The power of lobbies

This article was also published in Romanian on

“There are two types of political lobby campaigns” explained my tutor of political science at Liverpool University, “you have the big movements with hundreds of thousands of members, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They make a lot of noise and get media coverage, but they rarely change things. The other type of lobby is done ‘in smoke filled rooms behind closed doors’ by big business groups who have limitless funds, patience and time.” George Monbiot writes brilliantly about the evil effectiveness of the corporate lobby groups in the Guardian and there was a recent article in TIME (“Is Obama Bad for the Environment?”) which describes how Obama is ruling in favour of Big Oil despite having been elected on a wave of pro-environmental promises.

Wherever there is political power there are lobby groups of both types trying to influence decision making. One of the key tests of democracy is how well governments can monitor and control these lobbies (most fail miserably). The only country I have come across that do a reasonable job in this regard is Sweden, where all communications with elected officials is available online. Needless to say, Romania does poorly in this regard.

But there has been a growth of Romanian online petitions in recent years and there was a recent article in Hotnews which asked an intriguing question: what impact do online petitions have on Romania’s rulers? I think we all know the answer to that one – they have no impact, mainly due to the indifference of Romania’s politicians but also because signing online petitions has become so easy. I do it all the time by just entering my email address into the relevant box on the Avaaz website, and then clicking “send”. Elected officials must receive online petitions every day, why should they care?

To have an impact an online petition needs over half a million “signatures” and the only people I know who can organise this are Avaaz, a totally global movement which lobbies governments everywhere about every good cause you can imagine. Most lobby groups of this nature are “single issue” and need a tight focus in order to build support and credibility, but Avaaz tackles a dizzying range of topics (all of which are urgent): I donated a small sum for communication equipment for the Libyan rebels, I signed a petition to the Brazilian President to block a law that would have opened up the rainforest for the logging companies and their most recent action was to sail up the Hudson River on a flotilla of small boats to protest outside the UN building in New York in support of Palestine’s attempt to get international recognition. Avaaz is the only group I know who manage to coordinate mass membership, a plethora of issues, online petitions, fundraising, leadership, and direct action — and have an impact.

If I was a Romanian activist who wanted to influence local issues I wouldn’t set up a local equivalent of Avaaz as it would be impossible to get the critical mass of members needed to influence change – I would become a local branch of Avaaz (many countries have highly effective branches). In this way you could mobilise people about the burning global issue of the day and in doing so form a network of like minded individuals who are willing to donate time and money. This network could become the opposition of the future and could start to take on the issues of corruption and incompetence that plague public life in Romania. You could also perhaps get Avaaz’s six million members to rally round and sign a petition relating to some outrage committed by Romania’s government.

The Hotnews article I mentioned above also described a couple of campaigns in Romania which mobilises people online. They say that Lets Do it Romania is the most successful campaign of this type and they got about 50,000 people involved in picking up garbage campaigns. This is very impressive for a country where attitudes towards civic action, even among young people, are pretty cynical. But what a demotivating issue to get involved in; how depressing it must be to see the place you recently tidied up getting filled up with garbage again.

Surely it would have been better to introduce recycling – or even better, upcycling, where waste is eliminated totally from the manufacturing process – into a community, and showing people that separating waste makes sense (and makes money). Romania is miles behind other EU Member States when it comes to awareness about waste . Although there is recycling in parts of Romania it has been implemented in a top down manner – the city hall drops recycling bins around the area but they rarely bother to explain to people why they should separate their waste, what are the problems caused by garbage and what can be done with recycled waste. A group like Let’s Do it Romania could fill this gap. If each of those 50,000 people visited 10 houses each and spent a few minutes explaining the importance of recycling over half a million people may change their behaviour.

The other issue that was promoted in that Hotnews article was an organisation called Restart Romania. This is a combination of grant fund (they’re offering over 100 US Embassy grants of between $5,000 and $25,000), free IT consultancy and wishful thinking. Whenever I advise someone about applying for a grant fund I say “find out what they are aiming for and see if you can design a project that will help the donor achieve their aims”. That’s “the name of the game” in the grant fund business, and as far as I am concerned the aim is the most important factor. (You might like to see a relevant article I wrote about this issue, called How to Get a Grant, which is in English language only.)

If you find out what the donor is aiming for you can work out for yourself if such an aim is possible in a dysfunctional state like Romania. To put this into context, in my experience most grant funds are wildly optimistic in what they aim for — social justice, eradication of corruption and poverty, job creation and raising awareness of whole classes of people — and especially EU projects (which not only aim for too much but they have made the application process so complex that organisations in Romania simply don’t bother applying any more. Tens of billions of Euro remain unspent.) In my experience the more complex and idealistic the aims of a donor (or project) are, the more likely the project will have no impact.

Looking at the Restart Romania website does not fill me with confidence. According to their About Us page they describe themselves as “a social justice challenge” and a project that will “demonstrate the power of using the web for social change projects in Romania.” From my own experience of managing projects, companies and NGOs over the last 20 years I think these aims are unrealistic. Here’s why:

The concept of “social justice” is complex, never ending and idealistic. I did a quick google search for “What is social justice?” and came up with this definition from A general definition of social justice is hard to arrive at and even harder to implement. In essence, social justice is concerned with equal justice, not just in the courts, but in all aspects of society. This concept demands that people have equal rights and opportunities; everyone, from the poorest person on the margins of society to the wealthiest deserves an even playing field.” Considering that every organisation needs focus, clarity, direction and leadership this is not a good concept to base an organisation on.

Restart Romania’s other aims are equally nebulous. They claim the grant fund will demonstrate the power of using the web for social change projects in Romania.” This sounds great, and it would be wonderful in practise, but how likely is it that this fund can achieve real “social change”? In fact, the definitions of Communism and Social Justice/Change are remarkably similar (click here to see how Wisegeek define Communism).

I am equally sceptical about the claim that the internet, and IT consultancy, has the “power” to force social change in Romania. This is not to downplay the incredible success of the IT sector in Romania and the thousands of brilliant IT experts of all ages, but let’s keep it in perspective. Most of the clients for Romania’s IT sector are based in other countries — they like the friendliness, language skills and low cost of Romanian programmers — but their impact on public life in Romania has been low. It’s easy to see why.

Considering that this country is run by quarrelsome gangs of ex-Communist families, all of whom have tentacles in both the business and the public sector, the last thing they need are IT systems that turn “transparency” from an aim that everyone can agree to in principle, to a practise that would allow the public to see what’s really going on with public money. Romania’s government bodies are also concerned about IT systems that will make people — their friends, relatives and connections — unemployed. Why automate the tax collection system when this would throw out of work thousands of elderly wives, mothers in laws and people who have bribed their way into their jobs?

But public institutions do love IT systems that don’t threaten their monopoly on information. You can see all over the country outdoor “public information” and tourism computer terminals, and you can be sure that none of them work. Romanian individuals are brilliant at IT but the public sector is not. City halls will happily sign up to such projects (especially if they are expensive and there is a fat commission involved) but once the equipment is launched the all important issue of maintenance is simply forgotten. Even if there is a contract with a serious IT company you can be sure the maintenance fees will be stopped after a while, as the only political interest in such projects is in the fat commissions and the PR surrounding the launch (the idea of actually providing a public service is alien to most Romania’s politicians). That is the reality of Romania and if you want to run an effective project here you really need to take this into account, and the best way of doing this is to keep the aims and objective as simple as possible. Idealism needs to be restricted to the classroom.

But I don’t want to come across as a cynic who sees no good in these online initiatives. Not at all. I think that both Restart Romania and Let’s Do it Romania are great initiatives that should be supported by citizens and donors alike, there is so much that needs to be done in Romania and these platforms have the capacity to mobilise the next generation.

All I am arguing for is that they re-consider their aims and objectives. Although most people would be impressed with these aims (and everyone can agree that Social Justice is a wonderful theory) anyone with relevant project management experience knows that they are in the realms of fantasy. Having more simple aims would also help the organisation, and its projects, function better. Each and every project (and applicant) would have to answer this fundamental question: does my project contribute to the overall aim? I wish them all the best and I would be delighted to help them in this process of simplifying their aims (if they could ever forgive me for being so critical).

2 Responses to The power of lobbies

  1. Robyn McCutcheon says:

    Some good observations. I know one of the people at the Embassy who helped set up Restart Romania. I will have to pass your article on to him!

  2. Pingback: Bucharest Life | Is the WWF putting Romania’s forests before people? | Romania

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