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01 January 2010

The right kind of pest

The right kind of pest

By appealing at a grass-roots level, Tearfund is using the internet to badger corporations and politicians into being more responsible. Hazel Southam reports...

When Rev Andy Herrick returned from a sabbatical in Zambia he was both "frustrated and angry". The poverty that he'd seen had made a great impression on him; he wanted to do something about it but didn't know how. "The house I was staying in had a full fridge and running water," he recalls. "But outside the door people were walking miles to fetch water. They lived with no access to clean water and little food, just struggling to get by.

"When I came back I felt so angry that Western nations have the means to do something about this, but not the will. I felt powerless to change what I had seen. What on earth could I do?"

Andy, a team vicar with the Church of Wales in Aberystwyth, tried all the traditional routes. His church raised funds for Zambia, enough to build a church, a school and provide flushing toilets and showers. He joined protests. But he still felt like a small voice in a hurricane.

Then Andy discovered SuperBadger, an initiative from Alliance member Tearfund. Launched in 2007, the scheme allows people to "badger" companies or members of parliament about key issues through the networking sites Facebook and Twitter by sending emails written by Tearfund.

"We wanted to use Facebook for something more useful than poking people and throwing sheep," jokes Ben Niblett, Tearfund's head of campaigns. "We could see the demand was there and we thought people would love it if there was campaigning on the internet. We weren't sure if people would give a monkey's, but we decided it was worth the risk."

Two years on, Tearfund's hunch has proved correct: people did want to campaign; they just didn't know how. SuperBadger seems to have galvanised not only the internet generation, but people of all ages, into taking social action on issues that matter to them, from clean water to Fair Trade chocolate.

"We wanted to use Facebook for something more useful than poking people"

So far, 20,000 people have taken part in SuperBadger. That means they've sent an email asking for action of one sort or another to a company or MP. And they have recently marked their one thousandth campaign, while three new campaigns involve calling on world leaders to stop the trade of Zimbabwe's so-called "conflict diamonds", asking European Commission President Manuel Barroso to fight corruption, and asking Gordon Brown to provide some toilets.

"It's a scandal that around the world almost 900 million people are still waiting for access to clean water, and 2.5bn lack a decent toilet," the badger says. "More needs to be done to address this crisis. Badger Gordon Brown to be a sanitation and water champion and act to end this injustice." By clicking on the email link and pressing "send", you've campaigned in your lunch hour.

For Tearfund, SuperBadger has changed the face of campaigning, as people can respond on the day that something happens rather than waiting the weeks or months it takes to organise an event. "I'd done lots of traditional campaigning but, with SuperBadger, if I come across an issue I write and say something about it," says Andy Herrick. "It's not vitriolic or judgemental; it just holds the issues up and encourages people to do more. Tearfund gives you the information you need and it's given me a voice."

Politicians notice

In the run-up to December's crucial climate change summit in Copenhagen, Tearfund used SuperBadger to ask both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama to do more on the issue and to go to Copenhagen themselves. "Politicians really take notice of SuperBadger, particularly if it's combined with something else," says Ben Niblett. "That's powerful."

So before the Climate Change Bill came into force in the UK, Tearfund's supporters badgered Hilary Benn MP. "We got our three asks," says Tearfund's Campaigns Officer Alisha Sanvicens, "emissions cuts increased to 80 per cent, specific targets for aviation and shipping, and annual milestones. It was fantastic."

But she's careful to add that the credit doesn't rest at the door of one online campaign initiative. "There was a lot of campaigning that went on and we were just part of that," she says.

However, there are occasions when SuperBadger has been the main catalyst for change. In March 2008 it badgered Thornton's to start stocking Fair Trade chocolate and Fair Trade Easter eggs. Six months later the chocolate was on the shelves, and the eggs were included in 2009's range.

"We thought they just weren't pulling their weight," says Ben Niblett. "We'd spoken to them about it and they didn't say anything very helpful. So we asked people to badger them and say that they'd love to buy Fair Trade products in their shops. It was positive. It wasn't attacking them. Six months later they'd done it and we thanked them afterwards."

Andy Herrick recalls that campaign well. He's currently SuperBadger's most trenchant campaigner with hundreds of badgers to his name. "I think I'm an addict now," he jokes. "I've introduced friends to it and they've found it empowering. They were thrilled to see that things were being done about issues that they had a conscience about."

He goes on to note that a sense of social justice is an important part of our faith. "Jesus is our model. He took time to spend with the downtrodden and those on the fringes of society," he says. "Jesus calls us to do something for people, to stand with them. We have a culture of rights, but if we want to have the right to clean water, we need to do something to ensure that right is shared by everyone else.

"The students I work with here in Aberystwyth are much more conscious of these issues than I was at their age, and they are more determined to do something about it. But they are also pulled in a consumer direction, even at church. So something like SuperBadger is a real challenge because it's not about them."

Through SuperBadger, Tearfund plans to continue to badger companies and politicians over the coming years. And this is good news, says Andy, whose "frustration" from Zambia has gone because it's been channeled into positive action.

  • Participate with SuperBadger on Facebook or Twitter, or find out more at: youth.tearfund.org

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