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Building a movement: What are the magic ingredients?

January 13, 2015

Posted by in Blog.

In late November 2014 I represented the Start Network at Reimagining Relationships: How citizens collaborate to changes the systems in which they live, along with a delegation of member agency staff. This blog captures some of my observations and reflections from the event.

The poignancy of the location for Reimagining Relationships was lost on none of the event’s participants. To set an event about systems change in Johannesburg – a living vestige of apartheid, now vibrant with development and industry – was to remind us all of the scale and gravity of our topic.

Since our consortium’s creation we’ve been deliberating whether systems change is the Start Network’s raison d’etre. We all agree that the Start Network is a collaboration designed to make humanitarian actors work together more effectively, for faster and more efficient emergency response.  And if the path to better humanitarian response requires the entire sector to be turned on its head – with the local leading the international, rather than the other way around – then should we make this transformative agenda one of our explicit objectives?

What is clear is that we can’t effect system-wide impact alone. A critical mass of collaborators is needed for momentum. But how do you bring others along the journey with you?

It was heartening to meet others grappling with similar issues to the Start Network, even using much of the same jargon to try and make sense of the ambiguous task of systems change. We often talk about how the Start Network should be a legacy – not something created simply for the benefit of the current members, who see themselves as ‘temporary custodians’ of the idea. These conversations seemed particularly pertinent at Reimagining Relationships. The showcase of initiatives and people I met served to remind me time and again that a movement catches on when its core message is simple.

Working example: Izindaba Zokudla (Conversations about Food)

SIX events are often anchored around a series of site visits designed to embed the ideas emerging from discussions in working examples. Along with a small group of event participants, I visited an urban farming programme in Soweto, which exemplified perfectly the power of a clear and focused core message. We visited one of 14 urban farms: a small plot of land, repurposed from a school yard. Sakhile Skhosana, Chair of the Region D Farmers’ Forum, introduced us to the urban farmers growing produce for their own consumption and to sell.

It is an important venture, contributing to a burgeoning sustainable food system in Soweto. Through collaboration with designers, the University of Johannesburg, and local government, Izindaba Zokudla aims to “establish urban food production as a viable and attractive livelihood in the city and community.” But what stood out for me was when Sakhile described how he joined the project after a friend asked him: ‘What would happen if the food trucks stopped bringing supplies into Soweto from Johannesburg?’ This simple question made him consider for the first time how Soweto was entirely dependent on Johannesburg for its food supplies, and made him realise that he wanted to be part of a solution that would transform his hometown’s economy and self-sufficiency.

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Izindaba Zokudla is an inspiring urban farming initiative taking place in Soweto

Creating a movement

A crystal clear core message is the currency of a movement. But of course, clarity alone isn’t enough: there are three more crucial considerations, which I will discuss below.

One: the message must be powerful. Kiss Abraham from KBA Innovations gave a memorable example when he described the success of a movement he led in Zambia, where social media was used to name and shame politicians, thereby re-situating power back in the hands of citizens. As he put it: “The abnormal is normal until someone stands up and says something” – and by being able to demonstrate the dramatic results his campaigns brought about, the movement quickly caught on.

Two: the message must be framed in the right way. I was reminded of the importance of tone and framing when Kavisha Pillay spoke of the challenges faced by Corruption Watch, a South African anti-corruption NGO, in inspiring citizen participation. She suggested that in fact NGOs should stop talking about the problems they are trying to overcome, because it makes people feel oppressed and like they can’t change anything. Instead, she said, the tone of your messaging should be positive and optimistic to inspire people to get involved.

Three: the message needs to reach its audience. Gustav Praekelt, founder of and the Praekelt Foundation, spoke of the low turnout rates when the South African ‘Born Free’ generation recently reached voting age, suggesting that the high levels of youth apathy indicate how far their democracy has come. He wanted to use technology to give individuals a sense of agency and show them the injustices that still need to be fought. One solution was to partner with Wikipedia and Aritel to make Wikipedia accessible on ‘dumb phones’, bringing the user-created encyclopedia to 70 million mobile phone customers who don’t have internet access in Africa. One of the Praekelt Foundation’s objectives is to ensure technological advances don’t exclude those most in need, because data is most expensive for those who can least afford it. In a sentiment echoed repeatedly during the event, he warned that systems change narratives should not to assume that those contributing or involved are all equal: before you can change a system you have to be able to participate fully.

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Reimagining Relationships was set within the innovative Jozihub venue, a creative meeting and office space in Johannesburg

Separating the ‘why’ from the ‘how’

The Start Network is at an interesting moment in its journey. We’ve reached a moment where, with the launch of our Start Fund and Start Build programmes, and a considerable commitment from the UK government, people are starting to talk about us. But as our name becomes more widely known, we have a huge task on our hands to ensure that people understand what the Start Network is all about.

This event made me wonder whether confusion may be arising from our tendency to confuse our core message with our service offering – the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

Our core message is about a world where disasters no longer disproportionately affect the poor, where assistance makes its way quickly and effectively to those most in need. Our job now is to refine this message so that anyone, regardless of who they are, can decide whether this is a movement they want to participate in. It is not our job to tell them that we have all the answers and we are going to solve this issue whether they join us or not.

For this reason, a related challenge will be to reframe the ‘how’. We should be talking about our work and ideas more as an offering rather than a finished product, something that we want others to help us to develop iteratively, with mutual benefits to both parties.

This will be an ongoing objective, as we will constantly need to evaluate and adapt our messaging so that we can reach more people to create a truly global public good. Reimagining Relationships brought together a fascinating line up of people who have dreamt up, resourced and fought for movements that have changed systems for the better. Can we learn from their experiences to spark a movement toward more effective humanitarian response?


Main photo: Volunteers and event participants at the Izindaba Zokudla project in Soweto

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