Public Campaigns Designed to Bring About Broad Social Change: Five Pointers for Unbinding Social Practices Reply


Lately I have been wondering about recent campaigns aimed at moving the general public in a specific direction.  One such campaign is Speak Good English (I must be honest and admit that I speak only American)  and another is the effort to increase the average birthrate in SG by helping people marry and have children.

Do these campaigns really work?

A fascinating article appeared in the IHT on Monday, October 25, looking at public change campaigns in Asia and Africa.  From this journalist’s perspective, yes, public campaigns can work.  Success, however, comes in localized forms.  Looking at the practice of foot binding in China, a population which “looked at westerners with contempt” responded favorably and rapidly (in societal terms) to western advocates who wanted to end this painful practice.  Just how did they do it?

  • Sense of urgency.  Local leaders responded to western advocates when they sensed that society was falling behind.
  • Begin with respect.  Changing the practice of foot binding required that advocates begin by respecting the local context and not looking down at it as inferior. 
  • Attract local influencers to lead.   In china, this was the literati who produced many of the ruling class.  Once they jumped on board, you now had influential local advocates for leading change.
  • Create institutions.  Rhetoric is not enough (and this is precisely why Facebook groups frequently offer nothing more than well-timed trappings of political activism), we must create institutions to replace the ones we tear down.
  • Understand the larger context, including the broader system or network.  Ceasing to bind a woman’s foot was not enough, but men also had to be changed. You needed men who would want to marry a woman with unbound feet, or else all you create is a pool of women who may never marry and parents who never see grandchildren.  Both sides of the coin have to be managed.

So what does this mean for public campaigns today? 

My sense is that we have to define the problem properly.  Returning to Singapore, is the problem that not enough people marry and make babies?  Perhaps not.  Maybe we have simply replaced one institution (employment and savings accounts) for another (marriage and children).  The IHT article strikes me as significant because advocates were able to come from the outside in, define the problem properly (within its local setting), and work toward a better world. 

This is no small accomplishment and we have a lot to learn from these advocates.

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