David Cameron speaks in front of the UK Aid logo

Memos from within the UK Department for International Development, released under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, offer a glimpse of how the big aid charities’ Enough Food For Everyone IF… campaign was developed in close collaboration with the department that is ostensibly the campaign target.

The extracts show how Andrew ‘Plebgate’ Mitchell, then International Development Secretary, told the chiefs of the big 5 aid groups that he would support their campaign on 12 December 2011 – more than a year before the campaign launch last week.

One civil servant wrote, on 3 February 2012:

DFID’s Secretary of State told BOAG heads in their recent meeting that he would be supportive of their campaign.

BOAG is the British Overseas Aid Group, made up of Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Save the Children and CAFOD.

Referring to the same meeting, another official writes:

BOAG presented initial ideas for their 2013 campaign to DFID SoS [Secretary of State] at meeting on 12 December.

This means that early plans for the campaign were submitted to the government before they were shared with many of the 100+ organisations that make up the IF coalition.

Repeated references to a ‘big moment’ or a ‘gold moment’ throughout the memos show how, from the start, the campaign has been planning with DfID to create a pro-government splash in the immediate run-up to the G8 summit, being held this year in the Lough Erne golf resort-turned-fortress in Northern Ireland.

An internal email from as far back as September 2011 reads:

BOAG public campaign – [Christian Aid Director] Loretta Minghella explained BOAG’s interest in a big moment in 2012-13 on food and hunger. People would understand a campaign on these issues because it so tangible. They wanted to work with DFID.

The SoS said there was a lot of common ground in our thinking. But we would never replicate 2005. The SoS suggested a ‘golden moment’ in 2012, which the NGOs could then follow… He asked what an NGO campaign would be able to add to the food security agenda, beyond the buzz of a campaign?

And a policy analysis document later recounts:

“[Save The Children Chief Executive] Justin Forsyth has submitted a note to the Secretary of State with ideas for the gold moment the most substantive of which was a proposed ‘High level hunger commission’ which would be mandated to make recommendations to a special meeting convened during the UK G8 Presidency in 2013.”

War on Want, whose FoI request secured release of the documents, have outlined their reasons for staying out of the IF campaign, citing this closeness to government as well as recognising that the stated aims of the campaign do little or nothing to challenge the system of impoverishment and hunger. War on Want noted that they are:

“particularly concerned that the IF campaign in promoting a false image of David Cameron and the UK government as leading the fight against global hunger, at a time when nothing could be farther from the truth. A number of the aid agencies at the centre of the IF campaign have already praised the UK prime minister for his “leadership role” in holding a hunger event with Mo Farah and other celebrities at the end of the London 2012 Olympics. Internal documents obtained by War on Want through a Freedom of Information challenge reveal that the government has for two years been planning with the aid agencies to use the IF campaign to promote the prime minister as a leader on the global stage.”

Fellow anti-poverty campaigners World Development Movement have also declined to take part, as have the trades unions.

While I absolutely share WDM and War on Want’s concerns about the narrow, symptomatic focus, I would never argue that more and better aid, action on tax-dodging, less Northern exploitation of Southern land, and transparency in the global food economy are not worth having.

The real scandal of the IF campaign is that it appears to have been shaped more by the desires of the target department than by those of its members, and not at all by the views of its supposed beneficiaries in developing countries. It is constructed around a ‘golden moment’ pro-government PR event intended to ingratiate aid agencies (a large portion of whose funding comes from DfID) with the present rulers, never mind that the agenda of those rulers is implacably opposed to reducing inequality or moderating the global capitalism that causes it.

Demanding the commitment of a huge portion of the UK international development movement’s campaign resources to a project that masquerades as a campaign but is actually a pro-government marketing drive is worse than bad campaigning – it’s campaigning malpractice.

If you, like me, want to see an end to hunger, don’t support the IF campaign. Give your time and money to organisations – like War on Want and the World Development Movement – that are prepared to take on power, not pander to it, in the fight to overturn the systemic causes of poverty and hunger.

Update: one of the member organisations of the IF campaign have asked me to draw your attention to this statement, written in response to War on Want. In it, they say it was essential for the campaign not to ‘over-promise’ and that this is the explanation for what appear overly modest asks, and they defend their strategy of praising David Cameron’s ‘leadership’.

Despite saying “Debates about the campaign are healthy and essential. We welcome them,” they showing regrettable arrogance in likening any dissent to the Judean People’s Front. I suggest that had the Judean People’s Front agreed their actions with Pontius Pilate in advance, the People’s Front of Judea would have been more than justified in being ‘splitters’.

Read the full Freedom of Information disclosure below: