Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Campaigns

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30


Justin Forsyth – Director of Policy, Oxfam

Andrew Sims – Director of Policy, New Economics Foundation

Simon Maxwell - Director, ODI

  1. Simon Maxwell introduced the fourth meeting in the 'Does Evidence Matter?' series, this one on NGO campaigns. One of the roles researchers can play is to service campaigners. In addition, researchers can learn from campaigners when it comes to influencing policy change.
  2. Andrew Sims pointed out that policy change is frequently not a rational process. He gave an initial illustration of how the brain makes decisions: the decision is based on how the brain guesses that you will feel once the decision has been made. In other words, decisions are subjective processes.
  3. To show that the world is run on very little evidence and a lot of assumptions, Andrew highlighted two examples. The first example is trade liberalisation. There are a range of assumptions that underlie the World Bank's tendency to recommend liberalisation policies, and often these are inversely related to the evidence on what people say they need - even though the evidence has been gathered by the Bank.
  4. The second example is globalisation: is it going to bring us all together or drive the rich and the poor further apart? According to Wade, it is possible to list eight different views on globalisation. Seven of these suggest that globalisation will drive groups further apart. Yet the Economist, for example, chooses to base its analyses on the one view that suggests that globalisation is a unifying force.
  5. It is equally important to point out evidence gaps. An example of this is that there has not yet been done an overview of the impact of global warming on the possibility of achieving the MDGs. Yet global warming will have a huge impact on this.
  6. Andrew went through four examples of NEF campaigns and highlighted the use of evidence in each:
    1. NEF campaigned for supermarkets to adopt codes of conduct on the sourcing of their products. The evidence they used was partly based on original research, and was presented in a series of reports that managed to grab the attention of Clare Short. The result of the campaign was that most supermarkets adopted a voluntary code of conduct.
    2. Debt campaign. The evidence behind the campaign for debt relief entailed a lot of number crunching and economic analysis. In addition, personal testimonies and stories were drawn on. A high degree of lobbying and a new movement, Jubilee 2000, resulted in a new awareness among the public that debt is not just an economic issue but also political. All in all the success of the campaign has been moderate.
    3. GM foods. The campaign on GM foods did not only rely on evidence, but also pointed out the gaps in the existing evidence base. Again, the campaign had moderate success. Importantly, it did manage to bring about a change in public attitude, and a new coalition has grown out of it. The most successful aspect of the campaign was to spark public debate on the issue.
    4. Local community sustainability. NEF has recently released a report entitled Ghost Town Britain, which outlines the current state of rural communities. The report argues that local retail sectors are being hollowed out and that rural Britain is facing decreasing sustainability. The report has so far led to a Parliamentary campaign for a new Bill for local community sustainability.
  7. In conclusion, Andrew highlighted four lessons learnt:
    1. The higher you advance in an organisational structure, the more you have to internalise the propaganda.
    2. Evidence is rarely conclusive. Most of the time we have to act on imperfect information with more or less unpredictable outcomes.
    3. Absence of evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of absence of harm. The absence of evidence is closely linked to political agenda-setting power.
    4. A false positive diagnosis can be inconvenient. But a false negative diagnosis can be catastrophic.
  8. Justin Forsyth spoke about the need to situate the role of evidence in a wider setting. The big question is: How does change happen? The answer to this question will determine whether and what kind of evidence you should use. Evidence is only one part of a much larger change strategy. Sometimes, the change process is not affected by evidence - one example of such a situation is the protracted conflict in Colombia.
  9. Evidence matters at different times. This week Oxfam is meeting with top politicians - Patricia Hewitt, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair. However, whether or not Oxfam manages to influence these politicians is frequently not dependent on the evidence, but on political pressure. The political context is very important. Evidence at the right moment matters, but at other times, political pressure matters far more.
  10. How can campaigns work effectively? Firstly, it is very important to have a campaign that works as a wedge. At heart it is based on a big issue - e.g. the environment. But the campaign itself is strongly focused on a single issue - e.g. save the whale. Campaigns about coffee and patents, for example, serve as wedges that all spring out of the same big issue: the dynamics of globalisation.
  11. Secondly, campaigns only succeed if they are broad-based and fairly loose coalitions. They should not be run by a Stalinist-type central committee that dictates everything, but should be based on the ideal of 'let a thousand flowers bloom' within the limits of a joint strategy.
  12. Thirdly, we should be careful not to split up different roles too much. A campaign is dependent on work at several levels: in-depth research, popular mass campaigns, and high-level political lobbying. All levels need to be taken into account. When that is said, it must also be noted that once a space has been opened up by a campaign, it can be difficult to know when to strike. For example, at the moment Oxfam are engaged in the issue of the TRIPS agreement, which highlights the fact that it is important to strike at the right level at just the right moment.
  13. Fourthly, the 'Birmingham moment' is important. This is the moment when the terms of the debate change. Even though the policy might not be altered yet, the Birmingham moment signals that the public argument has been won, and politicians have to engage seriously with the issue at hand, e.g. debt relief.
  14. Finally, it is important to foster ownership among members of a coalition campaign. This can be done through spending a relatively long time on drawing up terms for joint research, joint activities, joint strategy, etc.
  15. To conclude, Justin used the example of Oxfam's campaign on access to medicines. The campaign was based on a combination of own research, commissioned papers, adoption of others' research, and research on specific companies. The wedge of the campaign was to establish the connection between patents, access to medicines and trade rules. The evidence was pulled together into a report, which was presented a number of places - including on Wall Street and in the City. This had the effect of generating some 'inside' pressure from e.g. people in the City on the companies concerned. The corporate angle also made it easier to get the campaign into the news.
  16. Comments from the audience:
    1. Do the public need the evidence behind campaigns - and if so, how much of it? The public frequently react on the basis of a few illustrations rather than in-depth evidence.
    2. Evidence for campaigns can be misused.
    3. Jubilee was only one small factor in the larger lead-up to debt relief. Just as important were politicians (such as Gordon Brown), bankers and IMF staff.
    4. We need different sales pitches for different audiences. But when lobbying at a high political level - e.g. when trying to convince Gordon Brown - it is crucial to be able to present detailed evidence of possible means and outcomes.
    5. Never underestimate the power of personal motivations when seeking policy change. For example, what motivated Larry Summers and Bono from U2 to support debt relief?
  17. To sum up, Simon Maxwell asked each of the speakers to briefly answer the question of what researchers can do better in order to support campaigners. Andrew Simms said that it would help if researchers lived in the real world. A simulation of this could be achieved if researchers imagined themselves having to phone up a busy news editor and explain to him or her why your particular issue should take precedence over everything else. Justin Forsyth suggested that one of the most important roles researchers can play is to support Southern governments and NGOs to become more engaged themselves in debates and decision-making processes.


The fourth meeting in the 'Does Evidence Matter?' series focused on NGO campaigns. One of the roles researchers can play is to service campaigners. In addition, researchers can learn from campaigners when it comes to influencing policy change.

But what role do they play in policy processes? Are they evidence based? Are they really effective? How? How do they communicate? How does one go about building coalitions? This event tackles these questions.