NGOs typically get to campaigning through something like the following evolution:
- They may start by providing some kind of programme or service, in response to an identified need.
- They then identify common problems or barriers to effective delivery and so pull together that evidence and use it as a basis for lobbying.
- Many move beyond discrete lobbying (when this proves insufficient to secure desired change) towards creating pressure through popular campaigning.
Some of course don’t get beyond the first stage. And providing services obviously has a value in the right circumstances. But the logic for moving beyond it – certainly as campaigners would see it – is that meaningful change at scale requires changes to the system.
But I wonder if much current advocacy and campaigning should be subject to the same critique that some would make of delivering services. That it’s papering over the cracks, but failing to confront the underlying dynamics that are really doing the damage.
(I totally don’t mean to disparage the value of such work by saying this. Definitely it’s important, but I’m just saying it’s also arguably insufficient.)
And as social and political contexts evolve, the space for meaningful change through traditional issue-focused advocacy is progressively shrinking.
Reasons for (making) this (claim) include that
1/ In a world of austerity, issue-specific campaigns are more likely to be in a zero sum game.
In the context of a shrinking pot, campaigns can end up operating in an ‘issue marketplace’ where some win out – but at the expense of others.
2/ Representative democracy is in malaise, reducing conventional opportunities for influence.
Government and governance is becoming increasingly shambolic. Power is becoming diffused, fragmented, privatised. So that the problem is the system and how it is conceived, not how the various elements work within it. Efforts to get things to work a bit better than they otherwise would can be vital, but are more at the level of symptoms than causes.
3/ Post-crash, refusing to accept the world as it is is both a more compelling and a more viable standpoint.
This is the worldview modelled by Occupy or UK Uncut for example (and manifested in protests in around the world). NGOs that focus on mitigating the worst effects of the system risk being behind the curve.
4/ David Cameron’s recent claim that ‘We are all Thatcherites now’ isn’t just grotesque nonsense.
If Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s architect, could see where we’ve got to – politically and economically – he would surely find it difficult to resist a smug smile. We’ve had 30 years of neoliberalism – marked by massive capital accumulation by the elites accompanied by increasing inequality, attacks on basic rights and on disadvantaged communities, environmental degradation, etc etc. We’re all his babies.
It’s time to step back and ask, why we have ended up here, and how we can get to somewhere else?
It’s time that the NGO component within civil society stepped up to the plate and became more proactive in challenging dominant ideologies and addressing deeper, structural barriers to social justice.
Otherwise the future for NGOs may be one of fighting increasingly rearguard actions in increasingly unfavourable conditions as rights, services and material conditions are increasingly eroded.
NGOs already have their vision statements. So what’s needed is to open up the black box between the vision and the action and look beyond piecemeal solutions.
I’m generalising here and clearly some NGO campaigns are predicated on a different vision of how the world should work. The campaign for tax justice, for example, operates as a trojan horse for exposing wider issues in global capitalism.
And in their analysis of problems and solutions, even some of the more mainstream organisations identify the challenge. Oxfam for example has a developing analysis of the impact of, and need to address, inequality (both across and within countries) that is in effect an alternative paradigm to the growth orthodoxy.
But it’s hard for NGOs to bring this way of thinking about the world more to the forefront. For many, campaigning is already a cuckoo in the nest, tricky to navigate, and difficult to fit within overall communications approaches.
So the need to develop and promote a more fundamental response makes life more complicated. But that’s just the world we live in.
NGOs should exist to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of social justice. And if that means facing up to the challenge to do more to support and catalyse sustainable, transformative change, then that’s what it means.