Can we ever hope to influence Beijing?

China officially became the second biggest economy in the world last month overtaking Japan for the first time, and while the influence of China over most international processes has been clear for a long time, can we ever expect to influence the Chinese government?

Both Oxfam and Greenpeace must believe so, as they’ve expanded out of Hong Kong to open offices in Beijing and include advocacy as one of the priority activities that they’re involved.

However putting the words ‘China+advocacy’ or ‘Influencing Chinese government’ doesn’t come up with many useful results.

No doubt that’s partly down to the lack of documents in English and the unique political system in the country. But even so the material about doing so seems to be very scarce, so I hope that this post will be an opportunity to learn from others about how organisation have gone about starting to think about the opportunities.

Here are two example of advocacy in or towards China that I’m aware about.

What others can you add? And what, if anything can we learn from them?

Greenpeace East Asia – Last year, Greenpeace alongside ad-agency Ogilvy turned 80,000 pairs of used chopsticks into trees which were displayed in Beijing in an attempt to highlight the impact of using disposable chopsticks was having on the countries forests, and encouraged people to sign a pledge to carry around their own pair of chopsticks. However, the focus of this campaign was on raising public awareness and personal action rather than political action.

Avaaz – In 2007/08 the online campaign movement repeatedly asked its supporters to send messages to the Chinese government over the situation in Burma. It collected an impressive 800,000 names on its petition which called for an end of the oppressive crackdown on demonstrators, including placing an advert in the Financial Times asking ‘What Will China Stand For?‘.

For me, these two examples raise as many questions as they answer. Do our traditional models of ‘northern’ advocacy need to change if we want to be effective in China? Is ‘quiet’ advocacy more likely to work than public mobilisation? What’s the role of the international media? Does China worry about the way its perceived by others around the world?

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Are we seeing the first ‘twitter’ revolution – a campaign reader

For the last month my trending topics have included terms which relate to the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and now Libya, but can the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt be described as the first ‘twitter revolution’?  Here are some useful articles about the role of social media in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Please do suggest additional articles that help to understand the role of social media.

The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont in The truth about Twitter, Facebook and the uprisings in the Arab world attempt a fairly objective look at the use of social media in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the contribution they may have made to recent events.

Malcolm Gladwell has taken some flack recently for suggesting that the revolution won’t be tweeted, an argument he picks up again for Egypt in his regular column in the New Yorker. Perhaps more interesting Wired UK writes David Kravets also argues it’s too early to call this a ‘twitter revolution’.

Charlie Beckett, Director of POLIS at LSE agrees that social media didn’t cause the revolution, but suggests that it ‘is now a useful indicator, if not predictor, of political change’. He has makes some important observations about the role of citizen media in telling the story of recent weeks.

Jay Rosen pokes fun at The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article and suggests that they avoid looking at the bigger question about ‘how does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state’. Over at Huffington Post, Jose Antonio Vargas has long article entitled Egypt, The Age Of Disruption And The ‘Me’ In Media which explores some of these questions.

Finally Oxfam’s Duncan Green had a go at looking at the broader drivers of change at work, including the importance of technology on his Oxfam blog and then followed it up with reflections on some of the comments.

h/t @timsowula for some useful links.

APPGs and Charities – What the data shows

The APPG on Smoking and Health meeting - from http://www.ash.org.uk

The Guardian DataBlog has today made available information on all the contributions made to support the work of All Party Parliamentary Groups in the current Parliament. They found that 283 of the 450 groups received some kind of financial support from outside interests.

The groups, often know as APPGs for short, are made up of MPs and Members of the House of Lords who share a particular interest in a subject or country and hold meetings related to their shared interest.

Charities have long made use of APPGs as a way of raising awareness within Parliament and supporting those MPs and Lords who have an interest in a particular issue to raise questions with Government ministers and get involved in policy discussions.

Some quick sorting of the data shows the extent of current involvement;

Money

  • Together 20 charities contribute £97,763 to the costs of running 9 All Party Groups, with the Great Lakes Region of Africa APPG receiving the most (£27,500) and the Dementia APPG the least (£1866).
  • The International Planned Parenthood Federation is the biggest contributor giving £12,356 to the Population, Development and Reproductive Health APPG and £5000 to the HIV/AIDS APPG.
  • Christian Aid is the only other NGO which gives to more than one group,  contributing to both the Great Lakes Group (£6000) and Agriculture and Food for Development Group (£3000), and development NGOs are by far the most generous providing just under £78,000 in total.
  • The average contribution to an APPG is just under £5000.
  • The use for most of the contributions is not specified, but 5 charities provide funding for an administrator while others are down as covering the cost of printing a report or costs of a trip for members of the APPG.

Support

  • 64 Charities provide secretarial support to a APPG. Almost all of the time this is support a group that is linked to the organisations purposes, for example the National Autism Society provides support for the Autism APPG, the Tibet Society to the Tibet APPG, etc.
  • Results UK is the only NGO that provides secretarial support to more than one APPG providing it to the Global Education for All, Microfiance and TB APPGs.
  • 5 APPGs report that charities have helped to support the cost of receptions or other events.

No doubt some will suggest that this isn’t how charities should be using their money, but I personally think it provides good value.

These groups have long been used as way of engaging and influencing busy MPs. Equally when you consider the bigger picture, that £1.6 million is spent on APPGs in total (so the charitable sector for 6% of the total) and the beer and wine industry can contribute £52,000 to the Beer group, I believe these figures are fairly modest.

What do you think? Are supporting an APPG a good or bad use of money?

In the interests of transparency, you can give the dataset that I’ve used adapted from the Guardian’s here. I’m happy to make amendments if notified of a mistake or inaccuracy (I’m human so expect that I’ve made a mistake or two). I have not included contributions made by Charitable Trusts or Foundations, or included Trade Associations which may in some instances be classed as charities.

EU Citizens Initiative – All you wanted to know (and much more beside)

Yesterday, the European Council adopted a regulation that will allow the ‘European Citizens Initiative’ to go ahead from early 2012.

A key part of the Lisbon Treaty, the initiative allows a group of  citizen to bring legislative proposals to the European Commission, providing they can gain the support of a million other Europeans.

The documentation is suitably dense but in summary, I understand it as follows;

The initiative allows any group of citizens the opportunity to directly approach the European Commission with a proposal for a legal act of the Union. To do this you need to get a million (verifiable) signatures within 12 months from at least 7 member states (and achieve thresholds in each of these countries). Then the initiative will then get considered by the Commission who may or may not act on it and provide you an opportunity for a Public Hearing at the European Parliament.

I have my doubts about the impact that this will have. It’s a nice idea but the opportunities that it really affords to influence or change EU law if you can collect 1 million signatures seem weak. I’ll leave it to readers of the blog to suggest if they think it’s an effective campaigning method or not.

A more detailed summary of the Regulation is below, although the Commission has committed to bring out more comprehensive and user-friendly guide on the citizens’ initiative shortly;

  • The initiative in theory affords citizens the same rights as members of the European Parliament and Council to submit proposals for legal acts of the Union.
  • Organisers need to get signatures (known as statements of support) from citizens in at least one-quarter of Member States – so 7 at present.
  • Plus achieve a minimum number from each of these states, which is equal to 750 signatures per MEP from the member state.
    • So you only need to get 4,500 Estonians to agree with you (by virtue of having 6 MEPs) but you’ll need 74,250 Germans to agree with you (because the country has 99 MEPs).
  • It needs to be organised by a ‘Citizens Committee’ comprised of individuals from at least 7 member states.
  • Text needs to be submitted in advance (in any official language) for approval by the Commission who will give this within 2 months.
  • The Commission will also run a website that will hold a register of all valid initiatives.
  • The Commission can reject it if they feel that the initiative does not propose a ‘legal act of the Union‘, is ‘manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious‘, or ‘is contrary to the values of the Union‘.
  • Citizens of Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovakia, Finland and UK won’t need to provide a valid ID number as part of signing. Citizens of other states will.
  • The organisers of the initiative need to be transparent about any sources of funding they are receiving to promote the petition.
  • Statements of support (names on the petition) need to be collected within 12 months of the initiative being approved by the Commission.
  • Names can be collected on-line and the Commission will provide open-source software to facilitate this.
  • When the target has been reached, the names will need to be submitted to the relevant authority within the a Member State for the purpose of verification. This has to be completed within 3 months and comes at no cost to the organisers.
  • The initiative should then be submitted to the Commission accompanied by the relevant paperwork.
  • The amount spent in support of the initiative needs to be declared to the Commission when it is submitted, and must not be any more than the limits set down for political parties.
  • The Commission will receive the initiative, meeting with representatives of the initiative at a ‘appropriate level’ and will set out its political and legal conclusions within 3 months, including the action it will/won’t take.
  • After this has happened the organisers of the petition will have the opportunity to present the initiative to a public meeting, organised by the European Parliament, where a representative of the Commission will attend.
  • The idea will be reviewed every 3 years.
  • The rest of the document covers the way that the regulation will be implemented in Member States, some issues around data protection and also about delegation of powers.

So when might we see the first successful initiatives?
A year has been allowed for the Commission and Member States to prepare for it implementation so the first initiatives won’t be able to be submitted until March 2012 (and could take 2 months for approval, so May 2012). Then assuming it takes at least (and I reckon it’ll be much longer) 6 months to collect the required signatures (November 2012), another 3 months for Member States to verify the information (February 2013), then another 3 for the Commission to consider the initiative (May 2013), we could see the first Public Hearings happening in early Summer 2013.

Happy Birthday War on Want

I wasn’t aware of the story that led to the founding of campaigning organisation War on Want until this week but it’s an inspiring reminder of the difference that one individual can make, the story goes like this;

On 12th February 1951, The Manchester Guardian published a letter from Victor Gollancz (a prominent publisher and socialist) calling for people to join him in an urgent campaign against world poverty and militarism. Britain was at that time fighting an unwinnable war in Korea, and Gollancz asked all those who agreed with his call for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict to send him a postcard marked with the single word “yes”.

The letter provoked a massive response. Within a month, Gollancz had received more than 10,000 postcards, and War on Want was born.

War on Want celebrated 60 years since that letter was published  last weekend, and while I don’t always agreed with everything that War on Want has said or the approach it always takes to campaigning, I’m grateful for what they’ve been doing for the last 60 years. Here are some of my reasons, do add yours in the comments below.

1. Faithfully stuck to their founding principles – Unlike most of the big campaigning organisations in the development sector, War on Want didn’t start out as a service provider and then moved into advocacy. As the story of Victor Gollancz shows, right from the start War on Want understood that ‘Poverty was Political’ and ever since they’ve been in the business of speaking out. Today they run campaigns in the UK on a variety of issues as well as raising money to support grassroots organising across the world.

2. Spoken up on issues that other’s have overlooked – Few other charities have such a diverse portfolio of campaign issues with the organisation currently working on Trade Justice, Palestine and Sweatshops. But unlike many other campaigning organisations, one of the characteristics of  War on Want’s campaigning is that they doggedly stick to the issues that they’ve selected to work on even when others have moved on. For example they’re still talking about Trade Justice when charities like Christian Aid and CAFOD moved on year ago.

But it’s not simply sticking with issues when others have moved on, they’re often ahead of the agenda, War on Want was one of the first organisations to start to talk about a Tobin Tax, long before governments and other NGOs were discussing the need for a financial transaction tax.

3. Not afraid to court controversy – The history of War on Want shows a long list of times when they’ve courted controversy or challenge the status quo, for example questioning the Charity Commission when it questioned the organisations support for the Bangladesh national liberation struggle, or being vocal in its support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in Palestine despite complaints from Conservative MPs and others. It might have been easy for the organisation to accept these criticism and back down, but time and time again War on Want has demonstrated a admirable fearlessness.

So Happy 60th Birthday War on Want….here’s to another 60 years.

#SaveOurForest – a campaign reader

Put a note against Thursday 17th February in your diary, as it marks an important moment for campaigning in the UK. The coming of age of 38 degrees.

Today, the online campaigning movement celebrated as it notched up its most high-profile victory yet, the government make a U-turn and abandons its plan to sell of the forests (watch the announcement to Parliament here).

Lots has already been written about the campaign, and I don’t think I can add much at present,  here is a reader of some of the top articles which explore how the campaign unfolded and the impact it’s had.

1. The Guardian explores the important role that social media played in the campaign in Forest sell-off: Social media celebrates victory

2. Johnny Chatterton, from 38 degrees writes for Left Foot Forward about the size of the campaign, with his boss, David Babbs, Executive Director saying  ‘Forest sell-off U-turn is a victory for people power

3. Chris Rose wrote last week about how ‘Clicktivism By-passes Inside Track To Harry Potter Forest‘ and also the roots that this campaign had in previous battles for forests around the country.

4.  Jonathan Porritt criticised the larger environmental NGOs by not supporting the campaign of ‘collective betrayal‘ on his blog, while this blog argued that the campaign had highlighted some of the challenges large NGOs faced in responding to an issue with the agility an organisation like 38 degrees can.

5. The Sunday Telegraph ran many articles, demonstrating the broad support the campaign had ‘Save our forests, say celebrities and leading figure’ something that was clearly important in the victory.

6. But not everyone has been so kind, with Anthony Barnett at Open Democracy, suggesting that 38 degrees shouldn’t take all the credit for the campaign victory, following up on an earlier post challenging them not to compete but campaign with others.

7. But the last word picture should go to cartoonist Steve Bell in today’s Guardian.

What other articles have you read that help to explain the story behind the campaign? Why did this campaign work when so many others haven’t?

What’s stopping NGOs speaking out against the cuts?

‘The Insider’ is turning into a must read blog for those involved in the Third Sector. Written by an anonymous individual in a major NGO, the blog last week dwelt on the challenge of speaking up in the new political landscape.

‘The problem is that as a charity we have a mission to campaign as well as to serve….we are making some noise about this threat but not quite enough to upset anyone, just in case we fall out of favour. It’s an old argument but still a relevant one’

It picks up on a theme that Polly Toynbee explored in the Guardian last week on the back on Jonathan Porritt’s criticism of environmental NGOs for not speaking out on the sell off of the forests, Toynbee quotes Debroah Doane from WDM who said;

“The same is happening with development NGOs – there is a fawning attitude over this government which defies belief. Many are acting in their own self-interest, at the behest of government, fearing cuts if they raise their head above the parapet. So professionalised have they become that they’ve lost the view of the role they’re meant to play – to uphold the public good, and fight for the rights of the commons, by keeping government held to account”

I think it’s wrong to suggest that the whole NGO sector has totally lost its collective voice since the new government came into power.

Sir Stephen Bubb, head of ACEVO (Association of Chief Execs of Voluntary Organisations, so hardly a radical bunch) wrote in response to criticism from Big Society Ambassador, Shaune Bailey who suggested that charities are simply ‘a few people with their vested interests who think they were going to make a lot of money’ that his statement was ‘a disgusting slur on the work of some of our countries most loved and most effective institutions. Our ” vested interests” are the most vulnerable, the most needy and the most damaged parts of our communities’

But I do recognise a hesitance from some to get stuck in to criticising the programme of cuts outlined by the current government.

So what’s could be stopping NGOs from speaking out?

The common argument is that it’s about NGOs worrying about loosing their funding, and there is certainly truth in that, especially in the sectors that are most reliant on large amounts central or local government funding to provide core service.  The new government has come to power at a time when voluntary income in scarcer, and many organisations are worrying about future funding.

But I don’t believe its simply balance sheets that are driving the debate.

Waiting to make a ‘big’ impact?
For some, I think its about choosing the right moment, there is no doubt that when some of the big NGOs come out and critique the actions of the government it’ll be big news. It is if you like a nuclear option, and a tool that can perhaps only be used once (perhaps twice) before it becomes ineffective. Are some NGOs waiting for the ‘right’ moment to go public with their concerns and if so how many have thought through what the red lines are that would lead them to do that? Equally, I imagine that many NGOs are making their concerns known privately to MPs and minister, but will it get to a point when they feel the need to go ‘public’.

Legal Restrictions
For others, it’s the restrictions that charitable status places on them (something that doesn’t for example cover organisations like WDM or Greenpeace who have been set up to be largely free of these restrictions). According to the NCVO website, charities are allowed to campaign, providing it is ‘trying to change a law or government policy’ and can keep going ‘until its goal has been met, but political activity can not become the only activity of a charity, indefinitely; it should be a means to an end, rather than the end itself’.

Are NGOs concerned that statements against particular cuts, could be threaten their need to remain independent and politically neutral’ and be interpreted as ‘seeking to persuade people to vote for or against a candidate or political party’? Is this concern especially acute given the coalition government, which means that the Labour Party is the main political party speaking out against most of the cuts? However, if NGOs believe that the cuts are seriously undermining their ability to fulfil their overall objectives at what point do the restrictions need to be challenged?

Understanding the landscape
Finally, are some NGOs still trying to make sense of how to influence the new government, and until they do that they’re going to be reluctant to burn their bridges by being seen as overly critical.  The sector has become used to a certain level of open door access to minister and decision makers within Whitehall, but that’s appears to has somewhat disappeared (evidenced by the records released by Tom Watson before Christmas about who was getting meetings at No 10).

Combine that with a scepticism that NGOs are simply lobbying outfits by part of the new intake of MPs and a growth in ‘crowd sourcing’ policy initiatives that appear to leap frog one of the more traditional roles that NGOs have played, are some still trying to work out the most effective ‘insider’ approach before resorting to an ‘outsider’ strategy?