Response: the IF campaign is no government cheerleader
Chris Hegarty is Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor at Christian Aid Scotland, and Chair of the IF campaign in Scotland.
Last week’s Bright Green Scotland blog about the IF campaign raises important questions. As chair of the IF campaign group in Scotland, I’m grateful for this opportunity to respond. These views are my own rather than an official position of the whole coalition.
Central to blog author Gary Dunion’s concern is the sharing of information between NGOs and government. The Freedom of Information requests from War on Want showed that the wider notion of a ‘big moment’ for international development at some point in 2012 or 2013 was discussed by NGOs and the Department for International Development (DFID) as early as 2011.
I find this remarkably unremarkable. NGOs and governments talk to each other. Governments also speak to businesses, trade bodies, academics, trades unions, the media and so on. Like it or not, it’s a part of the mosaic of how change happens, how politics works.
The key concern appears to be, as the title of the blog says, that ‘the IF campaign was agreed with government a year in advance’. This is stretching semantics to the limit. It’s fair to say that NGOs and the UK Government both knew a year in advance that some sort of large campaign was likely to happen. But ‘agreed’? If the implication is that the campaign demands were established with government in advance, that is a laughable suggestion to those of us who were involved in the process. It was hard enough to agree the campaign priorities between NGOs, whose staff (quite properly) feel passionate about the issues on which they work. Root causes of hunger are many and complex, and it wasn’t until late last year that these demands were finalised by campaign members. Sharing of information with government? Sometimes, when appropriate. Pre-agreement? No.
Of course from time to time the interests of governments and NGOs can overlap. The promise to spend 0.7% of national income on aid is a good example. The coalition government has always pledged to make good on this commitment, a position supported by the IF campaign. In the face of substantial opposition to a rising aid budget from influential media and backbenchers, it is vital to demonstrate public and NGO support for this decision. But this is not cheerleading for government. Rather, it is appropriate recognition for any decision-maker who chooses to do the right thing. It is also in no way party political, as NGOs would be equally as enthusiastic no matter which party (or parties) happens to deliver it.
Imagine for a minute that the IF campaign NGOs had done as the critics would have preferred and not spoken to government about their plans. Under relentless pressure from right-wing press and backbenchers over the past 12-18 months, facing huge budget constraints, and with little or no ‘noise’ being heard in support of the policy, it is not hard to imagine the commitment to substantial increases in the aid budget quietly being dropped.
NGOs could at that point have said ‘Hang on… we’re just about to launch this big campaign! We’ve been keeping it secret!’
I know which tactic I think is more effective.
But aid is just one part of the IF campaign. At its heart is a desire to examine the root causes of hunger and what meaningful, achievable changes we can effect in a UK context to start to tackle them.
One of the root cause issues addressed by the IF campaign is tax. Several respected organisations estimate that tax dodging by multinationals costs developing countries far more than they receive in aid each year. Sustainable tax revenues are a vital part of tackling poverty and hunger for good – they can enable access to safety nets and basic services which alleviate extreme poverty on a huge scale, and they tackle a reliance on aid.
When it was announced in late 2012 that tax and international development were, to our delight, to be put on the agenda for this year’s G8, a lobbyist colleague from another IF member said to me: “Wow, that’s my political objectives for next year achieved already!” Of course it was a light-hearted comment, but the point is serious: when plans for the IF campaign were being developed we had no inkling that public opinion (and politicians’ rhetoric) would move so far and so fast in our direction in this respect. Yet thanks in part to the publicity around Amazon, Google, Starbucks et al, as well as the substantial pressure from the IF campaign and its members, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to see huge changes to the international tax system in favour of some of the world’s poorest people.
Getting these issues onto the G8’s agenda is only the first step. The IF campaign must now deliver the irresistible political momentum to make such changes happen. This is in no way a ‘given’, or pre-agreed with government. On the contrary, it’s more vital than ever that we build strong public support behind the campaign so that we don’t miss this opportunity. Well-intentioned criticism that undermines the IF campaign only harms our chances of making major breakthroughs on tax, aid and other key elements of the campaign this year.
There are several other aspects of the blog that I challenge. For example to describe DFID as ‘the campaign target’ is fundamentally to misunderstand what we are seeking to achieve. Only a small proportion of our campaign objectives can be determined by DFID. Most relevant decisions are in the gift of the Treasury, other UK government departments, and indeed by the governments of other countries. Similarly, to portray the campaign as ‘a pro-government marketing drive’ is baseless and unhelpful. In 18 months of working on this campaign I’ve never received that impression, in the slightest, from anyone involved.
Each of us chooses our own balance of idealism and pragmatism. Does the IF campaign seek every change I personally would like to see in the world? Of course not. But does it have the potential – with sufficient public support – to bring about wonderful and important changes that would benefit millions of the world’s most vulnerable people? I firmly believe that it does.