Oxfam charts brave new world of activism

A campaign to end global hunger launched in over 40 countries last week by the international aid agency, Oxfam, may signal new levels of ambition for movements pursuing social and environmental reform.

The GROW campaign rejects the traditional approach of channeling protest into a single objective, such as reducing European farm subsidies or withdrawing targets for biofuel production. Instead, it gathers up all such issues into the bigger picture, pressing governments to see that the world’s agriculture system is not fit for purpose.

Oxfam believes that future demand for food may overwhelm the ecological capacity of the planet, especially as climate change takes its increasing toll on crop yields. Already, one in seven of the world’s population lacks access to sufficient food.

“The System’s Bust,” exclaims the banner headline of the Oxfam UK website. “Join the GROW campaign to fix the system.”

The implied goal of food revolution rather than evolution was reinforced by Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director of Oxfam International. “G20 Governments meeting in France this year must now kick start the transformation of our global food system,” he said at the launch of the GROW campaign.

The campaign’s accompanying report, Growing a Better Future, casts the wishlist net still wider. “International governance of trade, food aid, financial markets, and climate finance must be transformed to reduce the risks of future shocks,” it demands.

Oxfam’s Head of Research, Duncan Green, outlines why the GROW campaign bar is being raised so high. “It marks a significant shift in thinking about how public campaigning brings about change,” he writes in his blog, From Poverty to Power. “It moves from a focus on specific policy changes (e.g. on trade rules or debt relief), to something much deeper – changing the way people think.”

Oxfam is not the only non-profit group in the UK to be overhauling its expectations of supporters and governments. Forum for the Future, a respected environmental agency which assists the corporate sector in implementing sustainability plans, unveiled a new strategy in April.

Chief Executive Peter Madden explains: “it is clear that if we want to tackle problems such as climate change or vulnerable ecosystems, we can’t take a piecemeal approach. Doing a bit here and a bit there won’t change things at the speed or on the scale we need.”

In engaging with the complexity of areas such as finance, food and energy, Forum for the Future will search for “strategic tipping points, where interventions have the most chance of transforming the whole system.”

In mainland Europe, too, there are signs of frustration that “single issue” campaigns achieve too little in relation to the depth of social and environmental problems.

Last week in Geneva the International Labour Organization celebrated its 100th annual conference. ILO Director-General Juan Somavia opened the event with a powerful call for a new era of social justice to address mounting “turmoil” in the world of work.

Somavia expressed his fears for social unrest, deriving from the level of youth unemployment endemic in the existing economic system. “The sum of economic, social and environmental options and priorities that have dominated policy-making for the last 30 years must change,” he said.

These bold visions of change have one overwhelming obstacle in common. Strong political leadership which compromises national interest for the greater good is conspicuous by its absence.

Rich country groupings such as G8 and G20 are in no mood for radical reforms. And UN negotiations on climate change and trade threaten to fade into insignificance.

That explains why so many hopes are pinned on the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Otherwise known as Rio+20, this conference will mark the 20th anniversary of the renowned 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in which the language of sustainable development was established.

Campaigners want to believe that the powerful symbolism of the event will inspire world leaders to cast aside their reticence on progressive reforms. They are encouraged that the UN has chosen the concept of the “green economy” as one of two major themes of the conference.

The current paradigm of consumption-based economic growth is viewed by the green movement as socially divisive and environmentally unsustainable. Transition towards a more sensitive measure of economic progress is top of the reform agenda for many international NGOs.

“Green economy: a pathway to sustainable development” was the subject of last Thursday’s informal UN General Assembly thematic debate. The purpose was to advance preparation for Rio+20.

Unfortunately, the real political preparations for Rio+20 are in crisis and the “green economy” is the central problem.

Last month, the 19th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development aimed to build global consensus around the agenda for the 2012 Rio conference. But the talks collapsed ignominiously.

The IISD reporting service for CSD19 described the green economy as a “hate object” for the G77/China group of developing countries. They fear that it will be a proxy for protectionist rules on trade and intellectual property rights.

Campaigners may have to settle for the traditional pace of reform, one small step at a time.

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this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News

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