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Despondency Trap: How to break the Negative Feedback Loop

by Alice Evans

Many activists are caught in a despondency trap (working paper here). Never seeing radical reform, they lower their ambitions, and invest in more feasible but sub-optimal alternatives. This creates a negative feedback loop, in which the dearth of radical reform becomes self-fulfilling. Climate breakdown continues.

But if reformists see advances at home and abroad, they may become more optimistic about collective mobilisation and break-out of their despondency trap. This is shown by tracing the drivers of ground-breaking legislation.

Just this year, in April 2020, the European Commissioner for Justice announced plans to mandate that all businesses identify and reduce risks of human rights abuses and environmental degradation in their global supply chains. Such legislation was simply unthinkable four years ago.

What changed?

Activists in France benefited from some unusual circumstances. Their success emboldened activists across Europe, who then made headway in their countries. Rather than allow a patchwork system of legislation, with additional costs for businesses, the EU Commissioner pursued a pan-EU law.

What exactly happened in France?

From 2018, large French firms must mitigate risks of environmental and human rights abuses in their global supply chains, or else be liable. This bill – the world’s first of its kind – was vociferously contested by domestic businesses. But French campaigners and politicians persisted for four years, because they saw reasons for optimism. These include growing international support; public outcry; the French political culture (state intervention, and distrust of multinationals); together with a Centre-Left Government. Optimism galvanised relentless mobilisation.

Legislative success in France then changed activists’ perception of possible success elsewhere across Europe in a network effect. They were then emboldened to launch similar campaigns and escape their own despondency trap. ‘The French law showed it was possible, after this long period of thinking legislation is never going to happen!’ - exclaimed a Dutch campaigner. The demands for change became an emergent property of the campaigns across many countries.

Expectations of domestic support also motivate activism. Anticipating a leftist victory, Finnish activists campaigned ahead of the 2019 elections, and secured a commitment from the new government. Meanwhile, German NGOs were emboldened by the coalition agreement, and the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development’s draft legislation on human rights due diligence. In 2019, the Dutch Senate mandated child labour due diligence. Dutch NGOs became more confident they could secure extra-territorial liability, so coalesced to form a public campaign, with lawyers, academics, politicians, and civil servants. In Spain, activists saw the strength of public resistance in the anti-austerity movement and TTIP protests. ‘Everyone is seeing the momentum in Europe: things are happening in France, Switzerland, Finland and Germany!’ – smiled a Dutch campaigner.

Seeing campaigns and legislative successes, activists become energised and emboldened, securing organisational backing and building large coalitions.

‘[Previously], everyone in my organisation was really sceptical… That really demotivated me to put a lot of effort in it, not having support in my organisation. Now people are on board! Our press team is on it! I’m now really happy to invest… The campaign brings people together, it’s really motivating, the campaign workshops, being with people, it’s also fun to work on it!’ – a German campaigner enthused.

Such campaigns improve activists’ domestic and also neighbouring country prospects: raising expectations, inspiring sympathetic politicians, embarrassing laggard governments, and alleviating politicians’ concerns about international competition. In 2018-19, Belgian, British, Danish, Dutch, German, Luxembourgian, Norwegian, and Swedish NGOs launched campaigns for mandatory due diligence. Norm perceptions are also changing in European parliaments: when pushing for motions on due diligence, politicians invoke the French law and parallel initiatives. Our peers are changing, and so can we - they insisted.

This research - generously funded by Rebuilding Macroeconomics - makes three contributions to the literature on global collective problems.

First, it suggests that many activists are caught in a global despondency trap, and to explain successful activism, we need to understand what fuels their hope for reform. Cross-national research draws attention to: growing international support; public outrage; national political cultures; and centre-left government.

Second, it suggests that the first few countries to introduce stringent legislation may be unusual: with idiosyncratic political cultures, sustained activism, and good luck. These forerunners shift expectations and self-interested concerns in other countries, motivating parallel reforms (enabling a positive feedback loop).

Finally, this analysis challenges realist models of global collective action problems and preoccupations with free-riding. These theories treat states as unitary actors, reluctant to penalise domestic companies for fear of undermining their international competitiveness. To be clear, there is a global coordination problem: but not just about self-interest, also despondency.

This project has shown through interviews how success elsewhere can be contagious. It changes perceptions of the likelihood of success. Politicians and activists heavily invest in campaigns for radical reform to address global governance issues if they anticipate success – by seeing domestic support, international agreements, and peer legislation. Radical and international reform was shown to be an emergent property, once a critical threshold of support had been crossed.

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