Power and Systemic Change: How can INGOs do advocacy and campaigns that change the root causes of injustice?

Ruth Mayne, Senior Lead Researcher on Influencing, Oxfam GB

The author draws on recent research on lnfluencing for Oxfam to provide some personal reflections and challenges for civil society, Amnesty International and other INGOs. 

We now have enough experience and evidence to know that civil society campaigning can work to change government policy, shift corporate behaviour, and widen civic space. But we do not seem to be winning over enough people to address the profound systemic challenges we face of climate breakdown, inequality, gender injustice and widespread human rights abuses. So, what more could we be doing?

First, it sometimes seems as if civil society is fragmented & firefighting myriad, unrelated single issues even though many may in fact be symptoms of the same structural or root cause.  In my mind, one of the most important things civil society organisations could do would be to devote a proportion of their resources to collectively prioritising and addressing some of the root causes of these many shared symptoms, alongside their normal issues? Or at least seek to connect some of our myriad struggles. Even a loose unstructured alliance around common issues would be incredibly powerful. One such priority root cause would be the current business regulation and models that prioritise short term financial returns to shareholders often at the expense of workers’ rights, communities and environment. Getting business regulation right upstream could prevent many downstream human rights abuses.

Second, the current widespread public disenchantment with the dominant economic model and the Establishment offers a huge opportunity to achieve transformative change. But nationalist populists seem to be winning more people to their cause than we are. What more could we do to broaden the constituencies for inclusive, just and sustainable change/solutions? Could and should we:

  • Rebalance our work to focus more on the rights of the large majorities around the world who are suffering from austerity & withdrawal of essential services, erosion of working rights, growing insecurity – alongside defending the civil & political rights of activists or the most persecuted or disadvantage? For Amnesty could that mean campaigning more on the denial of socio-economic rights as well as civil and political rights.
  • Broaden our alliances. The cross-sectoral and cross-national alliances that formed to fight the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico, the US and Canada in the 1990s brought together a powerful alliance of women, workers, indigenous people and farmers in each country to negotiate, and then campaign for, common policy positions. We should also challenge ourselves to ask if our causes would benefit from tactical alliances with progressive allies in governments, business, and investors.  Evidence shows that insider strategies, although generally insufficient on their own to achieve change, are necessary to win significant change and that policy makers are most likely to respond to evidence from people they have developed prior relationships with.
  • Use more inclusive narratives that still call out injustices but also win over conflicted supporters?  The US Freedom to Marry campaign, for example, won over conflicted voters in the US when it switched from talking about equal rights for same sex couples to the expression of love and commitment.
  • Invest more in grassroots political education and mobilisation by local organisations, including about the importance of human rights?

Third, evidence shows that grassroots civil society organisations and social  movements and women’s rights organisations are key drivers of change, yet big NGOs are often criticised for crowding them out. Could we find better ways of supporting and helping them without imposing our agendas, ‘extracting’ their knowledge and analysis, or insisting on onerous reporting requirements? A recent meta review of Oxfam and partners’ policy and civic space influencing initiatives, for example, showed that in many national contexts Oxfam was more successful when playing a back seat supportive role to local civil society organisations– rather than playing a lead role itself – although a prominent role was helpful in some contexts and cases such as legitimising marginal voices or at global level.

Fourth, could we do more to identify and address the hidden and invisible forms of power that perpetuate injustice or constrain policy implementation, as well as tackling visible forms of power such as government policy? This entails identifying and influencing informal ‘influencers’ and opinion-formers that operate behind the scenes and deploying a wider range of influencing strategies to catalyse changes to harmful cultural beliefs, social norms and behaviours.  For example, more than 125 countries have some sort of legislation on violence against women and girls, yet it remains a prevalent problem.

Last, could we deploy more often the power of the good example? Positive stories of the benefits of best practice can both inspire people that change is possible and help strengthen shift social norms of fairness, tolerance and respect for rights.

Related post:https://www.bond.org.uk/news/2019/04/is-advocacy-and-campaigning-up-to-todays-challenges