The soft power of civil society
The North Wind and the Sun had a difference of opinion. The North Wind boasted of great strength. But the Sun argued that there was power in gentleness.
“We shall have a contest,” the North Wind bellowed. They looked down upon a man wearing a warm winter coat. “As a test of strength,” said the North Wind, "let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man. I’ll go first”.
The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.
Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud, and the man turned down his collar. Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground, and the man unbuttoned his coat. The sun grew brighter and brighter, and soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.
This kind of power is everywhere. Soft power - getting others to want the outcomes that you want - co-opts people rather than coerces them. Hard power is easy to recognise, it typically relies on carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, coercing others. But soft power is the ability to change what others do by changing what they want.
Joseph Nye coined the term, “soft power” in 1990, as the Cold War was coming to an end. In same year, McDonald’s opened a restaurant at Pushkin Square in Moscow in one of the most famous examples of soft power used on a global scale. At the time, there was the belief that if America exported enough fast food, blue jeans, and rock ‘n’ roll around the world, then everywhere else would adopt American cultural ideals and values. Exporting American culture to other countries changed what the people of those countries did by changing what they wanted.
Of course, soft power existed before 1990, it just didn’t have a name. Civil society organisations have always used soft power to achieve their aims. They have no means of coercing or paying people to do something, so the only option is a soft power approach.
The Keep Britain Tidy campaign used soft power to get people to want what Keep Britain Tidy wanted, and to change their behaviour to achieve it. Starting in 1955, the campaign encouraged people to put their rubbish in bins. Throughout the decades the campaign has exercised soft power in many ways.
When Nye explains the concept of soft power, he talks about ‘attraction and persuasion’. Making the outcome attractive is as important as persuading people to want to achieve it. Wanting our local communities and open spaces to be free of rubbish sounds like an attractive outcome, but sometimes it’s not enough.
The Bin It for Good campaign incentivised people to put their litter in a bin by offering another benefit to the local community. Bins were transformed into charity collection tins with a new local charity or cause each month. The more litter that went into the bins, the more money the featured charity or cause received. Not only was the idea of cleaner streets attractive to people, but their litter becoming a donation to charity was even more attractive. In three years, Bin it for Good prevented an estimated 34,314 items of litter from being dropped on the ground, and raised more than £10,800 for participating charities.
The International Tidy Man symbol was more subtle but long-lasting. It appeared on many crisp packets, soft drink cans, and chewing gum packets to remind people to put the packaging in the bin. It was the persuasion of soft power, the constant prompt to do the right thing.
Interestingly, there were also hard power elements to the campaign. When littering became an offense with a fine, suddenly there was a ‘stick’ for beating those that littered. But it wasn’t the civil society organisation that was wielding that power. They influenced the holders of that hard power to act on their behalf, making it another great example of using soft power.
A survey by Keep Britain Tidy in 2012 showed that seven out of ten people would feel guilty about dropping litter. That’s the result of soft power in action. What seemed like an inconsequential thing became something to feel guilty about in less than sixty years. The campaign achieved a generational shift in attitudes towards litter. That is soft power in action.
This is how all civil society operates. Hard power is for the state. Soft power is for those organisations that want to influence and persuade. It is by successfully exercising their soft power that civil society organisations bring about change in society.
Civil society is the sun that shines down on us, gently warming us until we take off our coat’s.