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How campaigners can help ensure crisis equals opportunity..

This evening, I’m off to spend some time with former colleagues from Tearfund thinking about the work they’re doing on the Restorative Economy (find out more here). We’ve been set some homework in preparation for our evening together and one of the questions is about how can advocates respond to crisis.

It’s an appropriate question given the headlines on the current refugee crisis, and the opportunities for advocacy and influence that it appears to be providing for many groups who’ve toiled on these critical issues for years.

So how do we, as campaigners prepare for those crisis, that cause a set of fundamental assumptions or rules to be challenge in such dramatic way.

It’s all to easy to see crisis as something to be avoided, but as this excellent article on the missed opportunities for progressives from the 2008 financial crisis suggests ‘crisis equals opportunity, for those who are ready to use it’.

1. Take time to prepare – We can’t anticipate every crisis, but how much time do we spend preparing what we might do.? Look around at those who’s job it is to respond to unexpected crisis, from the security forces, who play our scenarios often on a grand scale, to the staff in the humanitarian response departments of many large NGOs. They role play. It means in the unlikely event of those situations happening they know how to react most effectively.

Can campaigners learn a thing from this? One of the things I enjoy most about Campaign Bootcamp that I helped to set up is the way we use a scenario to bring the campaigning that we’re teaching too life. I’m struck by how little we actual play out how we’d respond to different scenarios. How many team away days are dedicated to exploring what we’d do if.

2. Have a set of asks on the shelf – The father of free market economics, Milton Freedman is often quoted ‘When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable’ so campaigners for change’.

Do we have the same for the issues that we’re campaigning on? It doesn’t need to be long document, but something that could be dusted down. It might be seen as an indulgence, but I’m struck how the 2008 financial crisis came and many of those working on economic issue didn’t have a set of responses ready to go. There were opportunities to push for significant change but we didn’t have those asks to hand..

3. Look for the signs –  Predicting crisis isn’t easy but taking time to learn the skills of those who effectively predict what might happen is a useful skill to add to a campaigners toolkit. What is that they were looking out for that helped, what was the evidence that they saw that led them to a different conclusion to the mainstream?

In the Pathways to Change: 10 Theories to Inform Advocacy and Policy Change Efforts, the authors talk about the ‘Large Leaps’ theory of change, suggesting that change can happen in sudden, large bursts that represent a significant departure from the past.  The theory holds that conditions for large-scale change are ripe when the following occur:

– an issue is defined differently or new dimensions of the issue gain attention (typically a fundamental questioning of current approaches);
– new actors get involved in an issue;
– the issue becomes more salient and receives heightened media and broader public attention.

As campaigners are we looking out for those signs?

4. Hold your nerve, but don’t cry wolf – There’s a risk that anyone who focuses on looking for a crisis can cry wolf. Spotting what they perceive to be a crisis, but isn’t actually one. Do this too often and your credibility can take a hit. The skill for any campaigner is to hold steady, seeking the evidence that the crisis is real and calling out the opportunities. One of the things that we’re going to be discussing with Tearfund colleagues is the difference between the opportunities presented by the climate and financial crisis. Perhaps the different here is the climate crises feels like its a long-term challenge, while the financial crisis was a much more sudden shock that we didn’t anticipate.

5. Present a positive vision – Crisis are unsettling, things we thought in the past were true are no longer, and at that moment its easy for campaigners to revert to the ‘told you so’ high ground, but as George Lakey suggests “when crisis comes, who is ready with what vision?”. In this article he argues that the both Occupy and 1968 French Student protest failed in part because they  didn’t have  positive vision that gripped the mainstream. He suggests that ‘in addition to campaigning, I would add another building block: Try empowering the visionaries you know to do homework. We’ll need their vision work — in concert with wide discussion — for the next crisis’.

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