Working in coalition – learning from the last 10 years

A new report provide some important lessons about what works when it comes to campaigning in coalition.

Make Poverty History, The Treatment Action Campaign, Jubilee 2000, The Global Campaign for Climate Action (GCCA). All campaign coalitions that have been active in the last 10 years or so, but what lessons can we draw from them for current and future coalition campaigning?

With funding from the Gates Foundation, Brendan Cox has written ‘Campaigning for International Justice – Learning Lessons (1991 – 2001)’ which attempt to do this. It’s a really excellent read and is based on conversations with hundreds of NGO staff, politicians and civil servants to draw out key lessons from coalition campaigning over the last 20 years.

The whole report is packed with useful reflections, some that you’ll agree with, others that you won’t, but as Cox quotes those who want to ‘repeat their successes must first learn from them’ so its worth reading.

For me, the most interesting section is ‘Identifying Themes’ where Cox tries to identify some core elements that have helped campaigns to succeed or fail. Here are the 10 or so that struck me the most.

1. Organisations are increasingly keen to demonstrate clear attribution of their impact, as such they become concerned that working in coalition can make it harder to attribute impact to one’s own organisation. This is pushing organisations to consider focusing on more and more niche areas where they can provide ‘impact’ but this overlooks the fact that the most important issues often need grand coalitions to achieve change.

2. INGOs are actually coalitions in themselves. That many of the largest organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Amnesty are made up of multiple national chapters and as such getting them to agree on a priority campaign can take a long time in itself, and as a result those INGOs are able to be as flexible as others would require them to be to help form effective coalitions.

3. Unusual coalitions still get noticed. The report cites the example of the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign that got Shell on board which added more creadibility than the addition of many NGOs would have had. Cox also highlights the role that faith groups can have in helping to mobilise a more ‘mainstream’ public.

4. Coalition structures follow the ‘last worst experience’. Make Poverty History was set up without a high-profile secretariat to avoid the tensions that many had found in the Jubilee 2000 campaign that had one. Cox argues that the desire to avoid tension and compromise brand profile in a coaltition means that we’re forming a series of ‘lowest common denominator’ collaborations which are reducing their impact. We need to rethink our models of coaltition advocacy.

5. Trust matters. Cox points to the examples of the Treatment Action Campaign and PWYP which he describes as having ‘a close-knit group at the centre of thea campaign’ which meant high levels of trust. at the centre of the campaign. He contrasts this with the GCCA which started out with a small group, but over time saw that broken down as more staff came into the campaign and reduced its functionality.

6. The challenge of the ‘moment’. Cox highlights the challenge of a campaign focusing on a moment, a political opportunity where the campaign comes to a head, but argues that while they provide focus they can provide real challenges of keeping a campaigns momentum going beyond this.

7. Incrementalism can be a successful approach. Cox suggests that incrementalism in a campaign, the belief that a campaign should take a step-by-step approach to achieve its aims, is often the most successful approach. Suggesting that the evidence of the Internaitonal Camaign to Ban Landmines which successful focused on a targeted definition of landmines rather than going for a broader definition of cluster munitions, or the Jubilee 2000 campaign which focused on debt cancellation for specific countries rather than heading calls to focus on the cancellation of all debt.

8. The role for radicals. One of the main tensions in a coalition can be between those who want a incrementaal approach as opposed to a more radical approach. In practice this has often meant the formation of two coalitions but Cox suggests that utilising these differences can be helping to ‘shift the centre of gravity within a political space, and make the demands of the centerist group sound more resaonsable’.

9. Using celebrities. Another point of tension in many campaigns. Cox finds that those campaigns that have gone beyond a ‘photo call’ and invited celebrities to be involved in policy advocacy have often found that they’ve brought alot of strength to a campaign. He cites the use of George Clooney in the Save Darfur Coalition who has testified before Congress in the US as well as lend his ‘brand’ to the campaign.

10. Finding a common approach to evaluation. Their are lots of recommendations at the end of the report, but the one that caught my immagination the most, was a proposal to create a commonly reconised body responsible for high-quality evaluations which would help to improve future campaigns as well as providing reassurance to funders and supporters.

So what happens next? All in all a very useful report, but at the end of the report I’m left asking, what happens now? Brendon Cox makes many thoughtful recommendation and highlights some stark truths for the sector but my fear is that now the ink has dried on the report nothing else happens, especially as Cox has recently moved into a new role at Save the Children.

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