Tackling poverty globally: are NGOs on the wrong track?
Brendan Cox, who, in a career of many highlights for one so young, advised PM Gordon Brown about development and is now working for Save the Children has written a fascinating report, funded by Bill Gates, which looked at the lessons of a decade of global anti-poverty campaigning to see what might work best in the future.
His conclusions, politely expressed as tentative, but actually bang on the money and to be ignored at our peril, include the need for working in alliances rather than as individual NGOs, and set out a number of possible topics. Chief among these are women’s rights and social protection, both bread and butter to trade unions, although as Brendan points out, rather broad when specificity is often easier to tackle. But he doesn’t mention food poverty as an issue, which makes it really surprising that UK NGOs have chosen that as the priority for a new campaign they will launch later this year. And their decision to eschew more than a very limited alliance also runs counter to the evidence of what makes a good campaign that Brendan painstakingly assembled.
The argument for alliances as the best way to tackle global poverty is based on the vast resources necessary to make an impact at a global level. Only a coalition of global and national civil society organisations can deploy and mobilise such resources, eg Make Poverty History, or the Robin Hood Tax campaign, which he specifically commends. But as he notes, NGOs that need to be able to distinguish themselves in order to raise funds don’t like such coalitions. Unions, who despite a history of demarcation disputes are unlikely to see tackling global poverty as a unique selling proposition to potential members, are much better-suited to such alliance-building.
Subjects for campaigns are important too. Food poverty, which the main UK NGOs, known collectively as the BOAGs, are planning a major campaign on, is undoubtedly a key issue for the poor. But campaigning on such an issue is likely to lead to yet more ‘starving baby’ photos, and less systemic change in what keeps people poor. Such campaigns open a limited number of purses, but they reinforce popular attitudes that global poverty is insurmountable and keeps the radical change needed off the agenda.
The UK Government, whose view of development is more about charity than solidarity or systemic change, is known to favour a focus on food, and it may, sadly, be the prospect of cosying up to Government that explains the BOAGs’ next campaign. In which case they should read Brendan’s report to find out why that won’t work.