Guest post from Alice Macdonald, Save the Children’s head of action/2015 campaign, @alicemac83.
As part of Save the Children’s History of Change series (see more here and here), Alasdair Roxburgh (previously Head of Campaigns at Christian Aid) talked us through the history of the tax movement.
It was an inspiring talk (you can listen to the whole thing here) about how campaigners around the world managed to turn tax – which let’s be honest isn’t the most exciting of subjects – into a big political issue and achieved changes which will help to ensure that millions of people around the world benefit from the tax revenues which belong to them.
Though tax may not be sexy – it matters. It matters for the obvious reasons – it provides the services we all need whether we live in the UK or in Tanzania – hospitals, schools, roads. It can encourage good behaviour like saving money through ISAs and discourage bad habits through increasing the price of things like cigarettes. If we use it well tax can help reshape the world. And it also matters for less obvious reasons – by paying tax we sign up to be active citizens contributing to improving the world around us.
But to date the tax system has been skewed towards the interests of the richest in society. It’s notoriously hard to put an exact number of how much money is lost through tax dodging but estimates put it at hundreds of billions lost from some of the world’s poorest countries. There is no doubt that tax dodging costs lives. The money lost could be spent on vital services like healthcare. That’s why the tax justice movement was born.
It got off to a pretty technical start with the conversation pretty much confined to the policy wonks. It was only when the financial crisis hit in 2008 and stories about corporate giants hit the headlines that it really moved up the political and public agenda. That was a turning point for the movement and it began to strengthen and now counts hundreds of organisations around the world from big NGOs like Oxfam and ActionAid to grassroots organisations, faith networks, student movements and trade unions.
It hasn’t been an easy ride, especially in the early days of the campaign. Governments and companies repeatedly slammed the door in campaigners’ faces and organisations like Christian Aid were even labelled the “Tax Taliban” by opponents. But despite the hurdles, the tax movement has already achieved some major wins – getting tax on the agenda at the G7, a law on EU transparency and the Dodd Frank Act which both mean that extractive companies are obliged to publish how much tax they pay on a county by country basis. The campaign also transformed the narrative around tax, taking it from the technicalities to an issue of justice helping to rally people around the world to challenge a financial system in which let the richest get away with robbing the poorest.
What can we learn from the movement for future campaigns? There are 5 key lessons:
Persistence pays off: it took 5-6 years to secure the first big campaign win. Campaigners need to be ready for the hard slog and not expect instant results.
Change your tactics and targets: the campaign mixed it up from private lobbying, targeted actions, hard-hitting reports and stunts and identifying targets and supporters from MPs to corporate champions.
Nothing is too complicated to campaign on: at the beginning the campaign didn’t talk about values and got too tied up in the technicalities. When the campaign turned tax into an issue of social justice it really took off. So don’t always focus on facts and stats but focus on values and the impact on people.
Small targeted campaigning works: You don’t always need to make a big noise to achieve success. For example securing the European directive on country by country reporting for extractive industries was secured by a very specific targeted e-action.
Of course the fight isn’t over yet. In September, the world agreed an ambitious agenda to end poverty, inequality and fight climate change – the new global goals for Sustainable Development something which as Head of action/2015 I’ve been closely involved in campaigning for along with millions around the world.
That ambition won’t be delivered without money and tax will be a crucial part of finding that finance. Ultimately the whole global financial system needs to change so that the world’s richest governments and richest companies are no longer able to dictate the terms of engagement and countries are able to operate on a level playing field. We need to strengthen legislation, ensure it is complied with and make sure that citizens are able to hold their leaders to account. The fight isn’t over yet but the strength of the movement gives us plenty of room for optimism.
Alice Macdonald is the Head of the action/2015 campaign at Save the Children. Action/2015 is a global coalition aimed at securing ambitious action on poverty, inequality and climate change which has mobilised millions of people this year. She has worked in international development for the last decade holding a variety of roles across campaigns, policy and advocacy.
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.
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.