigners tend to dumb down the complex realities of messy conflicts into simple narratives of good and bad to be remedied by simple solutions (preferably deliverable by the west).18 Such narratives squeeze out the more nuanced views of local people and the deeper, underlying causes of conflict, and end up promoting superficial victories rather than real change.

Exhibit A is ‘Kony2012’, a campaign by a US NGO for military intervention by the US to defeat Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, which went viral. The ‘hashtag activism’ of #BringBackOurGirls (for the return of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014) also showed the limits of outsider outrage with no insider links or understanding. Both campaigns made a huge splash in Western media and activist circles, but had little or no impact on the ground. Make Poverty History was certainly not as misguided, but still it downplayed the crucial arena of national politics.

(p.224) When I got to Oxfam, I was told that good campaigns require three things: a problem, a solution, and a villain (heroes are largely optional, it seems). It is a remarkably good guide to which campaigns succeed and which flounder.

Systems thinking, on the other hand, suggests problems are multiple, interrelated, and complex, solutions are unknowable in advance and likely to emerge through trial and error, and at least some villains are likely to also be indispensable allies in bringing about change. When I say this to campaigners, their eyes have a tendency to roll: you really want us to launch a campaign by admitting we don’t have a solution? What should the media team say to journalists who ask what we’re recommending to fix the problem we’ve highlighted?

By becoming more attuned to power and systems, do we risk losing our edge as advocates, able to distil complex issues into simple, powerful demands for change? I don’t think so. Acknowledging the lessons of systems thinking obliges us to reflect deeply about what issues are truly ripe for campaigning and what proposed changes might address the problem. It means we look in more places for those ideas—history, positive deviance, the lived experience and ideas of people on the sharp end. It keeps us alert to any unintended consequences of a victory. It should sharpen our edge, make our campaigns more compelling, even as it makes us suspicious of dumbed-down slogans.

Fortunately, the world of advocacy has moved on since the hubristic heights of Make Poverty History, shifting away from global summitry and toward a much greater emphasis on national influencing, as well as away from a ‘command and control’ campaigning style and toward nimble, locally generated strategies and tactics.

An acknowledgement that social and political changes are largely driven by internal forces and players may place international agencies like Oxfam on terrain that is just as treacherous as global campaigning. Is it right for organizations to try to influence affairs in a country that is not their own? Is there truth in the accusation frequently levelled by developing country governments that aid workers are stooges of a foreign power?

(p.225) Think back to the example of ex-Greenpeace campaigners advising the British Foreign Office. However laudable their intentions, how would the effort to change India’s climate change policy be seen by Indian politicians and activists? How would Her Majesty’s government (let alone the British press) react if the Indian government used similar tactics to change UK policy on, say, migration?

In my experience, most international organizations doing advocacy in developing countries think very hard about these issues of legitimacy and what to do about imbalances of power between them and their local partners, despite the alarming exceptions noted above.

I have come round to thinking that global campaigns still have their place. They can’t solve an entrenched national dilemma, but they can stop an international activity that is clearly causing harm. A good example is the Arms Trade Treaty discussed in Chapter 7. Campaigns can tackle global problems that require concerted action by several or all countries to succeed, like climate change or ending the ‘race to the bottom’ when countries try to undercut each other to attract investment by lowering taxes.

Foreign organizations can also be an asset in national campaigns where the levers of change are susceptible to outside pressure. To improve wages and conditions for workers in Indonesia’s vast network of sportswear factories, the Indonesia Labour Rights Project (ILRP) provided support to local trade unions and others and managed to broker conversations between them and companies making brand-name sports gear for export. When the talks were only getting workers suspended or dismissed, the project mobilized its supporters in the countries that were buying the factories’ shoes. Under pressure from consumers, in 2011 the companies signed an industry-wide Protocol on Freedom of Association, which also had the happy side-effect of improving communication between the brands and the unions.19

(p.226) Organizing exchanges between activists working on similar issues in different countries is another useful role for international organizations. Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice programme promotes visits among women’s rights activists in seventeen countries to swap notes and ideas.20 The ‘We Can’ programme discussed in Chapter 2 was born as an Indian adaptation of work on violence against women in Uganda.21

I’m not sure if a power and systems approach requires us to abandon the old ways, or just treat them with caution, but it certainly has a number of implications for activists wishing to get better at ‘dancing with the system’. Let’s explore a few.

Critical junctures

In Chapter 1 we discussed ‘critical junctures’—windows of opportunity provided by failures, crises, changes in leadership, natural disasters, or conflicts. At such times decision makers and the public may become painfully aware of the inadequacies of the status quo and cast around for new ideas. A well-prepared advocacy campaign can spot and respond to such moments, with striking results.

In 1972, Nobel laureate economist James Tobin suggested introducing a small tax on all financial transactions between different currencies, which, he argued, would curb short-term speculation and raise a lot of money for good causes, such as development assistance. The idea got nowhere, but continued bubbling on the margins of political debate for over three decades.

(p.227) It took the global financial crisis of 2008 and some inspired advocacy to bring the Tobin Tax in from the cold. Crushed by debt repayments, finance ministers were desperate for new sources of revenue for their cash-strapped governments, while the banks and currency traders who opposed the tax had suddenly become political pariahs.

A coalition of trade unions, church groups, and NGOs cleverly rebranded the Tobin Tax as the ‘Robin Hood Tax’22 and waged public campaigns across Europe featuring a series of hilarious, hard-hitting videos by top filmmakers and actors.23 By 2011, the European Commission had proposed a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions. Though whittled down to eleven countries it was scheduled to come into force in 2016 and represents a historic breakthrough as the first truly international tax.24

Spotting and responding to critical junctures is just as important at national level. In 2002, the Malawian chapter of a regional women’s rights NGO, Women in Law Southern Africa (WILSA), proposed and drafted legislation on violence against women, but got nowhere promoting it to government. Three years down the line, the media reported a spate of incidents of violence from across the country, ranging from wife-killing to grievous bodily harm and rape. Oxfam’s Malawi team put out a press statement condemning the violence and calling on key leaders to take action. A range of different groups echoed Oxfam’s message, most strikingly the Blantyre police, who drove up to Oxfam’s offices in a van with loudspeakers on top broadcasting messages against gender-based violence. Following a very difficult debate in parliament, with opponents accusing the bill’s supporters of attacking Malawi’s culture, it passed.25 (p.228)

Coalitions and alliances

One of the skills of a good advocate is knowing how to construct effective alliances—and to distinguish powerful engines of change from soul-sapping talking shops. Similar organizations sometimes ally effectively, especially in the initial stages of building ‘power with’. But interesting things happen when unusual suspects join forces.

The press conference organized by developing-country delegates to the 2001 WTO ministerial was a disaster. Not only was it scheduled late in the working day, long after all the European and American journalists had filed their pieces and retired to the bar, it had a dull technical title that belied the importance of the issue—how to protect poor farmers from being crushed by an avalanche of cheap, often subsidised food imports. Hardly anyone showed up.

After a hurried discussion, the policy and media teams from international NGOs offered to rerun the event. The ‘alliance of food insecure developing economies’ was rechristened ‘the G33’ (no journalist wanted to be blindsided by a new ‘G’), a suitably eye-catching title and news release was bashed out, and NGO press officers fanned out to round up their contacts in the media room. The next day’s event, on exactly the same topic, was standing room only. The delegates purred with satisfaction and gave barnstorming presentations.

Activists working alongside government delegates in the WTO is just one example of the uncomfortable alliances that seem to work in complex systems. We NGOs were worried about supporting governments with questionable human rights records, and the governments were highly suspicious of NGOs that had criticized them in the past. But both sides saw potential in a tactical alliance on an issue they agreed on.

Unorthodox alliances can involve an element of holding your nose. After the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, Oxfam and its local partners were determined to seize a classic critical juncture to ensure the reconstruction effort benefited the poor coastal communities disproportionately affected by the oil spill. Big prizes require big (p.229) compromises. Oxfam worked closely with private companies and conservative evangelical church leaders, and even spent $120,000 on lobbyists who had access to Republican politicians. Campaigners had a hard time swallowing it, but they won investment in vulnerable communities and preferential hiring of local people.26

Insiders vs. outsider tactics

An enduring tension exists between ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ activists. Suppose you uncovered some dirt on a corporate target and have written a hard-hitting briefing on it. You need to give the corporate a chance to see it before publication. The outsider would hand it over the day before the launch, so that the company is caught all but unaware and a good press story is assured. The insider, on the other hand, would do so several weeks in advance, hoping the company would take action to clean up the problem and avoid a public scandal. The outsider prizes the opportunity to build public awareness of the wider issue, while the insider favours maintaining good relations and sorting out a specific problem.

Systems thinking suggests that both play important roles. Outsiders keep important issues alive and fight to get new ones onto the table. They work in public, where mass mobilization often needs stark, unchanging messages. Insiders, on the other hand, take issues forward into the necessary fudges involved when turning ideas into policies.

In what are euphemistically termed ‘closed political spaces’ (dictatorships, autocracies, or countries where raising particular subjects is impossible due to the workings of hidden power), outsider tactics can be dangerous and counter-productive. A study of coalitions working (p.230) on gender rights in Egypt and Jordan concluded that the most effective advocacy engaged in ‘informal backstage politics’ often based on activists from elite family backgrounds networking with old friends and classmates. An acute understanding of the degree of political space (which opens and closes over time) was an essential skill.27

Unsurprisingly, outsiders often think the insiders are sell-outs who muddy the waters through compromise or hijack their issues, while insiders often view outsiders as politically naïve purists, but recognize that the threat they pose often drives decision makers into their arms.

The balance between insider and outsider tactics often varies over the course of a campaign, imposing real strains on activists, because of the very different tactics and language each uses. In the conflict phase, these are often polarizing and confrontational, and the alliances are likely to be among similar groups. By contrast, in the cooperation phase, the language and tactics are more propositional, and alliances need to be forged with actors in other spheres. Messy compromises replace clarion calls for revolution.

Individual activists tend to prefer one or the other of the two mindsets, and find it hard to change gears. Many tacitly opt for a division of labour, specializing in either the conflict or the cooperation phase. I am a co-operator: conflict makes me anxious and I like ambiguity; yet I have friends and colleagues who much prefer the clarity and adrenaline of a good punch-up.

Such tensions become particularly acute when the disagreement is between ‘outsiders’ in the South, and ‘insiders’ in international NGOs. In 1999, on the eve of an historic victory, winning debt relief for dozens of developing countries, the international Jubilee 2000 movement dissolved in acrimony, with Southern activists accusing Northern lobbyists of losing sight of politics in their obsession with (p.231) policy. It brought home to me how divisive ‘success’ can be—what looks like victory to a reformist can easily appear as betrayal to a more radical mindset.

These tensions echo a more fundamental (and to my mind largely insoluble) dilemma: expediency versus long-term transformation. Does signing off on limited reforms legitimize the current distribution of power, forestalling deeper change? My own view is that a reform that expands the ‘freedoms to be and to do’ of poor and excluded people is almost always worth pursuing. I am too old and impatient (and perhaps too European) to hold out for ‘all or nothing’ approaches, which sadly often end up with the latter. If anything, systems thinking should improve our capacity for understanding just how much we are likely to win at a given time in a given situation, and therefore when we should bring one campaign to an end before we regroup for the next.


Many of my advocacy colleagues will look askance at this chapter. Too much self-doubt, too much navel-gazing. Why not just get out there and change the world?

I believe introspection is both warranted and necessary. Advocacy can backfire when campaigners become stuck in a hubristic bubble of tactics and media hits, and lose touch with the views and needs of the supposed ‘beneficiaries’ of their frenetic activities. Advocates need to be acutely conscious of their own power and position in the system, and the biases and behaviours those induce. We need deep connections with local communities.

Getting advocacy right requires political maturity, the right combination of tactics and allies, and making the most of windows of opportunity as they come along.

More subtly, good advocacy requires a mindset that finds each different context fascinating, that embraces ambiguity and complexity, empathizes with how different people see the world, and learns (p.232) from mistakes and responds to changing events. All that, while maintaining the passion and energy needed to win.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

D. Brockington, Celebrity Advocacy and International Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).

A. Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London: Pan Macmillan, 2012).

S. Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

A. de Waal, Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (London: Zed Books, 2015).


(1) ActionAid, Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD), Christian Aid, Oxfam, Save the Children, and World Development Movement, ‘Unwanted, Unproductive and Unbalanced: Six Arguments Against an Investment Agreement at the WTO’, May 2003, www.actionaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/doc_lib/10_1_six_arguments_wto.pdf.

(2) Larry Elliott, Charlotte Denny, and David Munk, ‘Blow to World Economy as Trade Talks Collapse’, The Guardian, 15 September 2003, www.theguardian.com/world/2003/sep/15/business.politics.

(3) Valerie Miller and Jane Covey, Advocacy Sourcebook: Frameworks for Planning, Action and Reflection (Boston, MA: Institute for Development Research, 1997).

(4) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London: Pan Macmillan, 2012).

(5) Duncan Green, ‘Are Grey Panthers the Next Big Thing in Campaigning?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 2 November 2010, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/are-grey-panthers-the-next-big-thing-in-campaigning/.

(6) The Amnesty group was wound up in 2007, partly because, as one insider told me, ‘a semi-autonomous group of grey eminences was rather more than [NGO managers] were prepared to accept’.

(7) Leila Nilipour, ‘Even Peru’s Top Chefs Are Addicted to Fast Food’, Munchies website, 13 October 2014, http://munchies.vice.com/articles/even-perus-top-chefs-are-addicted-to-fast-food.

(8) Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

(9) Mark Thomas, ‘Trespass’, Edinburgh Fringe, August 2015.

(10) Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

(11) Quoted in Mark Engler and Paul Engler, ‘When the Pillars Fall – How Social Movements Can Win More Victories Like Same-Sex Marriage’, Waging Nonviolence blog, 9 July 2014, http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/pillars-fall-social-movements-can-win-victories-like-sex-marriage/. Original source: Martin Luther King Jr, Where do we go From Here (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2010).

(12) Duncan Green, ‘The Chhattisgarh Community Forest Rights Project’, India, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-chhattisgarh-community-forest-rights-project-india-338434.

(13) Deborah Hardoon, Sophia Ayele, and Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, An Economy for the 1%: How Privilege and Power in the Economy Drive Extreme Inequality and How This Can be Stopped (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2016), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/an-economy-for-the-1-how-privilege-and-power-in-the-economy-drive-extreme-inequ-592643.

(14) Duncan Green, ‘The Policy Funnel—A Way to Sharpen Up Our Advocacy?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 3 August 2011, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/the-policy-funnel-a-way-to-sharpen-up-our-advocacy/.

(15) The impressive NGO WaterAid features a good example of crafting the message for different audiences (finance ministers, parliamentarians, health professionals, broadcast media and the press, and the general public) on p. 50 of its ‘Advocacy Sourcebook’, http://www.wateraid.org/~/media/Publications/advocacy-sourcebook.ashx.

(16) My book, From Poverty to Power, was, in many ways, an implicit critique of Make Poverty History. Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2008).

(17) Nelson Mandela, speech at event organized by the Campaign to Make Poverty History, Trafalgar Square, London, 3 February 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4232603.stm.

(18) Alex de Waal, Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (London: Zed Books, 2015).

(19) By exposing the vulnerability of Nike’s brand, the Indonesia campaign played an important part in the company’s 2011 decision to reduce exposure to toxins (toluene) in all its factories and in 2012 (along with Adidas) to limit the use of short-term contracts. Duncan Green, ‘The Indonesian Labour Rights Project’, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-indonesian-labour-rights-project-338442.

(20) Duncan Green, ‘The Raising Her Voice Global Programme’, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-raising-her-voice-global-programme-338444.

(21) Duncan Green, ‘The ‘We Can’ Campaign in South Asia’, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/the-we-can-campaign-in-south-asia-338472.

(22) Robin Hood Tax website, http://www.robinhoodtax.org.uk/.

(24) European Commission, Taxation and Customs Union, ‘Taxation of the Financial Sector’, http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/taxation/other_taxes/financial_sector/index_en.htm.

(25) Duncan Green, ‘Seizing the Moment: A Successful Campaign on Domestic Violence in Malawi’, From Poverty to Power blog, 23 June, 2009, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/seizing-the-moment-a-successful-campaign-on-domestic-violence-in-malawi/.

(26) Duncan Green, ‘Advocating for Gulf Coast Restoration in the Wake of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: The Oxfam America RESTORE Act Campaign’, Oxfam Active Citizenship Case Study (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/advocating-for-gulf-coast-restoration-in-the-wake-of-the-deepwater-horizon-oil-338441.

(27) Mariz Tadros, ‘Working Politically Behind Red Lines: Structure and Agency in a Comparative Study of Women’s Coalitions in Egypt and Jordan’, DLP, February 2011.