After almost four and a half years as director of the World Development Movement (WDM), I’m now leaving this week. I hope I’ve contributed some of my own experience and wisdom to the role and to the movement, and I have certainly learned a great deal about campaigning, and about myself.
Three of the main things I have learned (or had reinforced) about campaigning, can be summed up pretty easily.
First, small is beautiful. I already knew this, having worked at the New Economics Foundation (nef) in the early 2000s, where E.F. Schumacher’s famous words were part of our DNA. But I hadn’t quite realised it extended to campaigning as well until I joined WDM, having worked for a much larger organisation immediately beforehand.
In campaigning, small works wonders. You can be light on your feet, responsive and bold. This played out in 2012, when we responded to Andrew Mitchell as he sought to return to the bad old days of tied aid. It worked in our food speculation campaign which we were able to launch quickly when it needed to happen (long before others followed), and it happens each and every day in our work.
Food speculation campaign stall
I also firmly believe that in a small organisation, you get more bang for your buck. We can spend more time on our campaigns and less on internal systems; less on marketing; and less on our campaigns compared to larger organisations, yet still achieve a great deal.
Of course, organisationally we’re small, but in other ways we’re big – our movement of activists magnifies what we do and its members are deeply connected to our work. We have a wide network of supporters that shouldn’t be underestimated. I was pleased that I was able to oversee WDM at a time when we had the first contested council election in many years, and at a time when we saw new groups emerging: welcome, Bromley, Calderdale, Milton Keynes, Reading and Newcastle!
I’m not saying there aren’t downsides to being small – we work hard, and we never have enough resources to do everything we want to – but the upsides far outweigh the downsides.
The second lesson I’ve learned is that cheeky, well-timed actions can equal years of behind the scenes lobbying and advocacy.
WDM is awash with creativity, and there have been no shortage of great stunts and actions over the last four years. But timing is everything. When Sharon Bowles, one of the MEPs responsible for the new controls on food speculation, wanted to be a candidate for the next Governor of the Bank of England, we took the opportunity to point out in a letter to the Guardian that we wanted a Governor who would be accountable to the public. As it happened, eleven of our local groups (representing her constituents) had asked for a meeting over the previous months, which she had not granted, in spite of the fact that she had had several meetings with financial lobbyists in the same period. After the letter appeared in the Guardian, we got a phone call the next day inviting us to meet her. In that meeting she was responsive and she agreed to put forward our amendments to the draft regulation.
Sometimes, of course, we’re just cheeky. My favourite action was putting the Amazon up on E-Bay – never mind that that it was taken down after two hours. It was a stunning point that uniquely demonstrated in a quick visual flash how nature is being financialised.
And thirdly, I learned that to challenge power, you can’t rely solely on anger, you need to inspire people with alternatives.
Most of us are angry about injustice, about corporate power, about poverty and about climate change. It’s hard not to be! But anger doesn’t always inspire people to act, and in some cases, it does just the opposite. Anger can breed apathy and a sense that we can’t do anything to change things. But people are increasingly inspired by positive alternatives, like food sovereignty. It’s our role as campaigners to also show that the status quo isn’t a forgone conclusion – that social and economic justice is indeed an aspiration that is achievable.
Campaigning is difficult at the best of times. Aside from the fun bits, it’s emotional and can require immense bravery. But it’s one of the most important things we need today: people who have the courage to speak out, not just to bear witness but also to act for change, and to show another way.
Which brings me to my own personal journey. Years ago, I started working on social policy with the Canadian government, and later on corporate accountability policy – like reforming Company Law – with nef. I got the campaigning bug, though, and transitioned into the more visible and less technical world of campaigning. I thoroughly enjoy both and consider them to be critical in achieving change. But I now want to work on building the alternatives to our globalised, market-led neo-liberal economy, and I’m going to start by learning more about these alternatives, from co-operatives, to community-led enterprise and anything else in between, all of which will be abundant in south India, where I’ll be based.
But I will never give up on campaigning, and I will certainly always be a strong supporter of WDM, its members and its campaigns.