Scrutinizing ONE’s “Secret Sauce” for Global Social Change
How a global NGO has fought extreme poverty using a formula that mixes pragmatic incrementalism and practical idealism with pop culture.
This week, our organization, ONE, celebrates 10 years of campaigning with members and partner organizations around the world. We’ve come a long way together. Working with innovative partnerships, we have helped cancel 100 percent of the debts of 35 of the poorest countries; reformed trade and transparency laws; nearly doubled smart aid to Africa; and tried, tested, then scaled life-saving initiatives on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and child-killing diseases in the developing world.
We’ve campaigned for these global social change policies by applying a “secret sauce”—a rough recipe composed of “five P’s” that I’ll share here. I do this not to credit our team, but to expose the strategy to scrutiny, maybe a little ridicule, in the hope that it spurs more analysis of a dangerously under-studied subject: what makes for effective advocacy. Given a disillusion with political leadership, we must seriously examine engagement strategies and tactics to help build broad constituencies for effective and sustained advocacy.
Advocacy must start with evidence-based policy ideas. It sounds obvious, but it’s revealing how many campaigns avoid disciplining their approach by assessing evidence of what works and doesn’t. We must test firmly held beliefs with evidence. This requires that organizations build a sound network of relations with both think tanks and implementers. For example, when we worked on debt relief, we backed a successful pilot project in Uganda; when we worked on AIDS treatments, we campaigned for the scaling of pilot programs run by Médecins Sans Frontières or Partners in Health that helped people living with HIV in resource-poor settings adhere to complex drug regimens. Right now we’re campaigning for funds for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which scales vaccines tested with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Like others, we are assessing the evidence on the use of technology to help citizens hold government accountable for service delivery in remote regions, and to poll and get feedback from those citizens. This is an exciting new area, and if the data backs it, it will require significant advocacy for large-scale adoption. Bono, our cofounder, has labelled this adherence to evidence-based activism as “factivism.”
Second, in a democracy you need to deal with power directly—whoever yields it. Yikes, Lefties, that means you have to hang out with people on the Right! To those on the Right: You too have to deal with the other side. And if you don’t like it, grow up or do something less important.
That also means that you have to listen to the other side’s ideas and policy proposals. And you know what? Sometimes their ideas are better than yours. When this strategy delivers compromise between the two sides, the resulting policy is usually long lasting. Examples include the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the UK’s historic commitment to 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign assistance, and the original Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. These programs stick around and have been foundational for further improvements because of broad, carefully constructed global coalitions between faith groups, activists, corporates, and foundations.
This third P may annoy you even more: the need to use celebrities and similar creative means to make your issue famous. To take your boring, dry, technocratic proposal (and trust us, few things are as dull as developing-country debt ratios) and make it big, you have to find a way to put it in the primetime spotlight.
Busy politicians pay much more attention when they either are going to get public credit for responding to your campaign or fear public criticism for not responding. Delivery of praise or criticism happens through the media and of course today through social media.
So one strategy is to sugarcoat the substance with celebrity and subtly slip it from the margins to mainstream. Some find this appalling—surely we should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it adopts popular culture. But we have to start where most people are: on YouTube Twitter, Instagram, or TV—engage there, and offer to take them on a journey. For example, hundreds of thousands joined ONE in 2005 when Brad Pitt asked them to do so on in an ABC interview with Diane Sawyer after a trip to Africa. Those who joined then—initially perhaps because of interest in a personality—are today regularly taking action over corruption in the oil and gas sector, and the lack of electricity in rural Africa. That’s quite a journey. As Bono has put it: “Celebrity has currency, and I want to use that currency wisely.”
Of course we would all prefer to live in a world where politicians do the right thing purely because evidence shows it’s the right thing to do and because a critical mass of well-informed active citizens push politicians—not because a famous friend espouses it. But until that day, let’s accept the strategic use of celebrity and explore improvements. If you accept this argument, then developing a Master’s course on international economics or foreign policy tailored to jaded Hollywood execs and artists, for example, might reap great returns for global justice and stability.
The fourth P is pragmatism, by which I mean the ability to accept incremental progress. Incremental progress is often a natural result of working with political realities and the grubby reality of doing deals. Imagine this: A politician starts listening to your campaign, because he’s read about it in the papers and received a ton of mail. He calls you into his office and wants to do a deal: “I’ll promise to do 62.3 percent of what you’re demanding, and you have to say it’s 100 percent.”
This is a very good development—it means you’re in negotiation. But who are you to strike the deal? What makes your negotiation on behalf of millions of people thousands of miles away legitimate? And what is the right compromise, and how much do you celebrate it? These are painfully difficult questions to answer. You should lose sleep over it.
In any given year, most politicians can give you only a piece of what you demand. They actually don’t have much power, not even the President of the United States. The stunning realization is that they need your power to get the issue you are working for through the political process, and your power depends on how many people you can prove support you. And that depends on how many people you have worked to recruit.
That is your legitimacy. Politicians will look at the quality of your policy proposal, then the strength of the constituency you have built to back it, check their conscience and yours, then offer you a deal. Sometimes you can push for more; sometimes you need to accept what they offer, then push for the next increment, building trust. And all the while, you need to appeal to the eternal, uncompromising “prophetic” ideals that you—and in fact many politicians—are trying to live up to: equality and justice.
By this I mean the fundamental values that make us better humans and bring us out of the mundane, daily grind to ponder what is really right: demanding, complicated ideals of equality and justice. We founded ONE 10 years ago in a field by the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia because that symbolic bell has inscribed upon it a text that cries out for justice and liberty for all. This biblical injunction inspired the Abolitionists, the Anti-Apartheid movement, and the Jubilee Debt Campaign. It is the foundational ideal we strive to live up to; but being human, sometimes we fall short.
So I’ve laid out the case. What do you think? I hope this piece might provoke a debate about how to encourage effective policy change advocacy, measure its impact, and scale it even more effectively.
This subject really matters, for our one human family faces an imminent choice. Next year, a confluence of historic summits will present options on poverty eradication and sustainable development to the world’s political leaders. Either they will seize the opportunity to build on great progress and virtually eradicate extreme poverty, hunger, and preventable treatable disease—or we will falter and fall back, risking rampant pandemics, corruption, and instability. Regions such as Africa’s Sahel are vulnerable to what have been dubbed “the three extremes”: extreme poverty, extreme climate, and extreme ideology. Which world we all live in depends increasingly on which world the citizens of the Sahel live in.
These weighty decisions will depend in large part on the skill and strategy deployed by global civic movements to ensure that world leaders pick the right policies for the citizens of the Sahel as well as Silicon Valley. That’s why this debate on ONE’s secret sauce matters so much.