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For a sun-soaked spring Friday, there was an unusual panic at the TUC for the monthly members’ assembly of Make Poverty History (MPH). Officials hurriedly briefed reception with last-minute security protocol: ‘You must make sure that only assembly members are let in,’ one official instructed. ‘The meeting is open to the public, but only public members of MPH.’
The nerves were understandable. Two damning stories about MPH were about to break. The New Statesman’s cover story, ‘Why Oxfam is failing Africa’, had exposed deep anger among members of the MPH coalition at Oxfam’s ‘revolving door’ relationship with UK government officials and policies, accusing it of allowing Blair and Brown to co-opt MPH as a front for New Labour’s own questionable anti-poverty drive.
The Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, had given notice of its exposé of how large numbers of the ubiquitous MPH white wristband had been sourced from Chinese sweatshops with Oxfam’s blessing.
But inside MPH the revelations were no surprise. For the past six months, some of the UK’s leading development and environmental NGOs have expressed their unease about a campaign high on celebrity octane but low on radical politics. One insider, active in a key MPH working group, argues there is a divergence between the democratically agreed message of the campaign and the spin that greets the outside world: ‘Our real demands on trade, aid and debt, and our criticisms of UK government policy in developing countries have been consistently swallowed up by white bands, celebrity luvvies and praise upon praise for Blair and Brown.’
This is surely not what campaigners had in mind in late 2003 when Oxfam initiated a series of meetings with charities and campaigning organisations to consider forming a coalition against poverty in 2005 to coincide with the UK presidency of both the G8 summit and EU, and the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. The outcome was launched in September 2004 as the Make Poverty History coalition, the UK mobilisation of an international grouping, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (G-CAP), led by Oxfam International, Action Aid and DATA (Debt Aids Trade Africa) – the Africa charity set up by U2 frontman Bono and multi-billionaires George Soros and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Since then, MPH has attracted more than 460 member organisations including the largest trade unions and the TUC, development NGOs, charities, churches and several faith and diaspora groups. Its successful mix of celebrity backers and an anti-poverty message has captured the attention of both politicians and mass media, encapsulated in the hysteria following the announcement by veteran rock star and Africa campaigner Bob Geldof that concerts in London, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome and Berlin would take place under the banner ‘Live 8’ to coincide with the MPH campaign to lobby the G8 summit.
But despite the success, there is widespread unhappiness within the coalition over the campaign’s public face. Critics argue that on paper, MPH’s policy demands on the UK government are fairly radical, especially in calls for ‘trade justice, not free trade’, which would require G8 and EU countries to stop forcing through free market policies on poor countries as part of aid, trade deals or debt relief. MPH also says rich countries should immediately increase aid by $50bn per year and meet 35-year old promises to spend 0.7 per cent of national income in development aid. More and better aid, meanwhile, should be matched by cancellation of the ‘unpayable’ debts of the world’s poorest countries through a ‘fair and transparent international process’ that uses new money, not slashed aid budgets.
With additional calls for the regulation of multinationals and the democratisation of the IMF and World Bank, John Hilary, campaigns director of UK development NGO War on Want, believes that MPH’s policies ‘strike at the very heart of the neo-liberal agenda’.
The problem, however, is that when these policies are relayed to a public audience, they become virtually indistinguishable from those of the UK government. This was brought home back in March this year when Blair’s Commission for Africa set out its own very different proposals on Africa but under the identical headlines used by MPH – ‘trade justice’, ‘drop the debt’ and ‘more and better aid’. In return, most MPH members, led by Oxfam and the TUC, warmly welcomed the report’s recommendations. African activists and many MPH members have a different view (see ‘Africa’s second “last chance”’, page 24).
Much of the blame is placed on the leadership of Oxfam, the UK’s biggest development agency. Despite its pro-poor image around the world Oxfam has become a feeder school for government special advisers and World Bank officials and has a particularly close relationship with New Labour. For example, John Clark left Oxfam for the World Bank in 1992, where he was responsible for its ‘co-optation strategy’ with civil society. He advised Tony Blair on his African Partnership Initiative in 2000. Blair’s special adviser on international development Justin Forsyth was previously Oxfam’s campaign manager. At the heart of MPH is Oxfam’s Sarah Kline, a former World Bank official who champions the organisation’s ‘constructive dialogue’ approach with the IMF and World Bank.
Oxfam’s unrivalled financial resources and existing public profile make it by far the most powerful organisation in the MPH coalition. Last year its annual income surpassed £180m, including £40m from government and other public funds. This is three times the funding of its nearest rival, Christian Aid, and dwarfs more social movement-oriented development NGOs like World Development Movement and War on Want on just over £1m each.
But making Oxfam the scapegoat for MPH’s co-optation by New Labour misses the role played by Comic Relief and its celebrity co-founder, film director Richard Curtis. Curtis’s commitment to raising money for Africa goes back to 1985 when, at the height of the Ethiopian famine, he visited refugee camps as a guest of Oxfam. On his return to London he persuaded showbiz friends to set up Comic Relief, which has raised over £337m towards relieving poverty, famine and disease in Africa.
Despite this success Comic Relief’s televised shows are also criticised for their distinct lack of politics and inaccurate portrayal of Africa as a continent ravaged by natural disasters and warring tribes – the roles of colonialism, Western corporations and IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes don’t get a look in.
Comic Relief’s apolitical approach to Africa is central to the debate inside MPH. For while Bono and Geldof get the limelight and Oxfam dominates the policy agenda, it is Curtis who is driving MPH’s all-important publicity machine. Curtis’s power partly lies in the financial and human resources he brings to the campaign. He has personally ensured the bankrolling of MPH, convincing Scottish business tycoon Sir Tom Hunter to donate £1m, and advertising executives to donate more than £4m of free airtime. His unrivalled contacts book has ensured that MPH’s platforms, events and entire PR strategy are dripping with celebrities. In 2001, the Guardian ranked him the tenth most powerful person in the UK media industry.
While most MPH members gratefully accept that Curtis’s celebrity support has been integral to the campaign’s phenomenal success (sales of the MPH white wristband are nearly 4 million and the website gets thousands of hits a minute), some believe it has come with too heavy a price. First there’s the role of Hunter, no ordinary sharp-dressed philanthropist. Worth £678m, his Hunter Foundation charity is an evangelical force behind public-private partnerships and child entrepreneurialism in Scotland. Since 2001 it has helped fund the Scottish Executive’s Schools Enterprise Programme in which the private sector helps introduce children as young as five in the wonders of business.
Hunter recently caused a storm when he began selling special edition charity Live 8-MPH wristbands stamped with the logos of six global fashion bands, including Hilfiger Denim, whose owner Tommy Hifiger Corporation is accused by labour activists of sourcing its clothes from anti-union sweatshops in Latin America and east Asia. War on Want’s John Hilary spoke for many inside MPH when he told Red Pepper that unless Hilfiger had suddenly changed it was ‘not the sort of company we would want to be associated with’.
Then there’s Abbot Mead Vickers (AMV), the UK’s largest advertising agency, which has previously worked for Comic Relief and has been brought in to help with the campaign’s communication strategy. Among AMV’s many proposals rejected by incensed MPH members was a high-profile billboard campaign in which images of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would sit alongside Gordon Brown, with the caption ‘2005 …?’ Such insensitivity comes with the turf: AMV’s corporate clients include Pepsi, Pfizer, Sainsbury, Camelot, the Economist and Diageo, the drinks multinational which owns Gleneagles Hotel where the G8 will meet and is a major investor in Africa (see ‘Our corporate interest’, page 28).
But the most destructive aspect of Curtis’s involvement, critics argue, has been his intervention in the public communications of MPH. ‘Richard’s philosophy has become painfully obvious to everyone in MPH,’ one critic argues. ‘He believes that we should support the efforts of the UK government to bring other G8 countries into its line on aid and debt, and is adamant that Brown and Blair should not be criticised.’
The Curtis-Brown friendship is known to be particularly close. Curtis’s new BBC1 television film The Girl in the Café, which will air shortly before the G8 summit, is a love story between Gina, an idealistic young campaigner, and Lawrence, an adviser to a Gordon Brown-style chancellor, who helps his new lover get an audience with world leaders at a G8 summit in Iceland. Brown attended the Scottish premiere of the film in May at an event organised by Hunter.
Against this background, a number of NGOs in MPH have recently felt forced to try to undermine the Oxfam-Curtis-Brown axis by making their displeasure known to the press. The ensuing fallout led to MPH members agreeing to quickly distance the coalition from the government by rushing forward by several weeks a report criticising UK government policy.
Although discontented, dissident organisations stay inside MPH for the same reason they won’t speak on the record: ‘Although we hate the message and the corporate branding, some NGOs are making thousands of pounds through the wristbands,’ one arch critic admits. ‘We have loads of new people on our database interested in our campaigns, and new funding bodies are approaching us to do projects and research. MPH is paying for my job for the next three years.’
Frustration would not perhaps be so intense if there was real pluralism and democracy in MPH’s organising practices. But as the G8 draws near, MPH organisers seem to be going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that come the 2 July rally in Edinburgh only the branded, monolithic message and speakers of MPH are seen and heard.
MPH’s website fails to even acknowledge the other protests and events that are being planned by Trident Ploughshares, CND and G8Alternatives, and through the Dissent! network. The MPH coordinating team, which includes Oxfam, Comic Relief and the TUC, has also twice unanimously vetoed the Stop the War Coalition’s (STWC) application to join MPH on the grounds that the issues of economic justice are separate from those of war, and STWC participation in Edinburgh on 2 July would confuse the message. Ironically, Oxfam is currently leading a global campaign for an international arms treaty on the basis that ‘uncontrolled arms fuels poverty and suffering’.
STWC has been banned from even having a stall at the MPH rally. A leaked email in late May to MPH from Milipedia, the ‘ethical’ events management company helping to organise the MPH rally, asks the coalition to ‘consider the desirability/ strategy for removing people from our event who are setting up unwanted stalls, ad hoc events, facilities, etc’ and to draw up a list ‘of the likely infiltrators and decide what we’re prepared to tolerate and at what point we draw the line and what action we want to take’. This followed a tip-off that the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency) is planning to sell its newspaper on the Edinburgh rally and wear red MakeCapitalismHistory T-shirts.
The email contains a giveaway reference to retaining ‘our ownership of the event and our key messaging’. To preserve its monopoly MPH has bought a market trader’s licence for 2 July that empowers the coalition to move illegal traders, including political activists, off the site. Comic Relief has also registered the MakePovertyHistory slogan as a trademark with the EU and is threatening to take action against ‘any misuse or alleged misuse of the trademark’.
But concerns about MPH lie much deeper than political divisions in the UK development scene. The most obvious question, increasingly on the lips of even mainstream journalists, is: where are the voices of African and, more generally, Southern civil society in a campaign that is supposedly about them?
Kofi Maluwi Klu, a leading Ghanian Pan-African activist and international coordinator of anti-debt Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign in the late 1990s, is angered by MPH’s lack of representativeness: ‘We have a saying in the African liberation movement: “nothing about us, without us”. MPH is a massive step backwards in this regard, even from Jubilee 2000. The campaign is overwhelmingly led by Northern NGOs and its basic message is about white millionaire popstars saving Africa’s helpless. The political movements still fighting for liberation on the ground are completely erased.’
The absence of the South in the leadership of MPH inevitably translates into the coalition’s politics. For instance, Southern NGOs and movements are generally critical of making demands on the G8: ‘The G8 is a completely illegitimate and unaccountable body of global governance; its governments and corporations are historically responsible for most of the problems of developing countries, and remain so today,’ says Nicola Bullard of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South, an international non-government policy research and advocacy organisation. ‘Lobbying the G8 contradicts the very clear call made by hundreds of social movements, NGOs and trade unions from the South and the North at this year’s World Social Forum to mobilise protests against the G8 summit.’
The same is true for MPH’s policy demands. While Southern movements welcome MPH’s more holistic development agenda in contrast to Jubilee 2000’s single-issue campaign for debt relief, they argue that its position on debt contradicts what grass-roots African and other Southern campaigners are demanding: ‘MPH is calling for 100 per cent cancellation of the unpayable debts of the poorest countries. So is the UK government,’ explains Jubilee South’s Brian Ashley. ‘This does not address the illegitimacy of the debt in the first place – the fact that many South countries’ debts were either a hangover from colonialism or came from the huge hike in interest rates during the 1970s and 1980s and have been paid back many times over, making the South the creditor of the North. We demand the total, unconditional and immediate cancellation of all Southern country debts.’
For Southern debt campaigners, the debate is almost identical to the one in 1999 that led to the North-South split in the Jubilee 2000 movement and the creation of the Jubilee South network, today assembling more than 80 debt campaigns, social movements and peoples’ organisations from some 40 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia/Pacific. Jubilee South’s founding principle was to create stronger South-South solidarity, to strengthen the collective voice, presence and leadership of the South in the international debt movement and to lay the basis for global social transformation from the bottom up.
Dozens of Southern-based groups, including Jubilee South and Focus on the Global South, have refused to be part of the global MPH coalition G-CAP, declining Oxfam and Action Aid’s invitation to the September 2004 Johannesburg meeting that launched the coalition because it was not built in consultation with Southern networks.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of MPH’s blending of its message with that of the government, and its intolerance of critics North and South, is that it enables the state and media to draw a sharp line in the sand between the so called ‘good protesters’ attending the 2 July Edinburgh rally, and ‘bad protesters’, those contemplating civil disobedience against an illegitimate institution and a set of governments responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people each year.
This is a crucial time for unity against the G8 and its plan to carve up Africa’s natural wealth for its own corporations. It’s not too late for Geldof, Bono, Curtis and co to use their popular power to inspire those millions of MPH members to take such action. Otherwise, the only thing they will be consigning to history is Africa itself.