Effective Activism in a Time of Coronavirus: what are we learning six months in?

by | Jul 8, 2020

Nothing I’ve read has captured our times and our task better than this essay from Western States Center ED Eric K. Ward: “leading in easy times is, well, easy. But these times are not them”. Leading in difficult times is unbelievably hard, but we will all be better at it if we share what we’re learning and invite others to challenge our thinking and contribute their own. In that spirit, here are the four things that I think are emerging as lessons about effective activism in a time of coronavirus.

In a fight between a rewind and a revolution, revolution’s gonna lose

My timeline is still going nuts for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful “Message from the Future”. The bit that gives me pause comes in at the 3 minutes mark, “the world’s leading climate scientists told us we had 12 years left to cut our emissions in half, 12 years to change everythingIt was released, of course, before the coronavirus crisis, but the pandemic has given prominence to a similar rhetoric elsewhere. 

Here in the UK, for example, the Build Back Better coalition argue we are in a similarly transformative moment: “let’s not go back to normal … what we do next could change everything”. And the crisis has seen a new lease of life for the slogan “we won’t go back to normal when normal was the problem”,  first used in protests in Chile towards the end of 2019 but now turning up everywhere from graffiti in Hong Kong to the fridge doors of activists to university research programmes

That positioning is understandable – many of our missions face an existential threat from climate change and the need to dismantle white supremacy and racism could hardly be more urgent. But it is precisely because the stakes are so high that we have to focus on winning big rather than talking big. 

How should we respond to the evidence that many people are absolutely desperate for a “return to normal” and not sure if they’d like to change very much, never mind “everything”? Roger Harding’s essay here charts that the crisis has seen a big spike in demand for nostalgic television and music, and it may not be an accident that the BBC’s coming of age drama Normal People is the breakout success of lockdown. If what’s happening in popular culture is any guide, people want to look back before they move forward. We need to accept that in a fight between a rewind and a revolution, revolution’s gonna lose. 

Likewise, publics may not recognise the two separate worlds that Arundhati Roy charts so beautifully in her “The Pandemic is a Portal” essay. In Roy’s telling, we are faced with “a gateway between one world and the next” and the choice before us is whether we “choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us” or whether we “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”. 

I wonder how many people see the pandemic in quite this way, with a clear delineation between the old world ‘yesterday’, the crisis ‘today’ and the recovery ‘tomorrow’. Some may also see today’s pandemic as merely what journalist Ros Wynne-Jones called “a grim dress-rehearsal” for the emergencies to come. For that constituency there will be a real premium on immediate strategies for securing recent gains, starting with the list George Graham lays out here

Fighting campaigns that can deliver immediate and tangible change isn’t a substitute for bolder transformation, but it is a necessary precursor to it, because strategies which confuse a public appetite to build back better with one to build back completely different just aren’t going to attract a big enough base. As one union organiser told me, “there’s no point asking people to trust you to organise a revolution if you can’t get a microwave in the staff canteen”.

‘Don’t mourn, organise’ is the wrong mantra for our times. We need to do both

I’ve written before about the work we’ve been doing to defend aid and development in the UK. It’s good work – innovative, strategic and delivered with discipline. I’m proud of it, and of our success in defying political gravity to maintain support for aid in the face of sustained attacks. We have, however, just suffered a huge defeat, with the Prime Minister choosing to abolish our world-leading development department in the middle of the biggest humanitarian crisis for 100 years and on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the “great generation’s” Make Poverty History campaign

It isn’t hard to see what is going on here. A ‘new front in the culture war’ is opening and it’s increasingly clear that “retoxification” is not a by-product of the strategy, it is the strategy. At the end of 2019 I felt that identifying models that could galvanise but not polarise was the core strategic campaigning question of the decade, but I now feel it’s a much more insistent one that should dominate our summer.  

Professor Tim Bale’s excellent research into the divergent attitudes of voters, activists and political leaders shows where we are headed, at least in the UK. The voters who have ‘lent’ their votes to the government on the basis of values alignment and economic competence are going to start peeling off fast as soon as furlough ends, unemployment climbs and the government’s reputation for economic competence takes a battering. At that point, this research implies, there’s no strategy available to the government other than dialling up the cultural campaign. We can expect to see more, and not less, of “the war on woke” and an increased push from the ‘Britannia Unchained’ generation in the cabinet to do away with regulations and protections.

If that analysis is right, activists have a strategic choice to make and only a matter of weeks to make it: are we here to win a culture war, or to end one?

Of course we need to spend this period re-strategising, including asking ourselves the question campaigners most hate to answer, but need to: if you’re so smart, how come you’re getting beaten so badly? But more than that, we need to give ourselves the time to mourn what we have lost. 

We have literal grieving to do – for all the people who have died before their time, the pain compounded by the knowledge that structural racism and poverty have done as much damage as biology here. And we have grieving of the more abstract sort to do too – the kind of coming to terms with loss we all need to do when something we truly value, not just desire, has gone.

The Collective Pyschology Project’s “This Too Shall Pass” report gives us a toolkit for how to grieve but it is actually earlier work by its founder Alex Evans that tells us why activists have to learn to grieve. If we don’t work through denial, anger, bargaining and depression properly, we’ve no hope of getting to acceptance and, therefore, to a place where we can see clearly what our next move should be. 

I’ve written elsewhere about the power of Andrew Tenzer’s “The Empathy Delusion” report but his latest research, “The Aspiration Window” should also give activists pause for thought. If we, like our colleagues in communications, also score highly on a sense of personal agency, that can be a tremendous source of resilience and optimism in normal times. It is, however, a recipe for burn-out and guilt in these times. We have to accept we can’t campaign our way out of a pandemic, and we can’t always beat overwhelming political odds. 

“Don’t mourn, organise” is the wrong mantra for now. Let’s do both. 

Think global, act local has come of age – but we need to buttress it

Many of us have spent many years desperately trying to generate a sense of global citizenship, recognising that global problems need global solutions, but global solutions need global constituencies to push for them. The pandemic has helped illuminate that like nothing else in our lifetime – and events like the Global Citizen #TogetherAtHome concert have given our sense of interconnectedness a public expression.

While some governments have pushed a sense of national exceptionalism (and certainly benefitted in the short term from a ‘rally around the flag’ effect), there’s actually limited evidence that people are identifying particularly fervently with the nation state, despite its prominence in everything from paying our wages to dictating when we can get a haircut.

Instead, counter-intuitively, we seem to be feeling simultaneously more local and more global than ever before. This will be welcome news for community organisers and internationalists alike, but we shouldn’t take it for granted that this feeling will be permanent.

Here in the UK, British Future’s Sunder Katwala’s careful reading of the polls throughout the crisis gives him a cautious optimism – we feel that we are likely to come out of this crisis more connected and kinder than we went into it, but this effect is much more pronounced about people with whom we have direct social contact. The more we know people, the more we trust them, and the street or estate where we live is now full of people we newly know. 

Likewise, findings from the team at the Neighbourly Lab suggest a new sense of connection is powerful at a micro-local level, but it will need permanent infrastructure to be instituted quickly if the new neighbourliness is to be maintained. “The Moment We Noticed”, from the Relationships Observatory, makes a similar case, pointing to how “ten million willing citizens have chosen to spend at least 3 hours a week caring for one another” and inviting us to consider what we can do together to sustain new relationships into the future. 

Both reports also contain some interesting watch-outs about what might happen when we move from the ‘honeymoon’ to the ‘disillusionment’ phase that is often seen in the aftermath of an emergency, and encourage us to recognise that communitarian feeling is often rather fragile and dependent on a sense that others are doing their bit. 

Certainly our thinking when we put together the “#OurOtherNationalDebt” essay collection was that a focus on repaying those who’ve made an outsized contribution (or paid an outsized price) at this particular time was more likely to command sustained public support than anything that felt like a reheat of long-held pre-pandemic positions. Society might have changed a bit but in general it’s still the case that we quite like the people we’ve got to know, but we’re also alert to any signs of free-riding or, worst of all, queue-jumping

Elsewhere in Europe, the European Council on Foreign Relations call both the idea that there has been a sudden surge in belief in an expanded role for the state and one in nationalism “illusions that could lead European governments to fall foul of public opinion as they plan the recovery”. Instead, they show “that the overwhelming majority of people want more EU cooperation”, but recognise that this is motivated more by a sense of wanting collective insurance than a rejuvenation of a sense of common ideals.

At the same time, the OECD predict that it’s at least possible that global aid flows will be maintained or even increase in coming years, pointing to some successes in securing debt relief, multilateral funding for Gavi and an increase in support for humanitarian efforts. 

Part of what is going on here is the public’s sophisticated understanding of the coronavirus – that the experience might be universal, but it is it not uniform. We understand that there are people in precarious employment in every country, parents struggling to put food on the table in every country, children trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide in every country. Lockdown and school closures in particular have been near-universal experiences, but their effects have been far from uniform between countries or inside them. People get that both local neighbourliness and multilateralism can provide particular protections, mitigating catastrophe and smoothing out vulnerabilities a bit. 

Support for both local mutual aid efforts and international solidarity efforts is, in other words, conditional. We instinctively feel the local and the global are the right levels to deal with different elements of the pandemic and its effects, but we want to be sure everyone is pulling their weight, and we’re getting enough out of it for what we’re willing to put in.

That means we need to be planning now for campaigning infrastructure that can turn the new neighbourliness into the new normal, while helping people draw connections between their new local involvement and the need for active citizenship at a national and global level. 

The Dignity’s Project’s research on the mutual aid movement suggests there are foundations already in place, but activists will need to be careful not to over-interpret the data, with 57% of respondents saying “mutual aid groups like mine have nothing to do with politics”.

So if we want people to move towards more active civic involvement, to make what the New Citizenship Project calls the big shift “from consumer to citizen”, we need to introduce the idea of political activism as something that sits in service of, and not in a separate realm to, people’s individual moral choices and willingness to muck-in locally. 

The new National Health Team is one attempt to operate at these three levels – individual, local and political. The coming months are likely to see a flowering of these kinds of efforts, as we increasingly recognise that none of individual behaviour change, local volunteering or traditional advocacy-led campaigning will be enough on their own.

An imperfect message that gets heard is better than a perfect one that doesn’t

The social change sector globally is currently producing a large number of really superb messaging guides around coronavirus and there are some brilliant research projects on the go about attitudes about everything from climate change to regulation to social security. The challenge for our movements is whether we can do enough with the insights once we have them.

Two barriers present themselves. The first is that research which shows how to communicate for one purpose (for example, to shore up support for aid, in the case of our Public Insight 2020 project) will not necessarily be widely adopted by people with a brief to communicate for another important purpose (for example, recruiting donors or promoting an organisation’s brand). That’s not just the case for international issues – the tension plays out around storytelling efforts on domestic poverty too. Organisations with enough marketing budget or media reach to make a dent in public opinion are, almost by definition, also likely to be delivering frontline services under the extraordinary pressure of rising demand and falling income. 

Meanwhile, many of the organisations which are nimble enough to internalise the insight lack the reach to make it count. Across our fields we’ve got a lot of money being spent crafting narratives no-one is going to hear. It’s time to get much more serious about thinking about our routes to market when we embark on insight work and we need to be willing to pay for the distribution as well as the design of the messages. 

Serious strategic communications efforts cost money – and mobilisation efforts which can actually leverage the latent political power of the people who agree with your message even more so. At Save the Children we’ve introduced a strong organising flavour into our campaigning work (as Tom Baker lays out here) and in the Aid Campaign we’ve focused on building local ‘power postcodes’ groups in the places that matter most. We will be spending the summer thinking about how to scale that work.

While it’s massively welcome that we’ve seen a big uptick in the amount of insight work big NGOs and funders are investing in, it’s all pretty academic if we’re not overlaying it with an understanding of political geography and overlaying that in turn with investment in local power. 

We are only six months into the coronavirus crisis and don’t yet know when – or how – it will end. What we do know is that activism is unlikely to be what speeds our exit from the crisis, but it is the single biggest determinant of whether that exit is equitable. This moment demands our best ever work and we won’t do it without plans to deal with the biggest strategic challenges in front of us. This list of four may be incomplete, but it’s where I think we should begin.  


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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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