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.

NGOs get their courage back on inequality and climate (thanks to the Pope)

“I’m off to the most radical country in the Western world,” I told my colleagues, “the Vatican.” There was a time when NGO radicalism would have made our collective attendance at a Vatican meeting appear like a strange moment of conservatism. Now it seems like one of the most radical things that NGOs can do.

Among many secular NGOs with proud records of critiquing the Church (and rightly so, very rightly so, very rightly so), there’s been an outbreak of praise for the Pope. But we can’t just pat the Vatican on the head for catching up with us on economic inequality and the climate crisis – they’re overtaken us, and now its our turn to catch up. They’ve progressed, but over the past decades we’ve slipped.

“Finance, special interests and economic interests are trumping the common good so their own plans will not be affected.” Yes, Naomi Klein is here with us at the Vatican. But that’s not a quote from Naomi Klein, that’s a quote from the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si. He’s written the world’s most dangerous book, one that most NGO policy people admit they wouldn’t have gotten sign off for.

In a world where corporate power has become unaccountable, will organised civil society find the courage to challenge plutocracy? Will we speak truth to power, and speak truth about power? Even when we are pressured by governments and corporations, even when we are told to be realistic, even when the powerful few offer some of us privileged access or extra funds if we’re well-behaved?

At the Vatican we meet the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. He speaks movingly about the impact of climate change on his country. “Whole islands are being buried. We need a legal mechanism recognising Loss and Damage. We are told it is unrealistic. But if it was your country, wouldn’t you?” He tells us of a question a school girl asked him when he visited one of Tuvalu’s outer islands: “Prime Minister do I have a future?” And then he turns her question on us. A real deal on climate change would mean a yes – but business as usual will mean a deal that drowns the weak. We’ll look back and remember his speech like we recall Haile Selassie’s plea to the League of Nations in 1936.

In the run-up to the meeting of world leaders on climate change in Paris in December, there’s a risk that NGOs get stuck in the inside game and get locked into declaring a deal – any deal – as victory. A source close to the talks once told me excitedly “I think we’ll get a deal, we’ll actually get a deal.” I asked him: “Will it be a deal that will prevent massive human suffering in countries like Bangladesh?” “Ah,” he said. “That, I’m not so sure about that.” If Paris fails to deliver, we’ll be complicit unless we say so. Former Bolivia negotiator Pablo Soran is here at the Vatican: “There is no real negotiation happening in Paris. It’s the beginning, not the end. Only the truth will set us free.”

The scale of change, the transformation needed to tackle climate and inequality, will not come from gentle whispers inside corridors, but from challenging the people in power with the power of the people. Yeb Sano, the former negotiator for the Philippines, is here on behalf of a people’s pilgrimage mobilising people across the world to march to their capitals and to Paris. As an official negotiator in the talks he was seen as a troublemaker by the US and others. Out of the halls and into the streets, he’s causing even more trouble now.

This courage is infectious. I’m hearing colleagues from very mainstream civil society and church groups finally getting ready to speak out boldly on how starting to fix our unequal society and our damaged climate means taking on the power of the plutocracy, and withstanding the pressure they will put back on us. “We’ve all been thinking it,” one NGO senior leader tells me, “we’ve all been wanting to do it, wanting to say it, we just needed someone to say it first. And now that’s happened. We never expected it would be the Pope.”

And beyond all the technical discussion and analyses and debates we feel a more profound call:

Be not afraid.

The end of the defence of widening inequality, and the beginnings of a coalition to address it

Were it not for the amusing stunts mocking the G7 leaders, the world might not even know the G7 was happening. (What they most fear, I reckon, is that people stop mocking them. Imagine the indignity!) We’re witnessing not just the decline of the old powers but the decline of politics as summitry, back to a longer term agenda of movements beyond moments. By next month, people won’t be talking much about the Bavarian G7. But they will be talking next month, and next year, about the biggest challenge the world faces: inequality.

Yesterday’s heresy is today’s orthodoxy: inequality is harming economic and social progress, and has gotten out of hand. There was a time, not too long ago, when talk of inequality risked being seen as a bit too radical even in the safe space of NGO-land. Now tackling inequality is the mantra of the OECD. And the IMF. Even the World Economic Forum. Governments who have let inequality rise can now be heard declaring that fixing it must be the top priority. South Africa’s Deputy President, the billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa who had been seen as the prime exemplar of the ANC’s amnesia of its egalitarian history, now leads its efforts to put tackling inequality very publicly back in its agenda. Nigeria’s outgoing Finance Minister, the veteran World-Banker and market economy icon Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, declared over the weekend that Nigeria’s challenge is the divide between “the 99.9% and a venal, kleptocratic, power-hungry elite that have colonised the country and refuse to let go.” (In an interview in the FT!) Academia has dumped the old religion and is churning out so many books on inequality that they risk speeding up even further the worrying depletion of the world’s forests.

But whilst the need to tackle inequality is now the new orthodoxy of word, it is not yet practiced in deed. 7 out of 10 people now live in countries where inequality is increasing. Asked to give examples of countries that are successfully tackling inequality, we all keep coming back to Latin America: why no such progress in Africa, Asia or Europe? Let us be frank and say it is not “an absence of political will” to narrow inequality but is instead the overwhelming presence of a different political will to widen inequality further. Governments and international institutions are talking equality and practising inequality. The drive to increase inequality is the project that dare not speak its name.

Still, we can celebrate that the defence of ever-widening inequality has become socially unacceptable. This is a journey, and that is a milestone.

We are starting to witness, too, another milestone. We have seen for a while organisations individually raising the issue of inequality, while staying in their silos and failing to join hands. Now they are starting, gingerly, to link up on this very issue: Development NGOs like ActionAid and Oxfam with environment NGOs like Greenpeace; INGOs connecting beyond their comfort zone of groups like them, by linking up with broad civil society networks like Civicus and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development; and these groups at last again linking up with the trade unions. Different streams coming together into what will need to be a mighty river. These groups have sketched out a policy agenda, and a theory of change agenda, that addresses structural issues and recognises that this a long game, a movement beyond moments. As the International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow recently summarised the vision that all these groups have united behind, it is one that “includes progressive taxes, universal free public health and education services, living wages, strengthening of workers’ bargaining power, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, working in a way that strengthens the power of the people to challenge the people with power.” The groups are, in her words, “working ever more closely.” These are embryonic days, a while away yet from a formal bells-and-whistles coalition. But it has begun. What should come next? That’s a chapter not yet written – but where we once asked “will it ever?” we now ask “when?” This year marks the end of the defence of widening inequality, and the beginnings of a coalition to address it.

Labour and the vision thing

Some of my best friends are spads. But it may be that they are just not suited to leadership. Spads are great at schmoozing and PR. Some may even be good at policy. But it’s rare that at any time in their career they will need to have vision. Because that’s their bosses’ job. So it’s understandable that a Labour party that has for years been run by a cabal of ex-spads — a ‘spadocracy’ perhaps — had no vision.

So said Diane Abbott MP in yesterday’s Guardian. (‘Spads’ are special advisers, if you’re wondering: political advisers to Ministers.)

To be fair, she doesn’t acknowledge that there are some big exceptions to her rule (Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor come to mind, for instance). Or that some people who she does admire — like Jon Cruddas, one of the most visionary minds in Labour politics — may not have been spads, but have even so worked for most of their careers in and around the Party.

But these are the exceptions, I concede — and I write this as a former special adviser myself, to Hilary Benn and before him Valerie Amos at the Department for International Development.

Being a spad (or a Labour policy officer, or a researcher for an MP) is, after all, first and foremost about the art of the possible. Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman captured this nicely in a five part typology of different kinds of special adviser in his book 1 out of 10: policy wonks; spin doctors; fixers; ‘comfort blankets’; and — rarest of all — political strategists.

Special advisers who are visionaries can also discover that they fit awkwardly into government, or find themselves at the receiving end of a powerful immune response from a system predisposed to write them off as dreamers or regard them as trouble makers: look at Dominic Cummings. (It’s a similar story with civil servants: only very rarely does a visionary like John Ashton make it to the highest levels, and even then generally only in an unusual role like John’s as the Foreign Office’s climate envoy.)

All of which leads in turn to a larger question that we too often overlook: how and where progressive politics incubates and nurtures visionary thinking. Continue reading

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