Closing the gap between social movements and policy change

A domestic worker in Johannesburg, South Africa, and member of Women in Informal Employment: Organizing and Globalizing (WIEGO), a Hewlett Foundation grantee that works to improve the lives of informal workers and their families. (Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage).

Editor’s note: Between now and the end of May 2019, as Ruth Levine wraps up her eight-year term as Director of the Global Development and Population Program, we’ll publish six reflections. This first is on what she’s learned about the importance of social movements in the work we do to promote positive change. Jump to the second reflection: Strength in numbers: Taking a field-level view.

Before I joined the Hewlett Foundation almost eight years ago, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about social movements.  I had worked at the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, USAID, and the Center for Global Development on the design and execution of public policies so that, I hoped, individuals and communities would be healthier and better off. Social movements were part of some larger “political context” that we technocrats were supposed to stay away from. Workers organizing to demand better pay or communities protesting a new highway were risks to mitigate, not sources of information, inspiration, and influence for precisely the same goals of better lives and livelihoods.

Thanks to patient colleagues here and in grantee organizations, I have learned a lot since then and changed my mind in quite fundamental ways about how vital it is to understand and engage constructively with people who are building and sustaining social movements. The turning point came on a trip to South Africa with WIEGO, where colleagues and I spent a few days talking with, walking with, and learning from organized domestic workers, street vendors, and urban recyclers. The power that they obtained through solidarity with others who faced the same long odds, and the ways in which their realities and questions influenced WIEGO’s research partners, hit me hard and has not left my thoughts since. (I wrote about that here.)

At the risk of exposing my earlier naivete, here are three things I’ve learned from WIEGO, many other grantees, and colleagues who know far more than I do:

1. The identification of what’s wrong must come from those who are experiencing those wrongs.

Social movements are formed and propelled by people who believe that their rights are being abridged, and who—as a result—are compelled to organize around common problems and shared identities to obtain redress. Acting together, people from communities that historically have been excluded from power are more likely to have influence than people acting individually. They claim power through some combination of activism, advocacy, and getting out the vote. Think about the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement. In the work we support, the reproductive justice movement, the movement of informal workers, the movement of communities affected by extractive industries, and others.

Social movements arise from identity and grievance. Because of that, they hold the most important knowledge about who is being wronged by systemic forces that are reflected in public policy, and in what ways. When police confiscate the goods of market women in Accra, when there’s nowhere for a teenager in Texas to turn for an abortion, when families living on the outskirts of Nairobi have no option but to pay for terrible quality private schooling—these are all public policy failures known best by the people who experience them.

2. Social movements are vulnerable to distortion and co-optation by funders.

There is zero doubt that funders play a significant role in the shape of social movements, if only because movements are made up of people and people have to eat. Private funders, including both individuals and private foundations like ours, make choices that effectively pick winners and losers. With funding choices, we make it possible for some of the groups working within a movement to prevail while others falter. So, for instance, in the fraught realm of reproductive health, rights, and justice in the United States, we and other funders make highly consequential choices about supporting groups that are oriented around all women, or women of color, or young women. We make choices about whether reproductive rights gets more attached to the women’s rights movement or to the movement to fight inequality. We might like to think we’re in an “all of the above” world, but because we’re allocating limited dollars we are also putting our thumb on the scale. All other funders are doing the same.

Funders shape movements not only in the amount of money dedicated to different players but also how that money is offered.  For the most part, at the Hewlett Foundation we provide flexible support with the expectation that this will enable the self-led organizations we support to pursue their own priorities and be responsive to opportunities. We also use organizational effectiveness grants to strengthen communications, fundraising, and other capacities, hopefully in response to the felt needs of the organizations. That said, we can only give money to registered nonprofits that abide by particular rules – rules that aren’t necessarily aligned with the most effective movement-oriented work, and that require a little mini-bureaucracy to comply with financial and other reporting requirements. So even if it’s not our intent, the way we provide funding influences the work in ways that movement members might not want.

Some funders seek to exert more influence, targeting support directly or through the professional advocacy groups they fund toward particular parts of a self-led organization’s agenda to demonstrate grassroots support and gain a political edge. A reproductive justice group led by and for women of color might be funded to participate in national-level advocacy, even if the issue of racial bias in healthcare is more salient to the group than a Supreme Court decision about Roe Wade.  For a sobering example, an excellent edition of the Tiny Spark podcast features an interview with political scientist Megan Ming Francis, describing how the key financial supporter of the NAACP pushed the civil rights organization to place emphasis on school desegregation instead of what members cared about far more, anti-lynching.

It takes discipline for funders or professional advocates with access to resources not to overlay narrow priorities on less well-funded organizations that represent people who are likely to have a far wider, and potentially different, set of goals.  It is a discipline well worth cultivating. (For additional reflections on this, see “Going from ‘On Behalf of’ to the Whole Story.”)

3. People working on the “evidence agenda”—academics, think tank researchers, experts in official statistics—should do work that is informed by and complementary to social movements.

The people who find ways to systematically count, disaggregate, establish causal relationships, and project the impact of one policy path or another have a very special role to play. In the best scenario, they observe and describe the issues raised by members of social movements—and they have the ability to legitimize them in the eyes of people who are unmoved by passion-filled arguments.

Researchers can translate collective grievances, which can feel threatening, into language that speaks to interests beyond empathy and solidarity. “We are being treated unfairly and you need to change” translates to “Experts have documented discriminatory practices and outcomes that are in conflict with our social values, shared economic interests, and laws. Here are the numbers. And here are the policy options and tradeoffs.” Academics and researchers in nonpartisan think tanks provide analysis that is seen by the media, general public, or policymakers as detached, not advancing a self-interested agenda.

Even more importantly, it is often the work of think tanks and other research-based organizations that provides the “how” to match the “why,” “who,” and “why now” that social movements bring to questions of public policy. (Also see “The Moral Case for Evidence in Policymaking.”)

Take the challenge of turning the “resource curse” in countries with oil, gas, and mining resources into better futures for communities directly affected by extractive industries. Those people and their allies have come together into national Publish What You Pay coalitions, to pressure governments to collect appropriate revenue and allocate it to serve citizens overall, and particularly the communities most affected.

While pressure to act can come from community organizing, far more is needed to effect lasting change. Thus, analysts have developed the technical specifications for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative reporting standard; international researchers have looked at the impact of the EITI on corruption, exploitation of resources, and community wellbeing; and national think tanks have developed policy options about how to best use the newly visible revenues collected from extractive industries.

There are many such examples of the evidence community doing work that complements social movements, and still more opportunities on the horizon. The International Budget Partnership, for instance, recently published “Reframing Public Finance: Promoting Justice, Democracy, and Human Rights in Government Budgets.” As Andrea Baertl writes about a set of collaboration cases she’s examined, “think tanks acted on their acquired knowledge on the issue and helped articulate the demands of the public; while social movement actors had the ability to move people into action, channel their interest to create space for discussion and communicate the agreed courses of action.” There are far more of these connections yet to be made.

That’s a lot of learning in eight years. But I’ve also had to do a lot of un-learning. The most important thing I’ve un-learned is about the myth that “policy people” are on a different side than “rights people.” The clothing we wear as “policy people”—interested in and knowledgeable about things like cost-effectiveness and how a bill becomes a law—or as “rights people”—asserting universal principles about both freedoms and entitlements—does not have to clash. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the fastest and longest-lasting progress will come from connecting organized outrage about the infringement of rights—work done by social movements that authentically represent and give voice to people whom the system is failing—to people who understand and influence the levers for change within the system. To get there, funders may need to focus far less on quick policy wins, and far more on long-term collaboration between movement-builders and policy-changers. That’s the agenda for the future.

Read the second reflection: Strength in numbers: Taking a field-level view >>

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