Painted Ships, on the move

For months now, I’ve been the Ancient Mariner, stopping various people, who probably generally have better places to be, and recounting a strange and sad story.

My tale is that NGOs are in the wrong campaigning space.

And also that, far from trying to escape these tyrannous waters, many are languishing there, inert, like painted ships on a painted ocean.

There are essentially two parts to the critique.

One part of this is that models of operating are too controlling, too much based on the idea of campaigning as something centrally managed and expected to follow predicted routes.

The counterpoint to this would be a more emergent approach to campaigning, with a more distributed, more facilitative leadership and following more fluid paths. This way of operating better recognises, and better exploits, technological and social realities that increasingly mean that the dynamics of change are too complex and too volatile to neatly fit into prescribed approaches.

The second part of the case is that the models of change tend to over-privilege ‘representative advocacy’ as a route to meaningful change.

Often change does happen by persuading powerful people to take and enact certain decisions. But with proliferating arenas of decision making, and the contractualisation and agencyification of delivery, ‘representative democracy’ is becoming a lesss straightforward route to change.

In this context, more participative approaches, based on people finding solutions in their own hands, become more important. They can be more compelling for supporters and activists, and – crucially – are more likely to be effective in challenging underlying power dynamics.

This argument, summarised, looks like this:

If i have a bit of a go at plotting some other campaigning initiatives onto the same model, this shows that different approaches are not just possible but increasingly a reality (especially outside the world of NGOs):

It’s not that there is a right space exactly, to some extent it’s horses for courses.

Overall, though, the implication of a range of social, political and technological trends is that NGOs might want to think about heading away from that bottom right corner.

But NGOs risk being stranded in this silent sea, stuck, without breath or motion, with various organisational albatrosses locking them there.

Notably that:

 1.     The need for brand visibility means needing to to maintain control of messages and action and be seen to be leading from the front.

 2.     The increasing desire to deliver ‘results’ sits uneasily with the more unpredictable, non-linear, long-term world of campaigning.

 3.     Institutional decision making processes are often a drag on campaigning being more nimble, flexible and change-focused.

These various internal factors each have their own rationale and justification. So it’s about acknowledging and managing the trade offs and finding ways to navigate them.

But whilst this is far from straightforward, it’s not just a tale of disaster and horror.

I’m hopeful, and inspired by some great examples of really interesting campaigning going on. Discussions at the Right Ethos campaigners’ event a few days back, for example, showed how diverse organisations – such as Scope, Friends of the Earth, Mind, Tearfund, ActionAid, the NUS and the National Autistic Society – are all in different ways trying to tackle these kinds of challenges.

It seems like there’s now a great opportunity to build on these various initiatives, and to share experiences, in ways that enable the sector to emerge wiser and happier in its future campaigning.

One Comment

  1. mark says:

    Who is the albatross – eg the true prophet that led the ship out of the doldrums and was shot and then hung around the neck for its troubles – so maybe the metaphor is even more accurate. The international sector must definitely shake off colonial/post colonial attitudes that inform the histories of the organisations. Set up to alleviate effects of imperialism and to sate guilt – they then became hosts of backpack tourist organisations/gap year travel sponsors. Some have been informed by progressive waves of workers fleeing oppression but they are still tied to an outdated concept of charity and development along a western capitalist model rather than indigenous self-determination. It is not just time to question the paradigm of campaigning but also time to question the paradigm of capitalism as a motor for development that does nothing but benefit the 1%. Austerity works – for the 1%. Helping rich people make more money makes the 1% richer and the 99% poorer

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