Women marching in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Campaigning march in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Is advocacy and campaigning up to today’s challenges?

The world faces profound systemic challenges – including extreme inequality, climate and ecological breakdown and gender injustice – that threaten to reverse recent gains on human development and poverty.

We know from successful campaigns in the past, such as the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century, that it is possible to achieve intentional systemic change, and that civil society can play a pivotal role. But are civil society’s current approaches to advocacy and campaigning up to today’s challenges?

Advocacy and campaigning works, but we can do better

Civil society advocacy and campaigning has contributed to important changes in government and company policy and practice on a range of issues, including climate, access to medicines, landmines, labour and indigenous rights, gender justice, and tax justice. It has also learned a lot along the way about what does and doesn’t work.

Yet despite widespread public disenchantment with the establishment and its broken economic model, civil society’s change strategies are not yet winning over enough people to support the transformational solutions we need. And it sometimes seems, at least in the UK, as if civil society is fragmented and firefighting myriad, unrelated, single issues even though many are symptoms of the same structural causes.

So what more could civil society do to ensure its advocacy and campaigning supports the needed structural changes? Here are some potential ways we could raise our game:

  • Develop common campaigns across sectors to jointly prioritise and tackle key underlying structural causes of poverty, inequality and environmental breakdown. One key contender for joint action could be changing current corporate rules which prioritise short term profit at the expense of workers, communities, health and the environment. But are we prepared to subsume our own brands and widen our alliances beyond the usual suspects in the interests of collective action?
  • Build a constituency for change beyond existing supporters. We could spend more time interactively listening to and learning from people about their concerns and finding common ground. We could also highlight and build solidarity around the shared problems of low wages, insecurity, environmental destruction afflicting wide sections of people in south and north – alongside the plight of the most vulnerable. We could test out more inclusive narratives [PDF] and unifying frames while still calling out injustices. For instance, the Freedom to Marry Campaign won over conflicted voters in the US when it switched from talking about equal rights for same sex couples to love and commitment.
  • Strengthen the voice of civil society. Large NGOs are regularly criticised for crowding out other civil society voices and are often not good at managing their own power relations with them. We need to work with donors to change reporting requirements so we can support informal grass roots organisations and social movements, often key drivers of change [PDF], without imposing our own agendas on them. Could we also spend more time supporting people to become change makers themselves, rather than just mobilising them to support pre-cooked campaigns?
  • Promote solutions. Could we do more to test, package and promote radical solutions and alternatives, as well as critique problems? Do we need to stick with campaigns for the longer term to ensure policy wins translate into real benefits for people?
  • Build trust. Crucially, how can we strengthen our own sources of legitimacy and accountability and hence also win more allies to the cause?

Beyond advocacy and campaigning

To tackle systemic challenges we will need to widen our sometimes narrow and formulaic advocacy and campaigning tactics. For instance, too often advocacy and campaigning still focuses on influencing formal, visible forms of power. This remains vital but women’s rights organisations have stressed the need to also tackle invisible power such as deeply rooted and often unconscious cultural beliefs, social norms and behaviours. Oxfam and others are doing much more to challenge gendered social norms on violence against women and women’s care, for instance.

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But there is still much more civil society could do to influence these and other behaviours that perpetuate poverty, injustice and environmental breakdown. We still often assume that if we provide the right information people will change their attitudes and hence behaviours. But people do not necessarily act rationally and their behaviours often interact with, and are shaped by, wider social, technical, cultural, political factors. For instance, while many people are concerned about climate-breakdown they often feel disempowered to act because of such constraints. Addressing these wider influences involves a wider range of change strategies than simply providing and framing information, as a recent discussion paper highlights.

In sum, we need to act urgently and collectively to tackle the key structural causes of poverty and injustice and help channel the current wave of public disenchantment towards humane, just and sustainable solutions. If we do not, others will inevitably do so towards chauvinistic, unjust and unsustainable ones.