Friday, March 19, 2010

Inside The Murky World Of The Uk's Make Poverty History Campaign: Stuart Hodkinson

For a sun-soaked Friday in late May, there was an unusual air of panic at the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) for the monthly members' assembly of Make Poverty History (MPH). Officials hurriedly briefed reception with some last-minute security instructions: "You must make sure that only assembly members are let in," one instructed. "The meeting is open to the public, but only public members of Make Poverty History."
The nerves were understandable. Two damning stories about MPH were about to break in the British national press. The cover story of British centre-left weekly, New Statesman, 'Why Oxfam is failing Africa', had exposed deep anger among members of the MPH coalition at Oxfam's 'revolving door' relationship with UK government officials and policies, accusing it of allowing Britain's two most powerful politicians, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown, to co-opt MPH as a front for New Labour's own questionable anti-poverty drive.
The right-wing Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, had given notice of its shocking exclusive on how large numbers of the ubiquitous MPH white wristband - the very symbol of the campaign - had been knowingly sourced from Chinese sweatshops with Oxfam's blessing.

Inside MPH, however, the embarrassing revelations were no surprise. For the past six months, some of the UK's leading development and environmental NGOs have been increasingly vocal in their unease about a campaign high on celebrity octane but low on radical politics. One insider, active in a key MPH working group, argues there "has often been a complete divergence between the democratically agreed message of our public campaign and the actual spin that greets the outside world". He is angry:
"Our real demands on trade, aid and debt, and criticisms of UK government policy in developing countries have been consistently swallowed up by white bands, celebrity luvvies and praise upon praise for Blair and Brown being ahead of other world leaders on these issues."
This is surely not what campaigners had in mind back in late 2003 when Oxfam initiated a series of informal meetings with charities and campaigning organisations to consider forming an unprecedented coalition against poverty in 2005 to coincide with the UK presidency of both the G8 summit and EU, the first five year evaluation of progress on the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed in 2000, the 6th WTO Ministerial Meeting in Hong Kong, and the 20th anniversary of Live Aid.
In September 2004, the Make Poverty History coalition was officially launched as the UK mobilisation of an international coalition, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (G-CAP), led by Oxfam International, Action Aid and DATA - the controversial Africa charity set up by U2 frontman, Bono and multi-billionnaires, George Soros, and Microsoft's Bill Gates, the world's second richest person with a fortune of just under $50 billion.
Since then, MPH has become an impressive campaigning coalition, boasting over 460 member organisations including all the major trade unions and the TUC, development NGOs, charities, churches as well as several faith and diaspora groups. Its successful mix of celebrity backers and anti-poverty message has captured the attention of both politicians and mass media, encapsulated in the near-hysteria following the annoucement by veteran rock star and Africa campaigner, Bob Geldof, that a series of free concerts in London, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome, and Berlin would take place under the banner 'Live 8' to coincide with the MPH campaign to lobby the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in July.
But despite the success, there is widespread unhappiness within the coalition over the campaign's public face and its cosiness to Blair and Brown. Critics argue that on paper at least, MPH's policy demands on the UK government are fairly radical, especially its calls for "trade justice not free trade", which would require G8 and EU countries, notably the UK, to stop forcing through free market policies on poor countries as part of aid, trade deals or debt relief. MPH also says rich countries should immediately double aid by $50bn per year and finally meet 35-year old promises to spend 0.7 per cent of their national income in development aid. More and better aid, meanwhile, should be matched by cancellation of the "unpayabale" debts of the world's poorest countries through a "fair and transparent international process" that uses new money, not slashed aid budgets. With additional calls for the regulation of multinationals and the democratisation of the IMF and World Bank, John Hilary, Campaigns Director of UK development NGO, War on Want, has a point when he asserts that MPH's policies "strike at the very heart of the neo-liberal agenda."
The problem, however, is that when these policies are relayed to a public audience, they become virtually indistinguishable from those of the UK government. This was brought home back in March this year when Blair's deeply compromised Commission for Africa set out its neoliberal proposals for the corporate plunder of Africa's human and natural resources under the identical headlines used by MPH - 'trade justice', 'drop the debt' and 'more and better aid'. In return, most MPH members, led by Oxfam and the TUC, warmly welcomed the report's recommendations. As Ghana's Yao Graham makes clear in July's Red Pepper, African civil society is far less enamoured with the Commission's report, which he argues lays out a brueprint for "the new scramble for Africa".
Thanks to the New Statesman exposé, much of the blame is placed on the leadership of Oxfam - the UK's biggest and most powerful developent agency. Despite its pro-poor image around the world, over the last two decades, Oxfam has become a feeder school for government special advisers and World Bank officials and has a particularly close relationship with New Labour. Blair's special advisor on international development, Justin Forsyth, was previously Oxfam's campaigns manager. Forsyth's opposite number at the Treasury is Oxfam board member, Shriti Vadera, a former director at the US bank, UBS Warburg, and specialist in public-private partnerships, a policy that litters the Africa Commission's report. Less well known is John Clark, who left Oxfam for the World Bank in 1992 to join the World Bank where he was responsible for the Bank's co-optation strategy with civil society before advising Tony Blair in 2000 on his "Africa Partnership Initiative" that directly led to the New Parternship for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in 2001. At the heart of MPH is Oxfam's Sarah Kline, a former World Bank official who champions the organisation's 'constructive dialogue' approach with the IMF and World Bank.
Oxfam's political independence from neoliberal governance is also compromised by the £40m or so of its annual income that comes from government or other public funds. Nearly £14m alone originates from the Department for International Development (DfID), which is a major champion of privatisation and its benefits for UK companies in developing countries. In this, Oxfam is of course by no means alone - almost every development NGO in Britain is on DfID's payroll. While it is possible to take and use government money progressively while being critical of the donor's policies, such large amounts of government funding inevitably influence how far Oxfam will stick its neck out politically and risk future funding cuts.
Oxfam's unrivalled financial resources and existing public profile make it by far the most powerful organisation in the MPH coalition. Last year, Oxfam's annual income surpassed £180m - three times the amount received by its nearest rival, Christian Aid, and dwarfing more social movement-oriented development NGOs like WDM and War on Want who punch way above their weight on just over £1m each. Such wealth disparity inevitably translates into the direction taken by the coalition, especially its public image. Oxfam's army of press officers, researchers and campaign officers can naturally take advantage of the huge media opportunities generated by the campaign.
But making Oxfam the scapegoat for MPH's co-optation by New Labour misses the key role played by Comic Relief and its celebrity co-founder, the film director, Richard Curtis. As one of Britain's most prolific and brilliant comedy writers, Curtis shot to fame in the 1980s with the TV series Blackadder, and his since penned hits like Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, and the blockbuster movie, Four Weddi

1 comment:

John Madeley said...

Yes, there were tensions in the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 between NGOs close to government, like Oxfam, and the more radical ones like War on Want, who don’t take DFID money. I cover the tensions in my new book Beyond Reach? which tells the story of Make Poverty History campaign in a novel way. Despite the tensions, the campaign at least advanced the cause. Details of the book are on
Royalties go to agencies working to eradicate poverty.

“A gripping and inspiring story of forbidden love and the struggle for justice. In a hundred years people will look back on our culture of greed and realise books like this helped change the world” - Revd. David Rhodes