In praise of advocacy’s amateurs

In light of the great news that Oxfam are shifting to “focus more on national level change and relatively less on often-fruitless global summitry”, I’ve been thinking a bit about potent national campaigns like those started by David Kato in Uganda and Zackie Achmat in South Africa.

In both cases their activism was a response to a lived imperative, not a priority sifted from a list during a strategic planning process. It led to campaigns which were creative, insistent and bold, because failure meant dire personal consequences unthinkable to those of us in the North whose biggest worries are restless trustees and falling donations.

Their movements got momentum, in part, because the political could not have been more personal. That entanglement between the story and the strategy also seems to be one of the drivers of the huge growth of Change.org: it is hard to imagine, for example, 2 million signatures on a petition started by anybody other than Trayvon Martin’s parents.

Likewise, last week’s news in Britain was dominated by the damning findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel which uncovered what the Telegraph, reporting the Prime Minister’s moving Commons Statement, called “a campaign to smear the dead”. In the face of those slurs, victims’ families have waged a 23 year campaign of their own, in the process taking on one of the most powerful newspapers in the country and a police force engaged in what the Guardian called a conspiracy mounted “with the connivance of several pillars of (the) establishment”.

Faced with those odds, how many big brand charities or public affairs firms would have taken on the fight, far less kept it up for nearly quarter of a century? And would any of the advocacy “professionals” we know have been as courageous or effective as this extraordinary group made up of the affected, the angry and the amateur?  It has all got me thinking that maybe subsidiarity in an NGO context could mean not just devolving campaigning power to the right countries, but further down to the right people too.

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About Kirsty McNeill

Kirsty McNeill is the founder of ThembaHQ and a strategy consultant to the chief executives and senior management teams of some of the world’s leading charities and campaigning organisations. She was a Downing Street adviser for three years. She has written on politics, campaigning and international affairs for outlets including The Telegraph and New Statesman and is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. You can see more of her writing at www.kirstymcneill.com.