Magazine edition: 1-2016

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How UNA-UK is responding to the challenge of 21st-century grassroots campaigning

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How UNA-UK is responding to the challenge of 21st-century grassroots campaigning

Richard Nelmes, Head of Outreach, UNA-UK

Every day, ordinary folk do extraordinary things to highlight injustices, campaign for equality and right the many wrongs in this world. For many of us, working for a better world is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that we probably wouldn’t describe the things we do – whether its making donations, signing a petition, volunteering our time or simply engaging those around us in discussion – in those terms.

In our inter-connected world, the reach and potential of these actions have increased dramatically. Empowered by technology everyone can now be a broadcaster, convener and agitator for the cause of their choice. Today, we only need ask ourselves one question: what problem do I most care about? Information, tools and resources are usually just a click away and in seconds, we can join with, or inspire, thousands of others around the world to call for the same thing.

While new media has radically shifted the campaigning environment, its impact can be exaggerated (did Twitter really fuel the Arab Spring?) and traditional methods of campaigning and engagement remain as important as ever. So how can civil society organisations square this circle? This is a particularly important question for UNA-UK, as our loyal subscription-paying members seek to engage the next generation of activists – a generation that cares just as much about the problems we face but that goes about addressing them in very different ways.

UNA-UK was founded to connect people in the UK with the work and values of the United Nations. Today, with multiple crises converging and the UN stretched to breaking point, this mission is more important than ever, and we are working hard to adapt and expand to ensure we can reach as many people as possible.

Our movement has democratised – it’s now free to get involved with us and our campaigns are more populist. They resonate with people who aren’t necessarily UN experts or enthusiasts and ask them to take action in a way that suits them. 

One example is ‘1 for 7 Billion’, our campaign to improve how the next UN Secretary-General is chosen. If you tell a friend that you know of someone who got a job because of a secret deal or because they were from a particular place, they’ll probably be outraged. Go on to confide that you’re talking about the UN’s top post and you’ll find the makings of one of the most successful campaigns for UN reform in decades. 

UNA-UK co-founded this worldwide campaign in 2013 and together with our partners, we have managed to achieve an historic and fundamental shift in the way the UN works through a groundbreaking General Assembly resolution that encouraged the presentation of both women and men as candidates, and called for merit-based nominations based on clear selection criteria. Followed up by a letter from the Presidents of the Assembly and the Security Council, the resolution has significantly brought the process forward from one confined to backroom deals and manouevring to one that is more open and inclusive, with a time frame and public list of candidates. For the first time ever, candidates were invited to take part in informal meetings with all UN member states, which UNA-UK complemented by hosting an unprecedented public candidate debate in New York – an exercise we will repeat with further candidates in London on 3 June this year.

This is a clear policy and practical achievement, but no think tank could have got this far. 1 for 7 Billion is powered by a movement of ordinary people – nearly 200 million around the world. By engaging grassroots campaigners far away from the New York bubble, we sought to pair the ultra-local with the ultra-global, giving much-needed clout to our lobbying at the national and international levels. 

In the UK, our ‘Activist Summit’ was one such opportunity. Held in March this year, this day of debate and action gave people the chance to exchange views with experts – former UN staffers, academics and campaigners – on the importance of getting the best possible person appointed as Secretary-General and how to make this happen. Participants then worked together to come up with actions to take this message back to their communities and to lobby their decision-makers. The day ended with public commitments to these actions, which will be followed up, supported and assessed by UNA-UK to demonstrate to politicians and diplomats that people really care about this issue.

Members and supporters of UNA-UK should be proud of what they have achieved so far. But the job is not yet done. There are still crucial parts of the recruitment process that need fixing. Our next goal is to push for the UN chief to serve a single term of office, which would free her or him from the political pressures exerted by powerful states during the re-appointment process.

The approach exemplified by this initiative – careful selection of an issue and directing our policy, campaigning and outreach resources toward it – is helping our movement to flourish.

Some 20,000 people are now UNA-UK supporters, contributing finance, coming to events and taking campaign actions alongside our members. It’s terrifyingly democratic because people get to vote with their feet – if an issue isn’t appealing or the call to action too clunky, they simply won’t get involved. The onus is therefore on us, to work with our grassroots movement to find issues that resonate with people and with our wider mission, and – crucially – where we have the potential to bring about real change.

While going down this route holds much promise, we know that we need to keep sight of the bigger picture. What makes the UN unique is precisely that it recognises and seeks to address the complex and interrelated nature of global challenges. We asked ourselves: does a campaign-driven approach risk losing this message?

For us, the 1 for 7 Billion campaign has always been about using one particular issue to get people interested in, and talking about, the UN. We have managed to open the door to thousands of people who used to think the UN was simply too big and too distant to change, and we now want to harness their ideas as we work with our partners to create a global people’s agenda for the next Secretary-General.


Campaigning on one issue sparks interest in others, and we would love to see many of our supporters become committed UNA-UK activists. Those who don’t, well, we hope that they will continue to think and act globally, whether that’s by giving money to the UN Refugee Agency, lobbying the EU on arms sales through Avaaz or volunteering in Burkina Faso with International Service. Our mission is to turn UK citizens into global citizens, and with all the crises in the world today, every step in this direction – with or alongside UNA-UK – is a contribution to this mission.

Crucially, though, anyone who supported our last big project will know who we are when we come to them with the next one. And we will – watch this space!

Photo: UNA-UK Activist Summit, March 2016. Copyright UNA-UK

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