Dreams die hard. I was on the road for much of last fall, talking about my new book – which promotes (as I put it in a recent piece in foreignpolicy.com), the virtues of modesty in our approach to democratic development. While my message is a sober one, my aim is not to foster pessimism but rather to highlight pragmatic ways forward.
Yet, repeatedly, I come up against critics who bewail my seeming lack of ambition. “Why”, they ask, “do you sell short the possibilities of transformation? Isn’t what we need bold, decisive, ethical leadership which cuts through the messiness of present predicaments? Where governance is weak, bold leaders can and should make it strong – rapidly and systematically!”.
By now, there is plenty of scholarship that makes the case that changes in governance cannot be willed into being – but rather that ‘good governance’ is the cumulative consequence of a long, slow incremental process. Nobel-prize-winner Douglass North and colleagues have clarified conceptually how personalized bargains between contending elites can provide platforms for both stability and (perhaps) the slow evolution of formal rules of the game. Francis Fukuyama masterfully documents, over two volumes, the deep historical roots of the rule of law, and of the difficult challenges posed by democratization in settings where state capabilities remain weak.
For many, though, conceptual and historical perspectives remain unpersuasive. “We need change”, they insist. “Therefore good leaders should provide it.”
Remember the old days when you wrote a report, published it (perhaps with some kind of executive summary), did a couple of seminars and then declared victory and moved on? Social media have changed that game almost beyond recognition: to maximize impact, any new report more closely resembles a set of Russian dolls, with multiple ‘products’ (hate that word) required to hit different audiences and get the message out. I’ve tried to list them, but am bound to have missed some – please fill in the gaps:
- The report: 100 pages of well researched, clearly argued, and insightful thinking. Which (apart from other researchers) hardly anyone reads
- The Overview Chapter: 10-15 pages with all the juice from the report
- The Executive Summary: A two pager for the time-poor
- The landing page: better be good, or people won’t click through
- The press release, with killer facts, notes to editors, offers of interviewees, embargo times and all that old media mularkey
- The blog post: a way of alerting your particular epistemic community to the existence of your masterpiece
- The tweets, although personally I hate those naff ‘suggested tweets’ you get from comms people
- The infographic: if you want to get retweets, these work much better than text. ODI currently the most infographic-tastic of development thinktanks
- The 4 minute youtube piece, preferably not looking as knackered as Matt Andrews often does
Regular FP2P readers will be (heartily sick of) used to me banging on about the importance of ‘killer facts‘ in NGO advocacy and general communications. Recently, I was asked to work with some of our finest policy wonks to put together some crib sheets for Oxfam’s big cheeses, who are more than happy for me to spread the love to you lot. So here are some highlights from 8 pages of KFs, with sources (full document here: Killer fact collection, June 2014).
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Malala Wows Us...Again
“She was shot point blank by the Taliban simply for wanting to go to school, but Malala Yousufzai still believes that she is the “luckiest,” the ardent activist told a crowd at the Mashable Social Good Summit on Monday.
Joined by her father, Shiza Shahid, CEO of the Malala Fund, and Elizabeth Gore, resident entrepreneur at the UN Foundation, Malala shared how she’s grown since she was attacked by the terrorist organization in Pakistan 10 months ago and how her supporters have motivated her to continuing fighting for the rights of girls.” READ MORE
I recently began an interesting conversation with our new campaigns and policy czar, Ben Phillips, who then asked me to pick the FP2P collective brain-hive for further ideas. Here goes.
The issue is ‘cold’ v ‘hot’ campaigning. Over the next couple of years, we will be doing a lot of campaigning on climate change and inequality. Inequality is flavour of the month, with an avalanche of policy papers, shifting institutional positions at the IMF etc highlighting its negative impacts on growth, wellbeing, poverty reduction, and just about everything else. That makes for a ‘hot campaign’, pushing on (slightly more) open doors on tax, social protection etc.
In contrast, climate change is (paradoxically) a pretty cold campaign. Emissions continue to rise, as do global temperatures and the unpredictability of the weather, but you wouldn’t think so in terms of political agendas or press coverage (see graph). The UN process, focus of huge attention over the last 15 years, is becalmed. Politicians make occasional reference to ‘green growth’, but that is becoming as vacuous as its predecessor ‘sustainable development.’
The distinction is not so clear cut, of course. Hot campaigns can suddenly go cold and vice versa (politicians and officials are able to go from saying ‘no, don’t be ridiculous’ to ‘we’ve always supported this’ with bewildering ease, when the moment is right). You could argue that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign was one of those. But a campaign needs to get seriously hot if it involves a major redistribution of power and influence (like taxation/inequality or climate change, but not, I would argue, the Arms Trade Treaty).
So the essay question is: do you campaign differently on hot v cold campaigns, and if so, how? Here are some initial thoughts:
I argued a few months back that information we get from story-telling is fundamentally different to what we get from polls and surveys. If we can’t predict what’s coming next, then we have to continuously work to understand what has and is happening today. (See: Patterns of voices from the Balkans – working with UNDP)
Methods we’re all used to using (surveys, mid-term evaluations) are ill prepared to do that for us and increasingly act as our blindfolds.
As I started working through the stories we collected, this question has become even stronger.
To give you some background, we started testing whether stories could help us:
Had a thought-provoking discussion on ‘influencing’ with Exfamer (ex Oxfam Australia turned consultant) James Ensor a few days ago. The starting point was an apparent tension between the reading I’ve been doing on complex systems, and Oxfam’s traditional model of campaigning.
In my first days at Oxfam, I was told that the recipe for a successful campaign was ‘problem, villain, solution’ (heroes are apparently optional). And sure enough, if you look at good/bad campaigns, the presence or absence of all three ingredients seems pretty key.
But one of the characteristics of complex systems is that solutions are seldom obvious and often only emerge from trial and error. Elsewhere I’ve translated the offputting language of complexity theory into ‘how do you plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen?’ But in the case of advocacy and campaigns aimed at influencing government or international organizations’ policies, a better formulation would be ‘how do you campaign when you don’t have a solution?’
The first option is of course to pretend that you do anyway. Echoes of Yes Minister’s ‘we must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it!’. Not that Oxfam would ever stoop to such a thing, obviously.
Alternatively, stick to problems that are less complex, at least at first sight. Campaign to give people money, or bednets, or vaccines, or food (although any of these efforts in practice are unlikely to stay neat and linear for long).
But there are a number of other options:
Having worked with civil society engagement work at the World Bank for many years, it is not uncommon for colleagues to see me in the hallway and jokingly ask: “is civil society still acting uncivil?”. The assumption being that when Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) criticize the Bank they are not being constructive and thus not acting civil. While I understand the good-natured ribbing, I and most of my Bank colleagues actually believe the opposite is true. Most advocacy CSOs are being effective global citizens by monitoring the policies and programs of governments and inter-governmental organizations such as the World Bank. After all, governments and multilateral development Banks serve at the behest of citizens and thus they should welcome a watchful eye from CSOs, media, and citizen organizations to ensure that its taxpayer-generated international development funds are being well spent. In addition, as Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently said at the closing plenary of the 2013 InterAction Forum, important changes and reforms in history – such as the concerted response to the AIDS epidemic – are often driven by citizen activism spearheaded by CSOs. He further argued that what is now needed is a global citizens’ movement to advocate for effective climate change policies.
This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the scandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).
In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.
The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.