Director at Burma Campaign UK
Apart from your current organisation which other organisations that campaign do you admire and why?
I really admire campaign groups like the Western Sahara Campaign UK and Free West Papua Campaign which keep campaigning relentlessly on issues that governments would rather forget. Thanks to their campaigning these issues are kept on the international agenda, but it must be tough going and frustrating sometimes.
Generally are organisations getting better at campaigning since you began your career? If so, what’s changed?
I began campaigning in the 1980s. At that time most campaigning was pretty much a choice of having a demonstration or calling a boycott, and working out how many badges you could fit on your jacket. Campaigning is in another league now in terms of the scope of campaigning activities and professionalisation. Perhaps one of the biggest shifts has been how campaigning has become more mainstream, rather than being dominated by the left as it used to be. The changes allowing charities to campaign have probably played a big part in that.
Which campaigner inspires you most?
Working on a country like Burma I have met so many amazing people campaigning for freedom and human rights in their country. They are literally risking their lives campaigning in Burma, which puts the complaints we have about working in the third sector here into perspective. If I had to choose campaigners outside Burma I think I’d go for a couple of people who might for some be more controversial characters. First Peter Tatchell, who never gives up, is always willing to speak up for the vulnerable and oppressed, is never afraid to speak his mind even if he knows he’s going to get stick for it, and is certainly effective at getting issues onto the agenda. Secondly I’d choose Bono. I can’t understand the level of vitriol directed against him. He might not be perfect but he has made a huge difference in getting development issues up the international agenda. I saw that myself working on the Jubilee 2000 campaign at Christian Aid. Most celebrities do bugger all to use their profile and their millions to try to make the world a better place, and yet Bono is the one being attacked.
What three attributes make a good campaigner?
First I think you have to plan long term and be relentless, using every possible pressure point to achieve your goal and keep at it doggedly. Second you have to be willing to speak truth to power even if it can be difficult and uncomfortable, remember a pragmatist has never changed the world. Third is focus. Remember your goal and keep focussed on it. Governments and companies which are feeling the pressure are especially good at throwing up initiatives and processes which fall far short of what is being campaigned for. All too often campaigners get diverted into engaging with these processes which are never ending, rather than staying focussed on their original goal.
What’s the most rewarding or exciting campaign you’ve worked on and why?
Being part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign from the beginning and seeing how it took off to become a global phenomenon was amazing. Persuading DFID to finally start giving aid to people in Burma internally displaced by conflict in ethnic states was especially rewarding because I had seen how desperate their situation was and knew we have made a real difference to their lives.
How do you feel campaigns will change over the next five years?
The role of non-issue based campaign groups like AVAAZ, Change.org, 38degrees and others is likely to continue to grow. We have seen for ourselves at Burma Campaign UK how that can have a hugely positive impact in reinforcing our campaigns. But at the same time I worry about a small tendency for this kind of campaign groups to play it safe. They often follow topical and mainstream agenda issues already in the news, rather than setting the agenda, and the testing of campaign actions to decide whether an action is popular enough to go ahead with presents real risks. How many people would have responded positively to a test campaign action for the Birmingham Six or Guildford Four at the start of the campaigns for their freedom?
What advice would you give someone starting their career in campaigning today?
Don’t think that just because you studied hard for a degree you can walk straight into a campaigns role. Be prepared to work your way up.
If you weren’t a campaigner, what would you be?
Writing satirical novels in between pottering around in the garden.