Does WDM express its values enough?


12 October 2010

Since I joined WDM last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about “narrative”. WDM is against injustice; against poverty; against inequality. A quick trawl through our campaigns and you’ll often see us saying “stop” something – stop betting on hunger; stop RBS from spending money on tar sands: stop, stop, stop.

George Monbiot’s article today, which highlights work by Tom Crompton, an advisor at WWF, about framing, is spot on. “It goes against our nature; but the left has to start asserting its own values”. I’ve worked with Tom, and his deep thinking approach to social change has always inspired me, but I’ve never been quite sure what to do with it, until now (clearly I’m not quite as big a thinker as he is).

According to Tom’s research, psychologists have demonstrated that social identity is either based on extrinsic or intrinsic values. People with a strong sense of extrinsic values are focussed on individual self-interest, money, image and traditional notions of “success”, whereas people with more intrinsic values favour relationships, community, family and friends, and general self-acceptance. Of course, most of us are not entirely one or the other – life is too complex for that. 

But where many of us in the progressive movement have gone wrong, Monbiot points out, is that we have focussed increasingly on tapping into people’s extrinsic nature: “what’s good for others is good for me too” – typified by the “you can save the planet and save money too, if you turn out your lights” approach. In development the equivalent might be the corporate social responsibility agenda, which has taken up mainstream positions in many NGOs, whereby corporate partnerships mean that business can “do well” and “do good” at the same time. Thus, what’s good for alleviating poverty is good for British business too!

To be fair, I don’t actually think WDM does this, but I do think we fall into the trap of not expressing clearly the values we hold. So instead, we try to tap into people’s anger against the system. While this may work for some, it shuts others out who may otherwise agree with our values.

So what does this mean, then, for an organisation like WDM, in practise? The question that comes to my mind is: how do we sell our values alongside clearly communicating the practices, laws and policies that outrage us. Translating this into WDM’s current campaigns, while we’re against betting on food prices, we are in favour of food sovereignty and of resilient local economies.

In terms of the way we work, it’s about reaching out to new partners: WDM as a campaigning organisation may have more in common with groups like the Transition Town movement, who undertake practical positive interventions in their communities, than some of our traditional development NGO counterparts.

Of course, this is all very easy to write and hypothesise. The challenge is to really turn the ideas into something that gets attention from policy makers; that gets attention from the media and that turns these values into action. Running effective campaigns, you need to be sharp and hard-hitting in both word and deed.How does our campaigning approach square up to promoting our values to a wider audience, in order to build a stronger movement for social justice? 

Of course WDM values fairness, equity and the principles of democracy.  But perhaps we just don’t wear this on our sleeve as much as we should.  

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