Beyond Clicktivism: Mobilizing Political Will for the SDGs


by Frederick Mulder and Sam Daley-Harris

In his book A Mighty Purpose: How Jim Grant Sold the World on Saving Its Children, Adam Fifield shares a 1982 conversation between Grant, who headed UNICEF from 1980-1995, and Dr. Jon Rohde an American pediatrician.  The discussion took place as Rohde drove Grant in an old jeep over rutted roads in Haiti and was pivotal to the launch of the child survival revolution that Grant would go on lead.  One could draw a direct line from that revolution to the goals of the World Summit for Children in 1990, the Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 and the Sustainable Development goals set in 2015.

Like Jim Grant’s father, Dr. John Grant, whose work became the basis for the barefoot doctors program in China, Rohde had also worked many years for the Rockefeller Foundation.  Rohde had sent the younger Grant a copy of a 1982 lecture he delivered in Birmingham, England titled, “Why the Other Half Dies: The Science and Politics of Child Mortality in the Third World,” in which he outlines how half of the child deaths in the Third World could be prevented by simple, inexpensive interventions including immunizations, oral rehydration salts, and having mothers monitor the growth of their children.  Here is Rohde’s retelling of the conversation.

         “Now look, I’ve read this thing,” Grant said referring to Rohde’s paper.  “You say that the science is there.”

         “Yes,” Rohde replied.

         “The epidemiology is there,” Grant continued.  “That’s what they’re dying of.”


         “The science is there and the interventions are there.”


         Grant went on.  “The organizational structure is there.  We’ve got enough health workers who can do this.  We don’t need doctors to do this.  We don’t need ambulances.  We could just do a mass campaign.”

        Rohde agreed

       “In other words, we have all these things and no political will?”

       “That’s right,” Rohde said.  “That’s the problem.”

        “Well,” Grant said.  “I’m here to make the political will.”

         Rohde knew that such a colossal task was not so facile.  “How and where are we going to get that?”

         Grant replied simply, “That’s my job.”

Grant’s promise was clearly kept as global vaccination rates skyrocketed from 20 percent in 1982 to 80 percent by 1990 and an estimated 4 million lives were saved in 1992 alone from immunizable diseases and severe dehydration.  While many things have changed since that conversation more than 30 years ago, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need to generate the political will to achieve the SDGs. In the lead-up to the SDG Summit UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said, “We must all now act with utmost ambition – and mobilize maximum political will.”

If political will is a key ingredient for achieving the SDGs, how are we doing?  As it turns out, we’re doing quite well with grass-tops advocacy, things like Bono meeting David Cameron or President Obama and doing well with online advocacy, or clicktivism, as the following figure shows.  But where we’re falling short is with the missing middle, deep advocacy, citizens getting educated and empowered to create champions in Congress and the media for achieving the SDGs.
Grass-tops Advocacy


What does deep advocacy look like and is it even possible?  After U.S. volunteers with the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS generated 90 editorials in a successful 1986 campaign to triple the Child Survival Fund, Grant send RESULTS a handwritten note saying, “I thank you in my mind weekly, if not more often, for what you and your colleagues are accomplishing—but I thought I should do it at least once this year in writing.”  Another example is Citizens Climate Lobby, a US-based group following the RESULTS model for deep advocacy whose volunteers in the U.S. and Canada had 2,253 letters to the editor published in 2014 (up from 36 in 2010) and had 1,086 meetings with Congress or their staff that same year (up from 106 in 2010).  Climate scientist Jim Hansen wrote, “If you want to join the fight to save the planet, to save creation for your grandchildren, there is no more effective step you could take than becoming an active member of Citizens Climate Lobby."

Both Grant and Hansen were responding to the grassroots breakthroughs and both groups have been coached by the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) whose mission is to help NGOs train their members to create champions in Congress and the media for their cause.

CCET’s theory of change includes a challenge to the traditional way of working with members of Congress or Parliament where we typically find a supporter and think we're done or find an opponent and throw in the towel.  Instead we need to find ways to move elected officials up “the champion scale”.  CCET promotes moving opponents up to neutral, moving those who are neutral up to being supporters, those who are supporters up to being advocates, those who are advocates up to being leaders and spokespersons, and moving leaders and spokespersons up to being champions for the SDGs.  Of course the staff has to move itself up that scale and build a deep structure of support that will help volunteers move up that scale themselves.  That structure of support includes starting groups with clear agreements and accountabilities, a monthly conference call for all activists that is educational, empowering and inspiring, a clear focus so the activists can drill down deep on the issue, and a commitment to grassroots breakthroughs.

But too many group shy away from creating the kind of deep structure of support for their activists that makes deep advocacy work and, instead, take the easier clictivist route.  When we look back from the year 2030, will the SDGs have been achieved? If not, will one of the reasons be because we didn’t create sufficient political will?  Now is the time to redouble those efforts to make sure we do.


Frederick Mulder, CBE, is Chair of the Frederick Mulder Foundation and founder of The Funding Network

Sam Daley-Harris founded the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS, co-founded the Microcredit Summit Campaign, and founded the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation