Joe Hendren

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Make Poverty History into a cheer squad for Tony and Gordon

ZNet carries an interesting article 'Inside the Murky World of the UK's Make Poverty History Campaign' (MPH). Stuart Hodkinson explains how conservative forces within MPH have sought to emphasise the role of celebrities and moderate MPHs anti-neoliberal policies to ensure its public face is indistinguishable from the policies of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown. This has caused considerable tension within the MPH coalition.

"For the past six months, some of the UK's leading development and environmental NGOs have been increasingly vocal in 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 "has often been a complete divergence between the democratically agreed message of our public campaign and the actual spin that greets the outside world". He is angry: "Our real demands on trade, aid and debt, and 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 being ahead of other world leaders on these issues."
Critics argue that on paper at least, MPH's policy demands on the UK government are fairly radical, especially its calls for "trade justice not free trade", which would require G8 and EU countries, notably the UK, to stop forcing through free market policies on poor countries as part of aid, trade deals or debt relief....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, has a point when he asserts that MPH's policies "strike at the very heart of the neo-liberal agenda."

But when these policies are relayed to a public audience they become virtually indistinguishable from those of the UK Government. This is due, according to Hodkinson, to the conservative role played within the MPH coalition by Oxfam, the Trade Union Federation and Comic Relief co-founder Richard Curtis.

A recent cover story of the New Statesman 'Why Oxfam is failing Africa' warned that Oxfam's relationship, both in terms of people and policy was "far too cosy" to New Labour. It also pointed to the key role in MPH played by Oxfam's Sarah Kline, a former World Bank official who champions the organisation's 'constructive dialogue' approach with the IMF and World Bank.

In my previous post I argued that despite its political aims, the commentary of Live 8 was not political enough. Despite noble aims, Live 8 could only be a 'sticking plaster' if it continued to ignore the underlying power issues that lead to humanitarian disasters. Apparently Richard Curtis is to blame here (much as I love his comedy writing).

[T]he most destructive aspect of [Richard] Curtis's involvement, critics argue, has been his personal intervention in the public communications of MPH to ensure that the politics are routinely buried by the personality as part of his own personal and completely unaccountable strategy to change G8 policy: "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."

A key Comic Relief official reported that Curtis "found it difficult" to turn against the government because of his personal friendship with Gordon Brown.

"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 apparatchiks have gone 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.
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 Orwellian grounds that the issues of economic justice and development are separate from that of war, and STWC's participation in Edinburgh on 2 July would confuse the message. It will be interesting, then, to see if Oxfam bans itself - it is currently leading a global campaign for an international arms treaty on the basis that "uncontrolled arms fuels poverty and suffering". STWC has since been banned from even having a stall at the MPH rally.

While a focus on debt, aid and trade does offer opportunities to the global justice movement, Hodkinson warns the direction of the MPH campaign also threatens to actively derail the movement at the same time.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of MPH's blending of its message with that of the government's, and its exclusion of critics North and South, is that it enables the state and media to draw a sharp line in the sand between the 'good protester' attending the 2 July Edinburgh rally, and the 'bad protester' - anyone who is contemplating engaging in civil disobedience against what is, after all, an illegitimate institution and set of governments responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people each year.

Those UK development NGOs unhappy with MPH's direction know this only too well, but refuse to publicly walk away from a campaign that is actively derailing the global justice movement. Although it may sound cynical, the reason is simple: MPHistory is a money-spinner. "Although we hate the message and the corporate branding, some NGOs are making thousands of pounds through the wristbands," one arch critic admitted. "We have loads of new people on our database interested in our campaigns, and because the issues of trade, debt and aid are now suddenly sexy again, we have new funding bodies approaching us to do projects and research. MPH is paying for my job for the next 3 years."

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At 5:18 am, Blogger Neil said...

The whole thing is a betrayal. The politicians are actually disempowering Africa. The worst thing is that probably none of the musicians and few of the audience will realise ie when the "wonderful results" come out from Geneva.

Please read this article from the Guardian. Please tell everyone about it on your blog.,5673,1521411,00.html

At 5:19 am, Blogger Neil said...

Er, I meant Gleneagles!

At 10:23 am, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

Thanks for that Neil - George Monbiot writes some good stuff - I hadn't seen this article.

Thinking about it further last night I realised that the co-opting of MPH/Live8 is just a continuation of the cynical third way strategy to pay lip service to 'stakeholders' while at the same time refusing to question central tenants of neoliberalism.

Whereabouts in Hungry are you? I visited Budapest last year - I would love to go back! :)


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