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<nettime> Fighting to be heard (FT on pressure groups)

Fighting to be heard

In spite of their real power, pressure groups feel imcreasingly
beleaguered, says Vanessa Houlder

Financial Times September 19 2000

The days when campaigners were mocked as woolly-minded
idealists are gone. On issues ranging from world trade to
genetically modified organisms, from multilateral investment to
climate change, activists are exercising unprecedented influence
over the decisions of governments and businesses.

Activists have become part of the backdrop of political and
business life. They are gathering in Prague for the annual meeting
of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the
coming week. Earlier this month, anti-globalisation protesters
disrupted the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, Australia. And
Europe's petrol disputes demonstrated the potency of informal
protesters armed with little more than e-mail, mobile phones and
popular sympathy.

The activists' power impresses their detractors and supporters
alike. "Ordinary people working together can achieve extra-
ordinary things," says Jody Williams, the Nobel Laureate who led a
coalition of hundreds of pressure groups in the campaign to ban

Yet despite their growing influence, the campaigners feel
surprisingly beleaguered. "Protesters" range from the respectable
to the anarchic. Established groups must wage a relentless fight
for members, money and media attention. Although that suggests
pursuing direct action and pithy sound bites, they are grappling
with complex, long-term issues that do not always lend themselves
to such treatment.

And in the search for publicity, established groups risk losing
credibility. Their growing power has led to accusations of
unaccountability, scaremongering and pursuing single issues at
the expense of the broader good.

The success of campaigners in responding to these pressures is
"very mixed", says Ulrich Steger, a professor at the IMD business
school in Switzerland. Failures of activist and voluntary groups
attract little publicity and do not appear in bankruptcy statistics. The
larger groups, which are bolstered by professional fund-raising efforts,
tend to hold their own, while many start-ups, formed for a single
campaign, fade away. Disillusioned volunteers just drop out.

Prof Steger says support for the environmental movement is
steady, levelling out after a sharp rise in the early 1990s. The
World Wide Fund for Nature has more than 4.7m supporters,
generating an income of $320m (228m); Friends of the Earth has
1m members. Greenpeace has reported the first rise in the number
of financial supporters for nine years, with 2.5m contributors,
generating an income of E126m (77m).

However, competition between campaigning groups is growing. Prof
Steger points to greater interaction and tighter competition between them.
The number of groups is estimated to have quadrupled to 20,000 over the
past three decades. But their expansion has not been matched by a growth
in volunteers' time and resources.

Significantly, Greenpeace is losing ground in some of its traditional
strongholds, such as Germany. Campaigning on global environmental
problems such as climate change is hard, partly because they are
scientifically complicated and partly because their impact lies in the
future and, often, far beyond Europe's frontiers.

As well as coping with competition and complexity, campaigners
have to appeal to a new generation that has grown up with protest.
According to Prof Steger, surveys indicate that young people under
23 in North America and Europe are highly environmentally
conscious. But their willingness to take action on environmental
issues is restricted to their personal sphere. Despite the protests
of the anti-globalisation protesters in Seattle, most younger people have
less faith than their parents that direct action can solve complex issues
such as climate change.

Environmental campaigns find it especially hard to cope with this
suspicion. They are increasingly under pressure to address social
and economic issues, having come under fire for a disregard for
jobs and communities. In the recent petrol protests, for instance,
green campaigners seemed torn between arguing the
environmental case for high fuel taxes and offending a populist

Campaigners have several responses to these pressures. For a
start, they are mindful of the need to maintain their distinctiveness.
Over the past decade, the 10 la rgest campaign groups have agreed to chop
up the agenda between them, says John Elkington of Sustainability, a

As a result, the groups complement each other, he says. "There is
often a synergy between different groups. One thing that surprises
me is how effective WWF, FoE and Greenpeace are. There is a
complementarity between them."

The symbiosis also extends to the different sorts of action that
organisations undertake. At one extreme are groups set upon
confrontation, and at the other are environmental groups striking
alliances with businesses. Among some mainstream groups,
"there is a covert sympathy for direct action, because you need
shocks to the system to break loose some of the institutional
barriers," says Mr Elkington.

The trend towards alliances with companies, while partly driven by
funding needs, recognises that progressive companies have an
important influence on the environmental debate.

It is also a result of the groups' increasing professionalism. "The
people, especially in the bigger, inter- national organisations are
becoming very professional," says Prof Steger. "After decades of
raising awareness, people ask themselves 'what are we going to
do?' Organisations are forced to come up with solutions, which you
can only do with professional knowledge."

Relations between the groups and business are not always
successful, of course. The requirement for confidentiality makes it
hard for environmental groups to win publicity for their work.
Moreover, some environmental campaigners, whose attitudes were
forged in the anti-corporate culture of the 1960s, find it hard to
overcome their instinctive hostility to business.

This wariness extends to the pressure groups' supporters, and has
fuelled a long-running and acrimonious debate on the wisdom of co-
operation. When the Environmental Defense Fund in the US
pioneered this approach in the early 1990s, it was accused of
selling out. "If you were trying to handle drug problems in your
community, you wouldn't be saying, 'let's try to work this out
with the drug dealers'," said a Greenpeace trustee.

The established campaign groups know there is a risk they could be
outmanoeuvred by more radical protesters. If a group's members
prefer the uncompromising stance of the radicals, more
professional, solutions-oriented approaches may be thwarted.
Supporters have no shortage of alternatives. In recent years, many
high-profile campaigns, including protests against road-building, the
World Trade Organisation and, most recently, the high taxes on fuel, have
been the work of informal groups of individuals.

These new activists may be less professional and sophisticated
than the traditional campaign groups, but they have fewer
constraints. They are, says Mr Elkington, "a huge competitive
challenge to the traditional organisations".

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