In his presentation to the Grassroots UK conference, Neil Kingsnorth from Friends of the Earth [FoE] drew the distinction between campaigns and movements. FoE can claim credit through its campaigning for the Climate Change Act (as corroborated in the very good paper by the Institute for Government exploring policy change, for example), but wider shifts in the way governments and societies have responded to the multiple challenges of climate change, the decline in biodiversity, resource depletion, and so on, cannot meaningfully be attributed to any single organisation. These changes are products of the wider environmental movement, which is comprised of heterogeneous forces with often different strategies, values, agendas and end goals.

As Neil set it out, campaigns are the lifeblood of movements; at the same time, campaigns are most meaningful when they take place within wider movements.

Extending this idea further, a notion underlying the Grassroots UK conference itself – though not explicitly developed – was that of a meta-movement, a conglomeration of movements, with trade unionists, voluntary sector organisations, faith groups and wider civil society forging links and moving together towards the delivery of broad common goals, of justice, equity and sustainability. It’s maybe a bit difficult to conceive how such a ‘movement of movements’ could come into being, what it would look like, but such a dynamic is not without precedent globally. In Brazil, for example, interconnected civil society networks and social movements – with the Landless Workers’ Movement at the heart – played such a role, in opposition to the dictatorship (and afterwards). And Martin Luther King was moving towards a broader-based agenda, mobilising against the Vietnam War and campaigning for economic justice, in the period just before he was assassinated.

At the other end of the scale, there is a useful distinction to be drawn between (a) events (b) moments of change and (c) campaigns.

In this overall reading, the model looks something like this:


events < moments of change < campaigns < movements < meta-movements


These different scales and timescales of mobilisation can sometimes get unhelpfully conflated.

Events – such as protests, marches, etc – make sense and can be effective as part of a campaign, but do not substitute for a campaign. And whilst it often makes sense to focus on key decision-making moments in order to drive change and give it momentum, such opportunities are better understood as a point in a line, rather than an end point.

Some of the critiques of Make Poverty History [MPH] could perhaps be better understood in this context. Essentially MPH was a (very big scale) mobilisation around a moment of change – with efforts directed particularly towards decisions being made at the Gleneagles G8 summit. On those terms, it was in many ways successful, helping to deliver significant gains in relation to policies agreed and commitments made at the meeting.

Any suggestion that MPH did not succeed in delivering sustained political momentum, or an irrevocable shift in public attitudes, risks criticising it for not securing what it in any case couldn’t. Across the range of development issues that MPH touched on, these are results that it would most likely take a broad-based and long-term movement to achieve.

Given that there were aspirations within MPH around policy and public legacy, a more legitimate criticism to be made of it is that there was a disjuncture between the ambition and the vehicle. To the extent that it makes sense to say that results from MPH were limited, it was timescale and the absence of coordinated follow-through that were amongst the most important constraining factors. Whilst there was awareness within the coalition about the need for a movement and not a moment in securing sustained change, this understanding came into conflict with participating organisations’ internal priorities and agendas, making this problematic to fulfil. In Finding Frames, the critique of MPH is that issues were not optimally framed, but questions of branding as much as framing seem to be at the heart of the matter.