What is a Divestment Campaign?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A divestment campaign is an organized campaign which is designed to convince an institution to divest its assets from a particular region or company. Activists organize divestment campaigns to bring attention to popular issues, and in the hopes of reducing funding for governments or institutions which they oppose. Most divestment campaigns focus on universities, which often have large amounts of money invested in a wide variety of locations, and these campaigns are often successful, because universities are typically interested in maintaining popular public opinion.

A divestment campaign may consist of protests.
A divestment campaign may consist of protests.

Divestment is a form of economic boycott. When a company or institution divests its assets, it removes them, placing them in another location. The removal of the assets can cause a direct economic blow, of course, but it also sends a message, indicating dissatisfaction. One of the most famous divestment campaigns was one which encouraged universities to withdraw investments from South Africa in the hopes of ending apartheid.

One famous divestment campaign encouraged universities to withdraw investments from South Africa in the hopes of ending apartheid.
One famous divestment campaign encouraged universities to withdraw investments from South Africa in the hopes of ending apartheid.

Academic divestment has also been urged in places like Israel and Sudan, out of concern for alleged human rights violations. Typically such campaigns are led by groups of students, professors, and activists, who may march, write letters, and perform other acts of protest. These protests bring the issue to the attention of the university, and also to the world at large, as they may attract attention in the popular media.

Proponents of the divestment campaign say that by divesting their assets, institutions can send a clear message to the targets of their divestment. A divestment campaign can also be used as a threat, with organizations indicating that they will divest unless their targets reform their activities. In some cases, a divestment campaign involves a group of universities which agrees to work together as a block for greater effect, potentially causing serious economic damage.

Running a divestment campaign does require some caution. Generally a divestment campaign faces a great deal of opposition from all sides, and activists need to have their facts in order, with a spokesperson who is well educated about the issues. To gain supporters, the campaign must typically publish literature, hold rallies, and engage in other activities which will attract both positive and negative attention, and most divestment campaigns focus on proved issues as a result. For example, South Africa's apartheid was a well understood and universally known issue, while a divestment campaign targeted at China on the basis of human rights abuses might not be so clear-cut, as the facts in the matter are less clear and easy to prove.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@nony - That’s probably true as most universities tend to be liberal anyway. However I think the real issue, as the article points out, is to make sure you have facts to support your case.

I don’t think universities are just going to be dupes for any cause spurred on by the latest Michael Moore film. Universities are after all research institutions. Their credibility, in my opinion, is more important than their overall ideological bent. Personally I think campuses should tread very cautiously in the area of divestment, until they’re sure their facts can withstand scrutiny.


Frankly, I think that most divestment campaign issues center around liberal causes. I don’t think that universities would be prone to participate in campaigns that centered around conservative causes.

Now some of the issues do have consensus across ideological divides, like the issue of apartheid mentioned in the article. But most others don’t.

Are the Israelis really guilty of illegal occupation – and therefore worthy of divestment? I suppose that depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? The same thing could be said for other issues like global warming and stuff like that.

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