In praise of advocacy’s amateurs

by | Sep 17, 2012


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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    Kirsty McNeill is Save the Children’s Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns. She leads teams to galvanise the public and influence policymakers on humanitarian action, global development, and help for children here in the UK. Previously, she founded a consultancy advising some of the world’s leading charities and spent three years as a Special Adviser in Number 10. She came to Downing Street having led the policy and influencing work of DATA, Bono and Bob Geldof’s advocacy organisation, in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the EU institutions. Before joining DATA she was on the board of Make Poverty History and managed the Stop AIDS Campaign, successfully negotiating a commitment to universal access to AIDS treatment from the 2005 G8. Today she is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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