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Does activism have to ‘hurt’ to be effective?

Mass, low-input activism is useful in demonstrating breadth of concern. It can have a direct influence on policy-making when governments or the European Commission set thresholds for the number of petition signatories above which they are obligated to consider legislating on an issue. Built around a strong story, this sort of activism can rapidly snowball – become ‘fashionable’ – and help an organization with its overall brand recognition and other organizational development goals.


But while low-input activism has some obvious drawbacks – it may be built on flimsy foundations, can have diminishing returns and may fall away as quickly as it accumulates [1] – its biggest problem may be its simplicity. These sorts of actions are easy and cheap to organize and may divert organizations from investment in more substantive, higher quality activism. If each campaign warrants a different mix of online and offline, breadth and depth of activism, it is in mobilizing high quality support where NGOs typically struggle.


To improve the quality of activism, NGOs can, at one level, try to do supporter engagement better – by presenting activism in terms of activists' own interests, not assuming the intended audience thinks like an NGO staffer and so on. And NGOs can aim higher in terms of the level of input involved through designing actions which need greater input and which generate more sustained engagement under a logic that something which is free – which costs nothing in terms of input – has no value, but something for which a ´charge´ is levied – a higher cost of input demanded – engenders more value. [2]


It may be though that there is still a ceiling on the level of activism which can be garnered by even these more refined approaches. A different starting point is the distinction between campaigns in which people have a stake – where achieving the campaign’s goal has a direct, tangible impact on their welfare or where the campaign goal is itself a change in people’s own behaviour – and campaigns where they are mobilized to support an NGO call which does not directly affect them. For activists who have a direct stake in a campaign – who are participants in and not only supporters of it – a campaign involves ‘suffering’ in the basic fact that there are goals to be met. And the act of campaigning itself may ‘hurt’ through incurring costs (of time and money) and risks (to physical and mental well-being).


In authoritarian states, it is possible to build broad social movements out of the common experience of repression. In these circumstances, activism feeds off itself: it puts people at risk and binds them into a community of people also at risk. The challenge for NGOs operating in states where basic freedoms are protected is to make people have a stake in something which does not directly affect them, to make indirect into direct stakeholders. Activists need to feel as if they are part of a ‘community of suffering’ with those on whose behalf they act, to feel that they suffer in the same way as the human rights activist or pineapple picker or shrimp peeler for whom – with whom – they are campaigning.


This is a matter of valorizing the concept of solidarity and extending its scope. If solidarity is effective within specific groups – whether defined by family, geography or identity – it needs to breach these borders. The reach of potential solidarity should be limitless, its basis more moral than interest- or identity-based. In turn, activism should be re-visioned as “a moral choice, something essential in terms of an activist's own humanity. Its utility should not be counted only in its likely direct, political effects and its effectiveness will be greater for having such moral foundations”.


This has implications for how northern activists and northern NGOs conceive their role within global movements. Appeals to northern publics to take action on behalf of those in the south facing poverty, human rights abuses etc. are premised on people in the south needing help and people in the north being able to provide help. If the idea instead is to claim a community bridging north and south, to show common suffering (e.g. of violence against women, of gun violence, impact of financial crisis, impact of climate change etc.), this clashes with the notion that people in the north should help those in the south – if they suffer too, then that should legitimately be their focus. But the notion of a community of activists ‘suffering’ and acting together transforms the dynamic between north and south away from charity, the provision of support and the building of capacity to genuine cooperation, a sense of common purpose and equal participation in campaign design and delivery. [3] Willingness to loosen central control and enable the participation of activists – and partners and beneficiaries – and allowing them to share the ‘pain’ of campaign decision-making will be critical to expanding the activist power available to a campaign.


In an analysis of the evolution of Avaaz et al. from campaign service providers into bona fide NGOs, a shift driven by a desire to improve the ‘quality’ of activism by beefing up offline engagement and talking in terms of membership, Rose argues that this is not what actual or potential activists want: “If part of the appeal to ‘users’ is that the ‘service’ is simple, easy and not very involving, it may be that attempts to make them more of a community could be off-putting to some”. He prefers to accept Avaaz et al. as “effective aggregators for concerns” and not expect them to be more than that. [4] But the point is not to make all actual or potential activists into ‘super-activists’, nor to make everyone care passionately about everything. The aim is to build activism on the stronger foundations of solidarity and morality and not limit it to being the ephemeral product of NGOs’ instrumental mobilization activities.


[1] ‘Campaign service providers’ such as Avaaz are regularly criticized on these grounds. They may also be disliked by conventional NGOs for ¨fronting campaigns which they had spent years researching and doing often dull, complicated ‘issue work´ on” or simply for being good at what they do; Rise of the Campaign Service Providers, Chris Rose, Campaign Strategy Newsletter #90, June 2014, p2;

[2] Amnesty International’s letter-writing marathons are a good example here, as was the Million Faces petition of the Control Arms Campaign in which the simple step of the activist posting a photograph of themselves multiplied the level of engagement and ownership felt for the campaign.

[3] By extension, international NGOs should think more in terms of organic movements than mechanistic partnerships. They should retreat from an attitude of organizing southern partners like pieces on a chess board and subordinate themselves to a genuinely participatory, collective way of working. In line with this idea, Jim Coe argues that “models of operating are too controlling, too much based on the idea of campaigning as something centrally managed and expected to follow predicted routes. The counterpoint to this would be a more emergent approach to campaigning, with a more distributed, more facilitative leadership and following more fluid paths. This way of operating better recognises, and better exploits, technological and social realities that increasingly mean that the dynamics of change are too complex and too volatile to neatly fit into prescribed approaches. [And] models of change tend to over-privilege ‘representative advocacy’ as a route to meaningful change. Often change does happen by persuading powerful people to take and enact certain decisions. But with proliferating arenas of decision making, and the contractualisation and agencyification of delivery, ‘representative democracy’ is becoming a less straightforward route to change. In this context, more participative approaches, based on people finding solutions in their own hands, become more important. They can be more compelling for supporters and activists, and – crucially – are more likely to be effective in challenging underlying power dynamics”; Painted Ships, on the Move;

[4] Rise of the Campaign Service Providers, Chris Rose, Campaign Strategy Newsletter #90, June 2014, p3;

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