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Inside the Murky World of Make Poverty History

Red Pepper | 27.06.2005 23:16 | G8 2005 | Birmingham | World

Make Poverty History would seem an unprecedented success story. Uniting trade unions, charities, NGOs and a stellar-cast of celebrities, its cause is dominating media coverage while the campaign's white wristband is being worn the world over. So why, as the G8 summit approaches, are leading members briefing against each other to the press and African social movements saying ‘nothing about us, without us'? Stuart Hodkinson investigates.

For a sun-soaked Friday in late May, there was an unusual air of panic at the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) for the monthly members' assembly of Make Poverty History (MPH). Officials hurriedly briefed reception with some last-minute security instructions: “You must make sure that only assembly members are let in,” one instructed. “The meeting is open to the public, but only public members of Make Poverty History.”

The nerves were understandable. Two damning stories about MPH were about to break in the British national press. The cover story of British centre-left weekly, New Statesman, ‘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 Britain's two most powerful politicians, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown, to co-opt MPH as a front for New Labour's own questionable anti-poverty drive.

The right-wing Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, had given notice of its shocking exclusive on how large numbers of the ubiquitous MPH white wristband – the very symbol of the campaign – had been knowingly sourced from Chinese sweatshops with Oxfam's blessing.

Inside MPH, however, the embarrassing revelations were no surprise. 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.”


This is surely not what campaigners had in mind back in late 2003 when Oxfam initiated a series of informal meetings with charities and campaigning organisations to consider forming an unprecedented coalition against poverty in 2005 to coincide with the UK presidency of both the G8 summit and EU, the first five year evaluation of progress on the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed in 2000, the 6th WTO Ministerial Meeting in Hong Kong, and the 20th anniversary of Live Aid.

In September 2004, the Make Poverty History coalition was officially launched as the UK mobilisation of an international coalition, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (G-CAP), led by Oxfam International, Action Aid and DATA – the controversial Africa charity set up by U2 frontman, Bono and multi-billionnaires, George Soros, and Microsoft's Bill Gates, the world's second richest person with a fortune of just under $50 billion.

Since then, MPH has become an impressive campaigning coalition, boasting over 460 member organisations including all the major trade unions and the TUC, development NGOs, charities, churches as well as several faith and diaspora groups. Its successful mix of celebrity backers and anti-poverty message has captured the attention of both politicians and mass media, encapsulated in the near-hysteria following the annoucement by veteran rock star and Africa campaigner, Bob Geldof, that a series of free 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 in Gleneagles, Scotland in July.

But despite the success, there is widespread unhappiness within the coalition over the campaign's public face and its cosiness to Blair and Brown. 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. MPH also says rich countries should immediately double aid by $50bn per year and finally meet 35-year old promises to spend 0.7 per cent of their national income in development aid. More and better aid, meanwhile, should be matched by cancellation of the “unpayabale” 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, has a point when he asserts 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 deeply compromised Commission for Africa set out its neo-liberal proposals for the corporate plunder of Africa's human and natural resources 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. As Ghana 's Yao Graham makes clear in July's Red Pepper, African civil society is far less enamoured with the Commission's report, which he argues lays out a blueprint for “the new scramble for Africa ”.


Thanks to the New Statesman exposé, much of the blame is placed on the leadership of Oxfam – the UK 's biggest and most powerful development agency. Despite its pro-poor image around the world, over the last two decades, Oxfam has become a feeder school for government special advisers and World Bank officials and has a particularly close relationship with New Labour. Blair's special advisor on international development, Justin Forsyth, was previously Oxfam's campaigns manager. Forsyth's opposite number at the Treasury is Oxfam board member, Shriti Vadera, a former director at the US bank, UBS Warburg, and specialist in public-private partnerships, a policy that litters the Africa Commission's report. Less well known is John Clark, who left Oxfam for the World Bank in 1992 to join the World Bank where he was responsible for the Bank's co-optation strategy with civil society before advising Tony Blair in 2000 on his “Africa Partnership Initiative” that directly led to the New Partnership for Africa 's Development (NEPAD) in 2001. 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 political independence from neo-liberal governance is also compromised by the £40m or so of its annual income that comes from government or other public funds. Nearly £14m alone originates from the Department for International Development (DfID), which is a major champion of privatisation and its benefits for UK companies in developing countries. In this, Oxfam is of course by no means alone – almost every development NGO in Britain is on DfID's payroll. While it is possible to take and use government money progressively while being critical of the donor's policies, such large amounts of government funding inevitably influence how far Oxfam will stick its neck out politically and risk future funding cuts.

Oxfam's unrivalled financial resources and existing public profile make it by far the most powerful organisation in the MPH coalition. Last year, Oxfam's annual income surpassed £180m – three times the amount received by its nearest rival, Christian Aid, and dwarfing more social movement-oriented development NGOs like WDM and War on Want who punch way above their weight on just over £1m each. Such wealth disparity inevitably translates into the direction taken by the coalition, especially its public image. Oxfam's army of press officers, researchers and campaign officers can naturally take advantage of the huge media opportunities generated by the campaign.

But making Oxfam the scapegoat for MPH's co-optation by New Labour misses the key role played by Comic Relief and its celebrity co-founder, the film director, Richard Curtis. As one of Britain's most prolific and brilliant comedy writers, Curtis shot to fame in the 1980s with the TV series Blackadder, and his since penned hits like Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, and the blockbuster movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral. With wealth and fame has come enormous political clout. In 2001, British centre-left daily broadsheet, The Guardian, ranked him the 10th most powerful person in the UK media industry, ahead of every national newspaper editor, except Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail.

Curtis's personal 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. It was a life-changing experience and on his return to London persuaded showbiz friends to set up Comic Relief, the celebrity-led charity that uses the medium of comedy to raise both awareness about poverty, famine and disease in Africa , and huge sums of money to such causes.

Despite its incredible success in bringing in the bacon – over £337m since its inception – Comic Relief's live televised shows every two years are also criticised for their distinct lack of politics and inaccurate portrayal of Africa as a continent-come-country ravaged by natural disasters and warring tribes – the roles of colonialism, IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes and Western corporations don't get a look in.


Comic Relief's apolitical approach to Africa is deeply important to the fractious debate inside MPH. For while Bono and Geldof get the limelight and Oxfam dominates the policy agenda, it is Richard Curtis who is in the driving seat of 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 multi-millionaire business tycoon, Sir Tom Hunter, to donate a £1m to the campaign, and advertising executives to donate more than £4m of free airtime. This helped propel his ‘Click' advert worldwide in which global film and music mega-stars, like George Clooney, Bono and Kylie Minogue, kitted out in full white T-shirt and wristband regalia, click their fingers every three seconds to mark another child dying in Africa . Curtis has used his unrivalled celebrity address book to ensure that MPH's platforms, events and entire PR strategy are dripping with celebrities.

While most MPH members gratefully accept that Curtis's celebrity support has been integral to the campaign's phenomenal marketing 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 dubious role of Sir Tom Hunter, no ordinary sharp-dressed philanthropist. Worth £678m, his Hunter Foundation charity is an evangelical force behind public-private partnerships and child entrepreneurism in Scotland . Since 2001, it has helped fund the Scottish Executive's Schools Enterprise Programme in which the private sector helps groom children as young as five in the wonders of business.

Ewan Hunter, CEO of The Hunter Foundation, rejects this characterisation of the scheme as “completely erroneous”, and claims it is “a world leading initiative” to support a “can do” attitude in children: “For the record we consult widely with the relevant trade unions, councils, governments, teachers and children before agreeing any investment in education.” Note he doesn't actually refute the business-child relationship.

Tom Hunter recently caused a storm even in the right-wing tabloid press when he began selling special edition charity Live 8-MPH white wristbands stamped with the logos of six global fashion brands, including Hilfiger Denim whose owner, Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, is accused by labour right campaigners of sourcing its clothes from anti-union sweatshops in Latin America and the East Asia.

According to Stephen Coats, Executive Director of the Chicago-based US/Labor Education in the Americas Project that monitors and supports the basic rights of workers in Latin America, Hilfiger's labour record falls short of minimum standards:

“In our experience, Tommy Hilfiger is at the bottom of the list in demonstrating refusal to accept responsibility for the way workers are treated.”

Back in October 2003, the company was accused by labour rights campaigners of cutting and running from its responsibilities to workers when evidence was uncovered of labour abuses at the Tarrant blue jean factory in Ajalpan , Mexico .

The revelations have once again left Make Poverty History campaigners angry at the contamination of their high-profile symbol by its association with anti-labour companies. War on Want's John Hilary speaks for many inside MPH when he says that unless Hilfiger had suddenly reformed without them knowing “it's not the sort of company we'd want to be associated with”.

Then there's Abbot Mead Vickers (AMV), the UK 's largest advertising agency that has previously worked for Comic Relief and has been brought in to help with the campaign's communication strategy. Among AMV's many ‘politically incorrect' proposals rejected by incensed MPH members was a high-profile billboard campaign in which images of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela would sit alongside Gordon Brown, with the caption ‘2005…?'. The ad's message was clear: this could be the year in which Brown himself becomes a ‘man of history', cajoling the G8 into the ultimate sacrifice of dropping Africa 's debt to take his place alongside two martyrs of anti-colonialism.

Unsurprisingly, this ridiculous proposal to draw an equivalence between those whose lives were dedicated to fighting white supremacist imperialism, and a man who wants to turn Africa into a giant free trade zone on behalf of Western multinationals, was blocked by several incensed Make Poverty History members. But such insensitivity comes with the turf: AMV's corporate clients not only include Pepsi Cola, Pfizer, Sainsbury, Camelot, and the Economist but also, ironically, Diageo, the drinks multinational which happens to own the Gleneagles Hotel where the G8 leaders will be meeting, and is a major investor in Africa.

According to Lucy Michaels from UK-based research and campaigning organisation, Corporate Watch, Diageo has a track record of lobbying OECD and G8 countries to push for greater investment liberalisation in developing countries and its PR activities in Africa are deeply controversial:

“Diageo aggressively promotes its products in Africa by attacking one the continent's key micro-scale industries – home brewing. It recently released its 'Corporate Citizenship Report for East Africa' in which it labelled unbranded alcohol as posing severe 'health and social risks', despite evidence from the International Centre of Alcohol Policies, incidentally funded by Diageo, that 'illicit' brew' is generally of good quality and is vital to the household and local economy.”


But the most destructive aspect of 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 few months ago, tensions came to a head when members challenged the discrepancy between MPH's agreed position and the campaign's pro-government public face. The response from a key Comic Relief official was that Curtis “found it difficult” to turn against the government because of his personal friendship with Gordon Brown. The extent of the Curtis-Brown relationship was revealed on primetime national television on Saturday 25 June in Curtis's BBC 1 film, The Girl in the Café (bizarrely announced as being shown across Africa ).

A love story between Gina, an idealistic young campaigner, and Lawrence, an adviser to a tough but caring Gordon Brown-style Chancellor, who helps his new lover get an audience with world leaders at a pretend G8 summit in Iceland and inspires the UK government to insist on ‘making poverty history'. Brown even attended the Scottish première of the film in May at an event organised by MPH paymaster, Tom Hunter, who has since been knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

Against this background, it is little wonder that 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 fall out 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. However, the respite was only temporary. The coup de grâce came in a recent announcement that Gordon Brown has been invited to the 2 July rally in Edinburgh .

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.


MPH's website fails to even acknowledge the other protests, events and groups like Dissent, Trident Ploughshares and G8Alternatives, but who themselves are actively encouraging everyone to go and support the MPH rally. 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. 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, shout slogans through megaphones and wear red MakeCapitalismHistory T-shirts and wristbands (Red Pepper, incidentally, will be wearing ‘Make the G8 History' T-shirts on the day).

The email also recounts how, in response to Stop the War's announced intention to lead a break away rally at 4.30pm on 2 July, the local council, the police and MPH organisers are working together to ensure that STWC would be denied their own stage in order to retain “our ownership of the event and our key messaging”.

This is not just about political domination. Part of MPH's concern lies in the perceived threat to its monopoly of all commercial trade taking place on the day – the coalition has taken out a market traders licence for the 2 July that will solely benefit the coalition's members and empowers MPH to move illegal traders, including political activists, off the site. Comic Relief has also registered the MakePovertyHistory slogan as a trademark with the European Union and is threatening to take action against “any misuse or alleged of the Trademark”.

But concerns about MPH lie much deeper than the political divisions within the UK development scene. The most obvious question, increasingly on the lips of even mainstream journalists, is where are the voices of African civil society, and other social movements of the Global South, in a campaign that is supposedly about them?


Kofi Maluwi Klu, a leading Ghanaian Pan-African activist and international coordinator of 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'. Make Poverty History 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 campaign's politics. For instance, Southern NGO's and movements are generally critical of making demands on the G8: “The G8 is a completely illegitimate and unnaccountable body of global governance; its governments and corporations are historically responsible for most of the problems of developing countries, and remain so today” say Nicola Bullard , of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South, the respected 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 to Jubilee 2000's single issue campaign for debt relief, they argue that its position on debt contradicts what grassroots African and other Southern campaigners are demanding: “MPH is calling for 100 per cent cancellation of the unpayable debts of the poorest countries – but 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 80s, 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, not just those of the very poorest as MPH requests.”

For Southern debt campaigners, the debate is almost identical to the one that led back in 1999, to the North-South split in the Jubilee 2000 movement and the creation of the Jubilee South network, which today brings together more than 80 debt campaigns, social movements and peoples' organisations from more than 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 lay the basis for global social transformation from the bottom-up.

While MPH is part of the Global Call for Action on Poverty (G-CAP) that has a Southern dimension in its leadership, dozens of Southern-based groups, including Jubilee South and Focus on the Global South, have refused to be part of G-CAP, declining's Oxfam and Action Aid's invitation to the September 2004 Johannesburg meeting that eventually launched the coalition. “Jubilee South decided not to go for the fairly simple reason that you don't launch a campaign on behalf of the South without fully briefing, consulting and working with Southern networks first,” says Brian Ashley. Nicola Bullard concurs, adding: “Focus on the Global South saw the Jo'burg meeting as a way to get a lot of radical groups and grassroots movements to give legitimacy to a pre-determined, Northern-led campaign. We believe you have to mobilise and construct movements from the bottom-up”.

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 three years.”

This, at the end of the day, is the NGO bottom-line and that is what MPHistory is all about – helping the world's poor in ways that guarantee your own organisational survival. By riding the MPH money-spinning tiger in the hope of becoming stronger, the UK's most respected development NGOs like Christian Aid, War on War and World Development Movement, are themselves in danger of becoming completely detached from their African comrades at a crucial time for unity against the New labour, the G8 and their plan to carve up Africa's natural wealth for Western corporations.

This must not be allowed to happen. It is still not too late for Make Poverty History's dissenting voices to quit en masse and use this symbolic power to inspire the millions of Make Poverty History members to resist the G8, and push Geldof, Bono, Curtis and co to at least use their media influence to criticise G8 policy. Otherwise, the only thing they are likely to be consigning to history is Africa itself.

* Stuart Hodkinson is the Associate Editor of Red Pepper

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Display the following 11 comments

  1. Don't forget tonight's 'Make the G8 History' event at LSE, London — Gorgeous
  2. i think that this — paul c
  3. nice one SH — Krop
  4. Re: I knew MPH was dodge — dave
  5. Researching articles — Jake
  6. Co-opting the 'movement' — Col
  7. MPH will be ethical if it publicises a legal advance — maurice frank
  8. oh, irony — inky
  9. Meh — Arnold
  10. Excellent — Shiv Malik- New Statesman
  11. What a load of rubbish — Ben Young
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