New models of Activism

This is a guest post by Natasha Adams, Activism Officer at ActionAid UK

I’m a bit of a campaign geek. I’ve been involved in campaigning and activism ‘for fun’ pretty much my whole life, and professionally since 2008. I love this stuff. So I was really pleased at the amazing turnout and great learning exchanges that happened at a Building Activist Networks Forum workshop I helped to organise a couple of weeks ago.

The workshop was partly inspired by Jim’s ‘painted ships’ blog, where he suggested that current NGO campaign engagement models are too centrally managed and too reliant on representative democracy. Jim argued that some of the most successful recent campaigns and movements have been moving away from the old models, and towards more emergent and participative campaigning, with much less central control. These suggestions sparked off some great discussions about new ways NGOs are engaging activists.

A group of us decided to arrange a workshop exploring what NGOs are doing to make their campaigning more emergent and participative. Happily, there is lots of exciting stuff going on. Organisations like Friends of the Earth, the National Autistic Society and the NUS are starting to trial models which offer campaigners training and support, and then give them more campaigning freedom. I’m also looking at trialling some kind of regional organising model to support ActionAid’s Community Campaigners.

I’ve already blogged for Campaign Central about some of the key challenges and potential solutions that were discussed in the workshop on the general theme of engaging activists, so I won’t repeat myself here …

I want to talk about the possibility of a different approach altogether. I’ve been thinking for a long time about how NGOs can best support and achieve change through activism. We’re always going to want to nurture activists passionate about taking action on our centrally decided priorities, and this is important. The legitimacy of many NGOs comes from listening to service users or affected communities and developing these inputs into informed policy positions. Then they use campaigning expertise to work out how to achieve change with supporters.

But I’m also interested in what more NGOs can do to support and cultivate grassroots movements on related issues. We had a good chat about this in the workshop and I’d love to broaden out the discussion to other campaigners.

Not everyone wants to be an activist loyal to just one NGO. There are a huge number of fantastic campaigns out there competing for support, struggling engage people who care but lead busy lives. Campaigners often support multiple things, giving lots of time to the issues they are most passionate about when their support seems to be urgently needed, and when progress is being made. Wouldn’t it therefore make sense for NGOs to collaborate to support broad movements on related issues?

After all, the structures that are causing many problems are interlinked. As an example, Tax justice is as much a UK issue as a development one – money lost to tax havens could be financing global social infrastructure like health and education. Reducing tax dodging could also help tackle inequality, by ensuring that more money is redistributed via the state. As the excellent book The Spirit Level points out, inequality increases many social problems, from drug use to teenage pregnancy, and it also drives increased consumption leading to environmental problems like climate change. If a strong UK movement on tax justice could be really powerful, a broader social and environmental justice movement supported by the thousands of NGOs that work on these issues could achieve even more.

Do we need to take greater risks to achieve greater impact? Can we look at ways of measuring the value and impact of support to activism beyond our narrow NGO agendas? If we could agree on a set of values, could NGOs from the same or even different basic sectors pool some money to support campaigning on issues related to these values? In the broadest sense, the work by Common Cause would make a great starting point for this, but even collaborating around a more concrete theme could really help build groundswells of activism that individual NGO campaigns could never achieve.

I don’t really know the answers to the questions I’m posing here, but I’d love to get a conversation started with other campaigners. I should also add that these ideas are mine, not ActionAid’s. If you’d like to take this thinking forwards, join the Engaging Activists Facebook group, tweet me @tashahester or post your thoughts below.

One Comment

  1. John Bunzl says:

    Given the globalised context in which governments are forced to keep their economies internationally competitive, one way to build support across multiple issues might be to differentiate between demands which national governments CAN deliver unilaterally, and those they CAN’T. (For example, relatively modest cuts in carbon emissions CAN be made by nations independently without significantly harming their international competitiveness. But the 70-80% cuts that are really needed can only happen with global cooperation). If we separated out all those demands requiring widespread global cooperation, that might offer one way to group those issues together to get multiple NGOs behind them in a concerted effort. One campaign using this methodology is the Simultaneous Policy (Simpol) campaign at http://www.simpol.org

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