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What’s the problem with the If campaign?

A G8 summit coming to Britain traditionally heralds the launch of a large campaigning coalition of international NGOs. Kai Grachy takes a critical look at the 2013 version: the If campaign

June 4, 2013
10 min read

world-visionAn ad produced by NGO World Vision after George Osborne’s budget

You could be forgiven for not having heard of the If campaign – even its biggest supporters would have to admit it’s been somewhat lacklustre to date. However, the campaign has caused controversy. Several anti-poverty groups have refused to join and it has no trade union members – exposing deeper problems in the state of mainstream NGO campaigning.

The If campaign’s main action to date took place on budget day. It was an unedifying spectacle to see anti-poverty groups lauding one of the harshest post-war austerity budgets as a victory for the world’s poor. As announcements were made of policies that will thrust thousands of people into poverty in the UK, World Vision produced a postcard of happy African children running out of school with the slogan ‘Thank you George’ written above them (see above).

A vicar from the north of England was asked by a Radio 4 presenter, ‘What impact will this budget have on poverty?’ He rushed, in an embarrassed manner, through the first part of the answer – ‘in the UK probably not a positive one’ – before getting to his main point: ‘but it’s a historic moment for global poverty.’

It wasn’t. In reality, anti-poverty NGOs were applauding the government for finally (40 years late) fulfilling the pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid. That pledge was already a standing commitment of the government, and of all parties. The chancellor had announced he would fulfil this commitment in the autumn statement last year.

So it was an empty campaign victory that provided the chancellor with a little relief amidst the overwhelmingly hostile reaction to his budget. The NGOs looked effective to their supporters, most of whom will doubtless continue to support these organisations in the belief that they are ‘making a difference’. Win-win.

The If coalition

The If campaign is concerned with hunger; its proposition is that ‘there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, if only politicians gave more overseas aid/tax justice/stopped land grabs/[add one of eight policy demands]’.

It treads a well worn path. One Direction, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy and Bill Gates have joined together to tell us how important it is that everyone has enough to eat. There are a series of simple actions (email your MP, share a film, talk to your friends) you can take, getting David Cameron to understand he has a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to make poverty disappear. And there’s a mish-mash of policy aims, some of which are genuinely positive and some of which sound wholly unconvincing. Is a World Bank review of land grabbing really going to end the takeover of vast swathes of land in Africa by corporations and investment funds? No, but the British government is believed to be keen on it.

The If coalition is smaller than its predecessors, such as Make Poverty History, with trade unions and more radical campaign groups not taking part. Its relationship with the government seems closer. There are no local groups or forums around the UK to allow for autonomous networks to develop. Groups from the global South seem completely sidelined – one NGO insider told me there had been no consultation with Southern groups on the basis that ‘this is a British campaign’. Campaign images suggest that the role of Africans is to look grateful.

The opposition

Inside the If coalition there have been disagreements between those favouring a more pro-government, aid-focused line, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, and those who want to talk more about the structural causes of poverty, notably tax avoidance, such as Christian Aid and Action Aid.

On the radical NGO side, War on Want and the World Development Movement (WDM) both issued public statements explaining why they wouldn’t join. WDM believes the If campaign ‘will not be challenging the power and impact of the financial system on food prices, nor is it grounded in the principles of food sovereignty [a model for control over, not simply access to, food]’. War on Want similarly believes that If’s policy recommendations ‘leave unaddressed the central issues at the heart of the global food system’.

War on Want has even unearthed documents suggesting that ‘the government has for two years been planning with the aid agencies to use the If campaign to promote the prime minister as a leader on the global stage‘. In other words, from the government’s point of view, the campaign will make David Cameron appear a champion on poverty – no mean feat.

Such a strategy might be excusable if the policies promoted would genuinely redress some of the world’s power imbalances. In reality, the call for more spending on agriculture will reinforce efforts to pour aid money into the corporate takeover of agriculture in Africa.

At the last G8, Barack Obama launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The New Alliance promises to ‘mobilise private capital’ for investment in food production in Africa. What does that mean? Essentially, using public funds to support the likes of SAB Miller, Monsanto, Diageo and Unilever to get a greater foothold in the food production system of some of the world’s most impoverished countries. As an example of what this ‘partnership’ means in practice, African countries will guarantee more secure property rights for companies, and companies will ‘invest’ in those countries – which often simply means expanding their operations.

The If campaign says that the G8, which came up with this cynical scheme, ‘shares the ambition’ of ending hunger ‘and accepts its share of responsibility’ even if it falls ‘far short of what is required’. The campaign says nothing about the corporate control of food being one of the major causes of hunger, nor the enforced entry of free market mechanisms to agriculture at the hands of Britain being a major cause of famine for centuries. Initiatives like the New Alliance don’t ‘fall far short of what is required’, they go much too far in the wrong direction.

That goes to the heart of the problem with this sort of campaigning. In buying into the ‘political reality’ of neoliberal politics, NGOs are forced to see things from the perspective of those who believe unregulated private capital is the solution rather than the problem. Within such a world the one thing worse than having private capital, is not having private capital. There is no other option. The G8 only exists as a reassertion of the power of rich countries in the face of the challenge of the non-aligned movement in the 1970s. Asking them to do something is akin to petitioning the monarch.

Some of the If campaign’s demands are worthwhile and necessary, even if they ‘fall far short of what is required’. This reflects the tensions within the campaign. But even when positive, they don’t fit into a coherent framework for changing the global economy.

The genesis of If

To understand how this came about, we need to look back to a time before Bono and Geldof had even heard of Africa. The British development NGO has its precedent in both the missionary organisations tending to (and converting) the victims of British imperialism, and in some of the early organisations challenging the practices, and even very existence, of empire.

In the 1970s and 1980s some – but by no means all – of these organisations took a radical turn, inspired by national liberation movements and liberation theology. Support for the Bangladesh liberation war and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas struggle, and opposition to South African apartheid and the Chilean and Argentinean military juntas, formed the bread and butter of these campaigning organisations. ‘Development’ was clearly understood by many NGO staffers as a battle against neo-imperialism, and notions of class, race and gender politics were vigorously debated.

As the 1980s wore on, the international ecosystem of national liberation in which these ideas had grown disappeared. At home, the Thatcher government used charity law to crack down on troublesome NGOs. But there was one event where NGOs proved they could thrive. In 1984 Bob Geldof saw a BBC news report on a famine in Ethiopia. The attention he went on to bring to that famine was literally record breaking. He didn’t do it by educating people about the causes of Africa’s food shortages, however, but by ignoring the political explanations for the famine and getting people to donate. The image of ‘Africa’ created by LiveAid has never been overcome, partly because many NGOs have played up this image ever since – shocking pictures of dying children brought in the money after all, even if it was detrimental to building the sort of solidarity necessary to change the world. This model was combined with a sense of post-1980s defeat that radical change was not possible and a new ‘professional’ mentality, whereby NGO staffers substituted themselves for any sort of genuine grassroots movement.

With a few notable exemptions, under New Labour NGOs played the role allotted to them by the government. Dependent on government money, given high levels of access, told they were ‘making a difference’, NGOs spent huge amounts of time speaking to governments, businesses, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund – telling them to adopt standards of behaviour, grant debt relief and always, always ‘give more aid’. It was a cosy world.

The poverty of thinking

The result is that campaigns are now not about progressive social change. Campaigns often reinforce the idea that neoliberal capitalism is good – it just needs to be expanded to the masses of the world at a faster rate. The term ‘development’ is now used to denote extending capital into new areas of society. Development aid now routinely facilitates private accumulation, from privatisation and ‘freer’ trade to microcredit.

Increasingly, development spending is bundled up with private flows of money and channelled through private equity funds – making fortunes for ‘investors’. In response, most NGOs are silent. Like any industry they judge success by their bottom line – increased revenue and expansion of their operations. Their ability to generate income and maintain credibility comes from a constituency of campaigners. That’s why it’s okay for them to take the unpopular position of trumpeting this government’s anti-poverty credentials. They have no need to engage the wider public in a real debate about poverty, which could be harmful to their position – they simply need a compliant constituency big enough for the government to consider them important.

Critiquing how we got here is important in changing the situation. There are some NGOs engaged in real empowerment and mobilisation work, recognising they don’t have all the answers to the world’s problems, but they do have a vital role to play. The Progressive Development Forum was recently formed to question where NGOs went wrong, and to embrace an agenda that critiques and challenges wealth and power. Recent posts on its blog have criticised NGOs’ focus on aid, the re-emergence of pictures of starving African children to raise money and the love-in the sector appears to enjoy with Bill Gates. War on Want and WDM have taken explicit positions on austerity in the UK. Smaller groups such as People & Planet and the Jubilee Debt Campaign have begun to work on projects to engage anti-austerity activists in the UK in global anti-austerity work, while Platform uses experimental techniques to expose and challenge corporate power.

Ultimately we get the NGOs we deserve. NGOs are created by their social context and, as we saw in the war against Iraq, can move to the left if there’s space and it feels safe. NGOs used to speak truth to power – it’s time for us to speak truth to NGOs.

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