A great generation: Make Poverty History ten years on

by | Jul 8, 2015


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.

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    Kirsty McNeill is Save the Children’s Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns. She leads teams to galvanise the public and influence policymakers on humanitarian action, global development, and help for children here in the UK. Previously, she founded a consultancy advising some of the world’s leading charities and spent three years as a Special Adviser in Number 10. She came to Downing Street having led the policy and influencing work of DATA, Bono and Bob Geldof’s advocacy organisation, in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the EU institutions. Before joining DATA she was on the board of Make Poverty History and managed the Stop AIDS Campaign, successfully negotiating a commitment to universal access to AIDS treatment from the 2005 G8. Today she is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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