Tuesday, January 30, 2007

ROI and Activism

ROI stands for Return On Investment, it is a general term that can be used in any sector of human affairs but it is something that is particularly useful in assessing the effectiveness of any particular action. The term is widely used in finance to calculate the gain from an investment. When planning an action, protest or campaign calculating the return on investment is something which should be done regularly.

An example of using ROI could be when planning an action such as a media stunt. The number of hours put into planning the action, building the props, writing the press release carrying out the action etc should be calculated and weighed against the amount of media the action is likely to get. When calculating the number of hours that go into an action calculate the number of hours of everyone involved. A banner drop may take 4 hours to plan 2 hours to go and have a look at the site 3 hours to paint the banner 4 hours to get ready and actually do it and 20 hours in the court and jail system. If this banner drop was planned and carried out by 4 people then the entire process could take 132 hours. Once the investment is calculated the return can be estimated, for the banner drop it might give you 45 seconds on the news and one or two pieces in the paper. This could constitute a high or low ROI depending on circumstances. 45 seconds on the news a week before the election could be vital. If it’s a company that does not depend on its public image (eg Fonterra) then it might be a negligible ROI.

In Iraq insurgent groups are getting ROI’s of thousands of hours to one by targeting infrastructure such as high voltage power lines, hitting the system where it is weakest and causing a cascade of failures. With this approach insurgents are capable of being highly effective with low tech weaponry and low man hours. The same sort of thinking should guide our actions as activists, finding where the system is weakest and hitting there to cause delays and problems that form a positive feedback loop with each failure increasing the scope of the failure of the next part of the system.

A New Zealand example of extremely well targeted action is the blocking of train tracks by Save Happy Valley activists. This action by targeting train tracks caused economic damage probably far in excess of the hours put in by the activists (I have no idea how long it took to plan and carry out).This action also managed to get press at the same time.

Direct action including can be assessed with ROI in mind, with expected or actual damage weighed against time taken and the possible penalties. If an action such as a blockade can cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage with moderate penalties then this action may be far superior to “cooler” actions such as vandalism that cause low amounts of damage and take a substantial amount of time to carry out.

Lobbying, petition signing and voting can all be weighed with ROI in mind, just because you working within the system doesn’t mean your not being effective.


anarchafairy said...

"Lobbying, petition signing and voting can all be weighed with ROI in mind, just because you working within the system doesn’t mean your not being effective."

Well, I suppose what your goals are. If it is a single issue campaign, with little vision beyond the immediate goal, then perhaps these tactics may offer a certain ROI that makes them worthwhile (but that's certainly arguable).

If, on the other hand, campaigns are understood as steps towards grassroots self-management (libertarian communism, anarchism, etc.) then lobbying, petitioning, voting, and other things that "work within the system", all work to actively reinforce these processes, take away our power and place it straight back in the hands of those above us, take away our initiative and self-activity, integrate and co-opt our dissent back into institutionalised and constrained forms and, ultimately, work in the opposite direction of our end goal. The ROI in this case is, and always will be, nil.

That also doesn't mean, however, the direct action has to be concieved as it is popularly understood - small groups doing sab or whatever (this is only a recent popularisation among ELF and ALF groups) - but can be a return to mass forms of direct action and popular counter-organisation: the strike, the self-reduction schemes, participatory food coops, etc.

...my thoughts

John said...

mm I kinda agree and I do like that you put it in a wider context. And its really nice to have the feedback.

I do not however think that the current system should be completely ignored because of a long term goal of self management. Working within the system for immediate goals and campaigns should not be ignored, while it wont destroy the current system it can be effective. Puritanically sticking to illegal action probably wont help anyone much.

- my thoughts :)

8:21 PM

George said...

What's the ROI on blogging? :p

John said...

Well depends what you are writing about and what the chances are it will be successfully applied to real life. - Pretty low in most cases