How Social Movements Succeed: Lessons from HIV/AIDS

Friday, February 7, 2014 - 14:59

Presented by Center for Global Development: Event attended January 16, 2014

Contributed by Samantha Tacon


In their new book AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations, authors Ethan Kapstein and Joshua Busby consider the ways in which the global AIDS treatment advocacy movement helped transform the antiretroviral (ARV) medications market from one of "high price, low volume" to one based on universal access. In an event at the Center for Global Development (CGD), Kapstein, a political science professor at Arizona State University and visiting fellow at CGD, identified five essential elements that explain how the AIDS movement helped expand access to ARVs and save millions of lives: (1) the pharmaceutical industry's contestable operating structure; (2) the movement's ability to frame the issue in a way that deeply resonates with others; (3) the movement's clear consensus and policy goal; (4) minimal costs with significant benefits; and (5) institutional arrangements that set rules and lock in the new market principle with rewards and incentives.

Kapstein was joined by Michele de Nevers, Senior CGD Associate, and Jeremy Schiffman, professor of public administration and policy at American University, to discuss if and how these lessons can apply to other social campaigns seeking to tackle difficult challenges, such as global climate change. A candid de Nevers opened by proclaiming, "climate change fails in every area that [Kapstein] lays out in creating an effective social change." Still, using Kapstein's findings as a blueprint, the panel began to suggest ways in which climate activists can better achieve their goals through building social movements:

  1. Target Corporate Reputations - By creating negative publicity around fossil fuel corporations and the anti-climate lobby, activists can frame the climate change issue in a way that creates a public outcry for corporate responsibility and change.
  2. Clarifying the "Ask" - Instead of trying to create multiple policies across multiple sectors at one time, climate change activists may benefit from phasing strategic asks out over time. This will allow activists to focus their attention and resources on one issue at a time and gain consensus from outside groups.
  3. Create a Climate Constituency - Although most victims of climate change live outside of the United States and in the developing world, activists can use recent extreme weather - such as the Polar Vortex and Hurricane Sandy - to build a climate constituency in America. This will create more opportunities for activists to demand more from public officials in responding to their needs.
  4. Tailor the Message - Rather than an all-encompassing global message, crafting a targeted national message that is tailored to resonate with particular areas may be a more effective approach in eliciting climate policy change. For example, glacial melts and increased risk of flooding in Bangladesh stand in stark contrast to California's current historic drought. Tailoring the message to reflect an area’s specific climate concerns can be helpful in building a social movement.