The Oxfam Coffee Campaign – or Mugged – was the major Oxfam campaign in 2003. And it was timely. Coffee prices were at an all time low and coffee farmers were suffering. And it helped bring to life the struggles farmers face in the current multilateral trade system – a global trade system that held very little benefit for the small farmers.

It had all the ingredients for a successful Oxfam campaign – a product that people consume in abundance (coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world – only oil beats it), an alternative with a catchy name – Fair Trade, the faces of African farmers on all materials to get supporters going, and well known brands that people could brand as the ‘evil predators’ – Nestle, Kraft, P&G and Sara Lee. A lethal combination and the bread and butter of campaigning. And luck was on my side – a few things went my way and I was asked to head up the campaign a few months after joining Oxfam in 2002. (Previous campaign lead Sophia Tickell left within a few months of me joining Oxfam).

I thought we had a good campaign. We asked coffee companies, or Roasters as we called them, to commit to very specific actions to help address the coffee crisis. And many of the companies we targeted did take up our challenge – not all of them, but at least a few did. I thought we should ‘celebrate’ our first year of the Mugged campaign by doing some proper quantitative research to assess whether the Roaster did what we asked them to do. It was going to be easy – tick the box and move on. We even came up with the idea of giving companies a report card to show the progress they made. And the campaign anniversary took place in September when so much focus would be on the report cards kids receive at school – easy publicity.

But there was a major problem I did not even think of – what will happen if one or more of the companies passed? For me it was easy – if you pass you pass. It would show people that progress has been made and that we can be part of the change we want – that their support and our campaign can make a real difference. And that we are grownup enough to tip our hat to those companies who recognize their mistakes and made the changes we asked them to make.

We did our best research and even developed a ‘bean count’ system – 0 was ‘ just not coffee’ and 5 was ‘the fairest brew’. And the nightmare began when we realized that the most boycotted company in the UK, and major campaign target, Nestle passed the test. Most people just couldn’t stand the possibility of acknowledging anything good at Nestle – never mind saying publicly that they did okay in doing what we asked them to do. It just wasn’t cricket.

Still, for me it was easy. We had to do what was right – report our findings. I had a daughter that just started school and wouldn’t want anyone to move the goalposts for her when it came to school. And I couldn’t do it to someone else – even if I didn’t like them. So I stuck to my guns and argued that we should do what was right and acknowledge that companies made progress and that they got a pass on their report card. Mind you, they didn’t get A’s in our initial research – they got C’s. A pass, but not a good pass – ‘room for improvement’, ‘work harder’ and ‘showing promise’ would be the taglines that would accompany the report cards. Not glowing grades, but a pass nevertheless.

I had to go on a trip and left the work for others to complete – do the graphics and get the campaign materials ready. Boy, was I in for a surprise when I got back. Someone senior (and someone I respected and liked) decided that we just couldn’t give companies any credit and changed the maths. Instead of grading them on the things we asked them to do, Oxfam changed the grades and decided to make one of the four things we asked them to do count for 70% of the grade. Why? Because almost all of them failed this part of the test. It didn’t matter that Oxfam believed that this one part wasn’t more important that others. What mattered most was to fail the companies. All of them. And they did. Nestle got 43% in the report card.

I learned a harsh lesson. I might have taught research methodology at university, but when it came to social maths you can’t beat a campaigner. Truth and fact was truly in the eye of the beholder – Oxfam.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. I refused to budge and refused to lead the report card campaign. It did happen. Just not with me leading it.

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