Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

Lessons from Make Poverty History

At Save the Children we’re acutely conscious both of how much there is to be done to shape the future and also how much there is to be learnt from the past. We have introduced a programme of events on the history of change where people who have been part of huge social movements will talk about what the movement was trying to achieve, what tactics they employed (with what success) and, crucially, what lessons their movement holds for people campaigning for social justice today. The hashtag for all the events is #changehistory and we will share resources from each event here at Global Dashboard.

The first talk, on the lessons of Make Poverty History, was held to coincide with the ten year anniversary of Live 8 and the Gleneagles summit.

The video above (audio only) contains some pretty frank reflections from me and from Care International’s Laurie Lee. At the time I was on the board of Make Poverty History and running the Stop AIDS Campaign while Laurie was the Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser on development.  This is our attempt to give both an insider and outsider account of the main phases of the campaign, including the launch, the debt deal, Live 8 and the march on Edinburgh, Gleneagles and the aftermath.

I won’t pretend it is a short listen, but it does give answers to questions like ‘what is development’s worst ever stunt?’, ‘what is our movement’s biggest failure of the last decade?’, ‘what single issue did MPH do the most to infuence?’ and ‘what’s the right size for a big tent?’.

If you don’t have time for the whole talk, there is a summary of some of the key lessons here.

A great generation: Make Poverty History ten years on

In 2005 some of us thought white bands and rock bands could change the world.

We were right.

Make Poverty History was an unprecedented popular mobilisation on global poverty and it secured unprecedented results. Since 2005 many millions more people are on anti AIDS drugs and millions more children are in school. Fellow Make Poverty History veteran Adrian Lovett sums up the new world the campaign helped to create in just one word: better. In campaigning terms the numbers are yet to be beaten: a global audience of approximately 3 billion for Live 8, millions of people wearing the campaign’s white band, quarter of a million people marching on Edinburgh and a brand recognition that leapt from zero to 90% in just six months.

MPH was, in short, HUGE.

Like any huge campaign, the story of Make Poverty History is contested. What happened, why it happened, and what would have happened had it been done differently are all still debated. This, therefore, is not the definitive view, but it is one from a unique vantage point. I was on the board of Make Poverty History, then worked for Bono and Bob Geldof’s advocacy organisation DATA (now ONE), then spent three years as a Special Adviser in Number 10. There are plenty more lessons to be learnt from MPH than we have space for here, but here are just six lessons I think we should still consider as we try to influence global outcomes in 2015 and beyond.

1) It is easier to ride waves than make waves

Sometimes the stars align behind a campaign. In 2005 we had major policy windows for impact (the UK had the chair of the G8, the Presidency of the EU and a potentially influential role at that year’s WTO ministerial), a political opportunity for mobilisation (there was a UK general election in May) and a public hook for a big focus on development (2005 was the 20th anniversary of both Live Aid and Comic Relief). The neatness of the choreography did make it easier to get a hearing with policy makers, politicians and the press, but it still took a heavy lift to convince people that 2005 represented a unique window of opportunity to deliver something massive on development. Lobbying of Number 10 to focus their G8 presidency on Africa started in 2003 and huge credit is due to those in Oxfam and elsewhere who saw this opportunity coming and seized and shaped it so that there was a growing wave ready for Make Poverty History to ride it when we formally launched in January 2005. By the time Nelson Mandela addressed a rally in Trafalgar Square in February, 2005 already felt special enough that his call to be ‘a great generation’ did not feel overblown. You can (and should!) watch the whole speech here.

2) Necessary is sometimes sufficient

The time between the campaign being conceived and launched was spent piecing together governance and plans. We were only able to do the second effectively because we had done the first strategically. The campaign always had three objectives: i) policy change, ii) recruitment of a huge, diverse, new group of supporters and iii) leaving the sector stronger at the end of the campaign that it was at the beginning. The campaign ended up attracting a much wider range of organisations than any of us had planned at the beginning, but the only organisations hardwired into the board were those without whom the three objectives could not be achieved. While there were undoubtedly tensions inside the campaign, the most controversial decisions of the board were always related back to one of these three objectives and neither these objectives nor the policy manifesto were up for negotiation when new organisations came on board. On reflection, however, I don’t think we priced the opportunity costs of such a wide coalition appropriately. Time spent negotiating internal tensions was time not spent engaging with policymakers and the public, and it isn’t clear the organisations requiring the most accommodation brought us enough to make the price worth paying. Sometimes the necessary coalition really is the sufficient one.

3) The feet of a ladder sit on the ground

Activists often talk about getting people up the ladder of engagement, and then promptly forget that most people climb ladders from the ground. If mass participation is central to your cause then barriers to entry have to be as close to the floor as possible. In Make Poverty History’s case that meant huge mainstream moments like Live 8 and getting our launch written in to the script of the Vicar of Dibley. Both of those caused arguments that seem bizarre in retrospect. Live 8 left some activists furious that the headlines of the next day’s tabloids were not about the nuances of policy, as if that had been on offer until Bono came along. Meanwhile the Vicar of Dibley tensions offer a classic lesson in leaving people to what the are good at. When Richard Curtis offered to mention the campaign in the New Year special of his much-loved sitcom, our instinctive response was not to send some thank you flowers but to work out which committee should vet the script. A simple mental exercise would have helped here: if we wouldn’t let Richard Curtis write our policy report, we probably shouldn’t have asked to write his show. One of the campaign’s biggest failings is that in working with incredible talents from the creative industries we tried to make them more like us not us more like them. I wish we’d been more appreciative at the time of what a difference it made to have some of Britain’s biggest creative brains onboard.

4) The success belongs to the public, the failure belongs to you

“How. Can. These. 8. Men. Refuse. Us. NOW? How can they refuse us?”. This speech, from Bob Geldof on the eve of the summit, sums what it felt like to be part of a truly mass, truly global moment. His subsequent assessment of whether the G8 refused us – “ten out of ten for aid and eight out of ten for debt” is, on reflection, a fairer one than that of the global coalition that “the people have roared but the G8 has whispered”. Part of the reason for the gulf between the verdicts is that some activists operated on the assumption that telling supporters they had won would somehow be demotivating. I think that profoundly misreads human psychology, as well as leading to perverse incentives to misrepresent reality. The simple fact is that the outcomes of the summit were unprecedented, something several journalists were already on camera explaining to their viewers while we were stuck in a room working out our line. Make Poverty History supporters, many of them taking campaign action for the first time in their lives, deserved to know whether marching to the top of the hill was worth it. It was and they should be very, very proud of what they achieved. The successes of the campaign are theirs, only its failures belong to us.

5) Campaigners made it possible, politicians made it happen

Part of the reason for the public’s success was that their political consent for action was harnessed to a clear advocacy calendar for action. The public might have been piling on the pressure, but in the end the deal was done by governments. Both the elected politicians and the backroom bureaucrats needed and deserved praise for the hard yards they put in. The key lesson for me is that while charity campaigners need not be partisans in politics, we should always be partisans for politics. Leaders had the power to do the right thing, we had the power to make them. Both sides played their part.

6) Exits are as important as entrances

Make Poverty History built the biggest anti-poverty mailing list in history.

And then we burnt it.

The rationale for doing so was twofold. Firstly, having the campaign exist for only one year was one of the ways of dramatising the idea of 2005 as being of unique urgency. Secondly, see point 2 above. Some of the organisations whose participation was critical for success made the winding down of Make Poverty History at the end of 2005 an explicit condition of their entry. In retrospect should the decision ever have been made in the first place? Probably not. Once made, however, it was impossible not to honour it. The consequence was that the whole year ended on a significant low. Tom Baker’s blog here is a good reminder of our failure to achieve much in the ‘second act’ when we shifted focus on aid and debt at the G8 to trade reform in the WTO. That failure, combined with a controversial wind-down, meant campaigners ended an incredible year not sure about what they had achieved.

If they, or any other readers, are still unsure, you can find out here. If you watched Live 8, or wore a white band, or marched on Edinburgh, these achievements belong to you. You did join a great generation. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

“Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful. Reflections from the landless movement in Brazil.

“This dance is not mine alone, this dance is by us all” – they move as one circle, hand in hand. Then, still as one circle, they put their arms around each other – “when we are tired, we have each other’s shoulders to rest on.”

The women proudly show us the fruits of their labour: coconuts turned into oil, soap, flour and more; a cooperative factory that processes the goods so that they don’t need to rely on middlemen; a small farm with a vegetable patch, a fish pond and a chicken coop. And they talk of the victories won in the face of entrenched power.

“The richest man in this area claimed that all this land was his. He was also the area’s politician. He had the money power and the political power. The family have been powerful for hundreds of years. Police and gunmen kept harassing us. They told us to leave but we had nowhere else to go. I remember the sound of the six bullets.”

But they do not want to dwell on the pain. When a conversation turns to those who died, one woman interjects “but if we keep on telling all these sad stories we could go on for days. What do we need to do now?”

There has been real progress: those landless workers who collect coconuts from the forests and from the big estates successfully campaigned for a law that protects their right to do so; some communities have secured recognition for the small pieces of land on which they live and farm; the cooperatives have secured from the government a guaranteed minimum price for key products so that they can be assured of a minimum income; in several districts the groups have secured free, public, pre-school for small children and won access to water and sanitation.

All are clear how these victories were won. “Individually we coconut-breakers are small. But when we organised we became visible. We said ‘look at us, listen.’” “Everything we have achieved has been through the strength of our friendship.” “We got together in our community, then we linked with communities across the region. We went and got support from the trade unions, from the Catholic Church, and from the wider public. We started an association and kept pressing for our rights to earn a living and live in dignity.”

They are clear that they cannot rely on the good will of politicians. When the local establishment politician was replaced by his daughter, “it made no difference that she was a woman. She was her father’s daughter. He lived on through her.” There is a recognition that the national government of Lula, whose party emerged from the social movements and which brought several leaders of the social movement into power, introduced substantial reforms and was the best government they have known. Unemployment was reduced, the minimum wage increased, and inequality went down. But, they say, “we made a mistake of thinking when the good people got into power we didn’t need to keep pressuring them. It’s like we went to sleep. Whoever is in power we need to keep pushing.” “Yes,” says a coconut breaker, “things are better, but now, when we try to enter the coconut forests to which we have the right of access, the big landlords, who used to kill us with dogs and guns, kill us with electric fences instead.” “Yes,” agrees a peasant farmer, “we have managed to stay on our farm, but we are still denied water. We want more than to live, we want to live with dignity.” There is a worry that the Dilma government, which pledged to continue the progress of Lula has instead, under pressure from big corporations and landlords, started to roll back. “They have stopped listening to us. Government listens to the rich and big companies. Not to us, the poor, Indians, blacks, women. We have to struggle.”

They share, none the less, a profound sense that their struggle will ultimately win. Discussions regularly burst into song. “Even though it is dark, I sing, for the morning will come.” In one community facing eviction we meet in the one-room clay and straw building they built as their church, their school, the headquarters of their association, and their village meeting hall. They call the building “Our Lady of Good Hope.”

“We are strong. My grandfather escaped from slavery with his friends. And I have secured my piece of land with you, my friends. But we cannot just wait. We need to demand.”

At a special event of the landless movements, Deje, a coconut breaker, is seated next to a government official who apologises for having arrived late and for needing to leave early. Deje stands up and directly addresses him in front of the crowd. Brazilian Portuguese has such a sweet melody that to the English ear everything I’ve heard, whatever the content, has sounded gentle. Until now. She points her finger at his face. “Whenever we try to meet government they fail to see us. Whenever we write to government they fail to reply.” She pulls out a piece a paper. “We have a letter for you. I’m going to read it to you.” It begins: “We landless demand our right to fetch coconuts unharassed by landowners…” Then the coup de grace: “Now, you cannot leave until you to sign it. We need you to sign it right now.” And he does. Then he thanks her. “We know that all progress depends on the social movements. We need to work with you.”

We’ve just witnessed a lesson in courage, in democracy, and in power. It is the same lesson we learnt in the dance. And that we read on the T-shirt of one of the landless women workers: “Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful.

How to make the Addis Financing For Development summit a success

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A couple of weeks ago, preparations for July’s Financing For Development summit in Addis Ababa passed the 100 days to go mark. Unfortunately, the summit is at this point not on track to meet the high expectations for it. It faces a mutually reinforcing set of problems, including:

  • Confusion about the summit’s intended outcomes – with too many issues on the table, and a serious lack of clarity about what success would look like on each;
  • A lack of agenda setters – so far only the co-facilitators (Norway and Guyana) are really leading the process, but their room for manoeuvre is constrained by the need for them to remain neutral honest brokers; and
  • Insufficient political will – the result of the summit not yet being on heads’ or finance ministers’ radars, as well as it not being a top 2015 priority for civil society.

So what would it take to turn things around and make Addis a success? One of the essentials is a clearer political narrative – one that explains what the summit is for, what’s new this time around (as compared to Monterrey in 2002 or Doha in 2007), what it could achieve, and why high level policymakers, and above all finance ministers, should make the effort to attend. This short note (pdf), produced with colleagues at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, is an attempt to start thinking this through over just a couple of pages – any feedback and suggestions for improvement gratefully received.

More broadly, we also need a harder-edged political strategy. This paper (pdf) – which was circulated earlier this month, and so doesn’t reflect last week’s FFD talks in New York or the IMF / World Bank Spring Meetings – sets out a few ideas. Again, feedback warmly welcome.

(And on the overall SDGs agenda, David Steven and I also just published the latest in our series of What Happens Now? papers taking stock of where the process stands and where it might go next – you can download that here.)

The Restorative Economy

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Over the past six months, I’ve been working with my friend and colleague Rich Gower on a report for Tearfund, the Christian development NGO, entitled The Restorative Economy: Completing our Unfinished Millennium Jubilee – and today, the report is finally published. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full report (we also have a comment piece on the Guardian today, which you’ll find here).

The process of writing this report has been especially close to my heart, and has left me at the end feeling that I want to devote much more of my energy to the massive task of movement building and values shifting that lies ahead of us. I’ve been working in and around the multilateral system for nearly a decade, and like many of my friends and colleagues in that world, have frequently felt acute frustration at the postage stamp-sized amount of political space that currently exists for solutions on the scale we need, both internationally and at home in the UK.

This report is an attempt to start thinking about what a new approach to that challenge might look like – across four chapters. The first one sets out a snapshot of where we are: in many ways a golden age for development, but one in which three huge challenges – environmental unsustainability, growing inequality, and the millions and millions of people still left behind as globalisation accelerates apace – remain ours to solve.

In chapter two, Rich and I set out the need for a different theory of influence. Many of us who work in the fight for development, justice, and sustainability have I think been feeling the limits of theories of change that rely primarily on ‘insider lobbying’. We take that here as our starting point for asking what an alternative approach might look like: one that places much more emphasis on how we build new grassroots coalitions, transform values, and tell each other much deeper stories about where we are, how we got here, where we might choose to go next, and who we really are.

Chapter three then explores the potential to discover such deeper stories in theology. All of us witnessed how the biblical idea of jubilee was able to animate a transformative civil society movement fifteen years ago, and proved powerfully resonant far beyond the church groups that formed Jubilee 2000’s core. As someone who worked in the UK government at the point when the 2005 Gleneagles summit concluded its debt relief deal, I still have to pinch myself when I remember that the average low income country’s debt fell from nearly 75% of its GDP in 2000 to just over 25% today – something that happened partly because of politicians, but much more fundamentally because of a coalition of millions of ordinary people, united by a shared story.

In this light, we argue, it’s important to remember that the once-a-generation jubilee festival described in the Old Testament was never about debt relief alone. When you go back to the original texts, as we did at some length in the course of researching this report, you find that they were also about environmental restoration. Ensuring that there was real attentiveness to enabling people living in poverty to meet their basic needs. And ensuring that concentrations of wealth did not build up from one generation to another. All three of these themes are of course fundamental to where we find ourselves today, in 2015. (And as friends working on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will already have spotted, they’re central to that agenda too.)

So in a very real sense, the work we began in 2000 – our millennium jubilee – remains a work in progress. If we can complete it, then our kids will enjoy the kind of future that I know I want for my children – Isabel, 5, and Kit, 2. And in chapter 4, Rich and I set out what we think that would look like in practice.

We argue that it starts with the changes that all of us need to make in our own lives. This is partly because of the direct impact that such changes can have, of course, but we think the main issue here is something to do with the quality of intention that movements exemplify. Wherever movements not only demand but live out the change they want to see in the world, there’s a raw power there that can exert the kind of non-linear effect on politics that progressives so urgently want to see.

But ultimately the decision about the future we want has to be made by all of us collectively, as well as each of us individually. So chapter 4 ends with a ten big ideas for far-reaching policy changes of the kind that we think have this transformative power. The ideas cover a very broad waterfront – from reforming the financial system to global climate policy, and from how we use aid internationally to how our tax system works at home.

We don’t by any means think the proposals we set out are the last word on the subject. But if they can play even just a small part in catalysing a serious conversation, among all of us, about the choices we have in what we bequeath to our kids, then I think I speak for all of Tearfund’s fabulous advocacy team, Rich, and I when I say that we’ll be more than happy with the result.

If foreign policy doesn’t feature in this election a global powerhouse risks losing its voice

In a piece for Real Clear World I argue that

The chances of Britain making it through to May 7 without facing at least one unexpected international event with serious implications for our national interests are slim indeed. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband should be planning to give over at least a day between now and polling to lay out how they intend to shape world events and not just react to them. Even if they remain unpersuaded that the electorate is hungry for answers now, it is difficult to see how they could claim a later mandate for tough decisions if they don’t hint at their direction of travel on ISIS, Russia, China, the Transatlantic relationship, Syria, reform of the European Union, and prospects for this year’s critical summits on sustainable development and climate change.

You can read the whole piece here and see all the other world election coverage they are gathering together here.