It seems as if the public is as engaged with issues as ever before, and the campaigning groups continue to develop who they target and how they do so

In mid-February, 50 environmental activists were arrested for tying themselves to the gates of the White House. Among the protestors were Nasa climate scientist James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah, and Michael Brune, chief executive of the Sierra Club, the venerable environmental group.

They were protesting against the proposed $7bn Keystone XL pipeline, which, if authorised by Barack Obama, will transport oil derived from the Canadian tar sands 1,179 miles from Alberta to refineries in Texas.

Public confidence in political systems is at an all time low. The economic crisis has knocked faith in capitalism, and many – from both the developed and developing world – increasingly question whether their governance institutions are capable of delivering the social and environmental justice demanded by their citizens. It is an environment ripe for activism and for campaign groups seeking out new and innovative ways to serve the needs of their members.

The Keystone XL project has not lacked opposition. Since it was approved in 2005, it has been the target of high-profile environmental campaigns and civil protests. Most recently, in 2011, several thousand protestors formed a human chain around the White House in an effort to persuade the US president to block the proposals.

But what marked this protest out from others was the involvement of the Sierra Club. The organisation’s participation broke a 120-year prohibition against engaging in acts of civil disobedience. It was, in other words, the first time the Sierra Club had broken the law in pursuit of its campaign objectives.

Civil disobedience

Founded in 1892 by the famous conservationist John Muir, the Sierra Club is one of the oldest and well-recognised environmental groups in the US. With 2.1 million members across all 50 US states it is also the largest and most diverse.

Allison Chin is president of the club and has been a member since 1982. She participated in the protest. While she believes that the club’s approach and tactics have remained steady over the years, she also argues that in exceptional circumstances civil disobedience is acceptable.

“We have a long tradition of protest in America. Using this tactic has been pivotal in history. Given the right set of circumstances and moment, it can be an effective tool if used strategically. That’s why the board made this decision.”

Participating in the protest required the club’s board of directors to temporarily suspend the club’s policy prohibiting engagement in illegal activities. Although a “one-off limited exception”, many will be assessing the long-term implications for the club’s broader campaign strategy.

The Sierra Club example highlights one of the modern hallmarks of social and environmental campaigning. Pretty much anything goes, provided it meets the interests of the membership and the campaign objectives. 

Greenpeace is one campaign group well recognised for getting its hands dirty. Over the last 25 years it has pioneered a unique style of corporate and political campaigning. Its campaigns are better coordinated and more international than at any time in the organisation’s history, a trend reflected among the other big global campaign groups.

Ben Stewart is head of media at Greenpeace UK. He has been an integral part of the organisation’s UK campaigns for many years, devising media strategy and working closely with the mobilisation unit. He says those working at Greenpeace enjoy a high degree of flexibility when determining their approach to specific campaigns.

“To the extent that we are responsible to our supporters, we have a huge amount of freedom to come up with a product that resonates with the audience. We don’t take money from corporations or government, only members of the public, and if we’re not getting the results they want then we’re not doing our job,” says Stewart.

Stewart is also responsible for coordinating international media for the Stop Shell, Save the Arctic campaign. One of Greenpeace’s largest and well-resourced campaigns, it has targeted Shell UK petrol pumps as well as an oil-drilling ship in New Zealand.

At the Rio Earth Summit in June 2012, the organisation launched a celebrity-backed petition calling on the United Nations to establish a global sanctuary in the Arctic. By January this year, the petition had registered 2.5 million signatures.

Systems thinking

The Greenpeace Arctic campaign underlines one of the most noticeable developments in social and environmental campaigning over the last 10-15 years: the increasing scale and sophistication of the campaigns. While the tactical mix hasn’t changed much – press releases, protests and rallies, legislative lobbying, consumer and corporate pressure – that mix is now deployed more strategically, thoughtfully and internationally than ever before.

Global Witness’s Gavin Hayman says the starting point for any new Global Witness campaign is a rigorous power analysis of the institutions and actors at play. “We tend to prefer systemic solutions,” he says. “It’s great to get individual behavioural modification by companies, but we always ask what is the systemic solution so this doesn’t happen again.”

Global Witness was formally constituted in 1995. Its work on blood diamonds in the late 1990s thrust the organisation into the limelight and through a combination of detailed on-the-ground investigation and high-level networking and influencing, the organisation has earned itself both a feared and respected place on the NGO map.

Unlike other campaign NGOs, Global Witness does not have a membership base. For Hayman, this absence of a membership mandate provides a unique degree of flexibility and creativity when choosing the right approach to a particular campaign.

“We ask, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve and what’s the best way to do that?” Hayman says. “It doesn’t need to be A, B or C. We can genuinely be creative and we don’t have to speak to a specific audience or constituency.”

This freedom may also explain why Global Witness is more than willing to criticise other NGOs or to drop out of coalitions entirely, if it feels they are part of the problem.

In 2011, it accused WWF of failing to regulate its flagship Global Forest and Trade Network in the Global Witness report Pandering to Loggers. The report led to a public war of words between the two organisations.

Later that year, Global Witness announced it would be leaving the Kimberley Process – the multi-stakeholder initiative designed to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the market. The process had “failed to address the clear links between diamonds, violence and tyranny”, said Global Witness.

Legal and financial approaches

Systemic thinking is not unique to Global Witness, of course. In recent years, activist NGOs from across the spectrum have increasingly looked to target financial power centres.

Friends of the Earth targeted UK pension providers to pressure oil companies BP and Shell to divest their interests in Canadian tar sands. Through work with FairPensions, an investor engagement and activism charity, shareholder resolutions were brought forward at both BP and Shell’s AGMs in 2010.

A similar approach has been adopted against Sime Darby, the Malaysian-based palm oil producer. Friends of the Earth accused the company of illegal land grabs and human rights violations in its Liberian palm oil operations. A targeted campaign against the company’s European financial backers has begun, with letters disseminated to investors as recently as January 2013.

Systems thinking also requires legal approaches; indeed one of the common threads uniting most campaigning NGOs is a scepticism of the voluntary approaches adopted by most large multinational companies and pushed by more corporate-friendly NGOs. Voluntary agreements and initiatives may have a role to play, but it is only regulation – and the enforcement of it – that can deliver a level playing field, campaigners say.

Paul de Clerck is head of the economic justice programme at Friends of the Earth Europe. He says his organisation is increasingly using legal approaches simply because voluntary commitments do not work in the end. Much of his time is, he says, spent opposing corporate lobbying for deregulation in Brussels.

“Here in the EU there is a completely unbalanced lobby situation. Most of the advisory groups to the European commission are dominated by advisers from the corporate sector. They are using the economic crisis to push a deregulatory agenda.”

Ineke Zeldenrust, international co-ordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, similarly stresses the need for binding, legal agreements in the garment manufacturing sector. “It is quite clear that voluntary commitments aren’t enough,” she says. “You need to translate that into law and binding agreements with local unions and suppliers.”

Local and global

While organisations have been smartening up their campaigns, they have also been working on a scale hitherto not possible. For the large international groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace this involves applying a mix of pressure locally and internationally.

Friends of the Earth’s offensives against Asian agri-business Wilmar in Uganda and Sime Darby in Liberia have coupled local campaigning and intelligence gathering with political and investor pressure in Europe.

In its campaign against the Indonesia-based pulp and paper company APP, Greenpeace targeted the company’s customer base across Europe and North America while engaging APP locally, through its Indonesian office.

In a breakthrough announcement in February 2013, APP pledged to end the clearing of natural forests across its entire supply chain with immediate effect, bringing forward commitments made in its 2020 Sustainability Roadmap by two years. The announcement was hailed by Greenpeace as “highly significant”.

These examples highlight the increasingly important role developing country offices and their memberships play in determining the campaign agenda of western NGOs; a point supported by Friends of the Earth’s de Clerck.

“FoE used to be much more active in Europe and the US, while over the last 15 years the network has expanded in developing countries. They have gained in strength and importance and we are now less dominated by US or European positions and ways of working,” says de Clerck.

Campaign by Twitter

Advances in communications have, of course, played a fundamental role in the way western NGO campaign groups mobilise their supporters and members. So too have they shaped the way the NGOs operate and function.

The Clean Clothes Campaign is one organisation that has benefited greatly from advances in communications. Founded in 1989, the campaign operates as an alliance of organisations, bringing together and mobilising the networks of a variety of different social and labour rights groups.

Ineke Zeldenrust works at the group’s international secretariat in the Netherlands. She says the strength of the alliance lies in its ability to mobilise its member networks in pursuit of its campaigns, rather than replicating those campaign capacities in-house. Communications media have played an instrumental role in enabling this approach.

“When we started out it was really about bringing people together to exchange information. Now the partners can find each other relatively easily and often they don’t need physical face-to-face meetings. Our value is as a clearinghouse,” Zeldenrust says.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has been particularly effective in exploiting digital media through its networks. In 2012, a campaign targeted the Adidas originals Facebook page, accusing the company of failing to pay its Indonesian workers severance pay.

The wider campaign against Adidas secured 50,000 signatures by mobilising the networks of other groups such as Labour Behind the Label and United Students against Sweatshops.

For supply chains expert Sean Ansett, former director of global partnerships at Gap, the contribution of social and other digital media cannot be overstated. It has, he says, reduced the costs of campaigns and enabled campaign groups to mobilise thousands of supporters at the touch of a button while personalising campaigns to a degree not possible before.

Ansett points to the influence of campaign aggregators such as “They have a deep and rich network of users that they can mobilise very quickly. They are low cost, deliver a high gross response, and their data is frequently used by journalists,” he says.

The information divide

Many western labour rights NGOs now operate as information hubs as well as campaign groups in their own right. They bridge information gaps between local labour groups in developing countries and multinational brands and their consumers in the west.

Ansett says the role of these groups is more facilitative, helping to create first points of contacts between the western brands and local labour groups. They often provide translation services as well as financial and other support to local labour rights groups in countries such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Founded in 2000, China Labor Watch is an example of this type of labour rights group. With offices in Shenzhen and New York, the organisation both investigates labour rights abuses in Chinese factories supplying western multinational brands and provides a range of softer support to factory workers and local NGOs. Support includes seed funding for the establishment of local labour NGOs, legal training to workers and a 24-hour worker hotline. 

China Labor Watch was one of the first labour right groups to investigate Apple’s contract electronics supplier Foxconn. Coupled with the pressure of other labour groups, its work led to Apple joining the Fair Labor Association and an independent FLA investigation of Apple’s China supply chain in 2012.

NGO campaigning is evolving. So too are the NGOs. They are smarter, better coordinated and more global in both their approach and representation than ever before. Evaluating their collective impact is of course difficult. But when politics and economics fail there is increasing appetite for new ideas and ways of working.

Activist  Facebook  NGO  NGO campaigning  Rob Bailes  stakeholder engagement 

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