August 25th 2013

Public Engagement

Ai’s team has invaluable experience of engaging the public in complex issues – engagement which results in positive policy change at the highest levels.

Below is an outline of how the public were engaged in the complex issue of sovereign debt between 1994 and 2000 – and the impact of this public mobilisation on the policies of governments and international institutions. And in the next blog, we will explain how Ai has advised the British government on engaging the public in five of Africa’s poorest countries in the complex issue of maternal and newborn survival.

Back in the 1990s I was set a challenge by a group of British charities: to help Britain’s NGOs lobby the world’s sovereign creditors, in particular the G8, to grant substantial debt cancellation for the world’s poorest countries.  Sovereign debt is a complex subject and at the time it was believed that it would not be possible to engage the British public in the issue.  Furthermore it was a time when Britons supposedly suffered from “Aid fatigue” – and therefore could not be mobilised to support a campaign for debt cancellation.

I was privileged to have a boss, Ed Mayo, that gave me time to set about immersing myself in the issue of sovereign debt. That gave me the time to begin the process I call “cutting the diamond” – analysing an issue in such a way that it turns from a ‘rough diamond’ – a bundle of data, facts and evidence – into a beautifully faceted gem of advocacy. The thing about a diamond that is cut correctly (and diamond cutters generally study a rough stone for about two years before making the cut) is that the facets or analysis not only ‘rings true’ with everyone who hears it, but that it is ‘true’– in the way that a diamond cut perfectly, discovers and reflects the true beauty of the stone.  For advocacy to have impact, the ‘cut diamond’ must both be evidence-based, but also aligned with the values and beliefs of target audiences.

I believe we got the analysis on sovereign debt right: that responsibility for the debt crisis was shared between creditors and debtors; that creditors  made enormous gains – even when debt was not repaid; that the global financial architecture favoured sovereign and private creditors over country debtors; that in the absence of an insolvency framework, sovereign debtors could never emerge from under a burden of debt.

In other words, we re-framed the debt crisis away from the widely-held assumption that all sovereign debtors were corrupt, incompetent and ‘in a muddle’ – so needed charity from rich country creditors and their voters. Instead we argued for the dignity of sovereign debtors, and for justice in the resolution of sovereign debt crises.

When we began, the campaign was largely British. We quickly realised that a small country like Mozambique would have a plethora of foreign, governmental and inter-governmental (IMF/World Bank) debt, and that the campaign would have to involve all the major governmental creditors, if, for example Mozambique was to be helped. So the campaign would have to spread.

Fortunately our re-framing of the issue, and our very simple, but deeply meaningful branding (of Jubilee, the chains of debt that could be transformed into human chains of solidarity across nations) – could easily be adopted and adapted by campaigns in low-income countries, as well as high-income countries.

But the most important aspect of the framing was its ability to engage and persuade the public – in both creditor and debtor countries.  The demand for justice, not pity; the explanation of co-responsibility, both for the debt but also for corruption and the diversion of wealth from poor to rich countries – all this resonated as true with publics as diverse as those in Japan, Kenya and the United States.

Having ‘cut the diamond’ – got the framing and branding right, the campaign quickly took on a life of its own. Before long  it was global, with active Jubilee 2000 associations in 26 countries. It resulted in about $100bn (in nominal terms) of debt being cancelled for 35 of the poorest countries.

The first is the ability to carefully, and continually  survey the landscape – social, political and economic.

The second  is the process I call “cutting the diamond” – researching and analysing the advocacy challenge (e.g. debt cancellation, climate change, women’s rights, resource mobilisation, corporate social responsibility) framing goals, ‘The Ask’ and messaging; marshalling arguments and developing strategy.  It is a process that requires the active participation of stakeholders.

Next – and vital to success – is sound leadership.

The fourth involves connection with clearly defined audiences – using effective communication and carefully chosen language.

The fifth is the use of design as a powerful means of communication.

While adhering to the strategy, the sixth is the capacity to be tactical; ‘fleet of foot’ and alive to opportunities.

Seventh: all campaigns need a strong, guiding and cohesive institution.

Finally, monitor and evaluate of the impact of your campaign.  Hold decision-makers and the advocacy community itself to account

Learn more about Ai’s work on the Jubilee 2000 campaign >


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