Make Poverty History – The Inside View

  • From: Think.
  • Published: June 17, 2013
One of the campaign organizers describes the struggle to win the G8’s historic commitments – and the long journey toward making them a reality

by Adrian Lovett

For me the story really began in a field in Edinburgh a few days before the Gleneagles summit in July 2005. That day, we had about 250,000 people marching through the city to call on the G8 to “make poverty history”. We had about the same number at the London Live8 concert in Hyde Park, and hundreds of millions more around the world were watching on TV. I was standing on a stage with a big screen behind me and we were counting down to 3pm, when the Live8 concert in London started. We linked up for a few minutes via the screen and I had an extraordinary sense of the power of a movement that was both truly mainstream and had a strong political edge. A couple of years earlier, when we started thinking about what we could achieve in 2005, if I could have pictured in my head what success looked like it would have been that moment.

Hopes were running very high, but that optimism was shattered on July 7 with the news of the London bombings. It was like the oxygen was sucked out of the place in an instant. What will this mean for everything we’ve been working on for the last couple of years, we wondered? But Tony Blair went to London and returned later the same day, the summit continued in the meantime, and the next day the G8 announced a package of support that was close to what we had been campaigning for.

At the end of the summit week, a few of my colleagues were sitting at dinner talking about the fact that the G8 promises could mean that 12,000 children’s lives would be saved every day. One colleague said: “Great, now we’ve got to get these kids into school.” And not just in terms of getting children into school, but of all the other aspects of human development: that is what we have been working on since then – as well as ensuring that the G8 delivered on the promises they made in 2005. Not all of those promises have been kept, and this has been an ongoing struggle.

Spotlight on Africa
The other big thing that has changed since then, because of the degree of success that we have had with the aid and debt cancellation agendas, is a greater focus on the resources that already exist in the poorest countries, particularly in Africa. These might take the form of government expenditure, or of the natural resources that should be benefiting the people but too often are benefiting others, whether it be elites in those countries or elsewhere in the world. Every year since 2005, there has been greater recognition of the work of African campaigners and movements who are not only holding their own governments to account but also getting involved in other areas, like the directives we are trying to push through the European Union on oil mining and gas extraction. If we get that right, it could achieve a great deal more than all of the aid and debt cancellation that has been delivered so far. But the two are linked, because the progress we have made on that aid agenda has enabled us to engage across this wider agenda too.

One of the biggest lessons from Make Poverty History is that however good your policies or your lobbying strategies are, you have to have a compelling, powerful destination that you can describe to policymakers, your own campaign supporters, the general public and the media. There was a lot of criticism of the 2005 campaign for being overblown and overstated. But the irony is that now when we look at extreme poverty, we can see that it has fallen by half in the last 20 years and that it can be effectively eliminated in the next 20 or so. The ambition that we set for ourselves and that we used to describe the campaign – to “make poverty history” – was maybe just ahead of its time.

Harnessing the domino effect
Goals don’t necessarily drive outcomes, but I have found that if you set an ambitious goal, while you may not achieve it, you will almost certainly get much further than you would have done with a modest goal. The other lesson from 2005 is that you cannot achieve this kind of global progress by action in only one country, and what we tried to do was to link up internationally. Before the Gleneagles summit we had a specific push around the EU, which was negotiating its seven-year budget. It was then that we got the strong commitment from EU members to devote 0.7 percent of their national income to aid by 2015, and to reach an interim target by 2010. That meant the European G8 members arrived at the summit with that promise under their belts, which in turn enabled us to encourage the non-Europeans to increase their commitments at the G8. We were trying to set up a domino effect, and that only worked because there were campaigns in 50 or 60 countries that were all part of a global call for action against poverty, and that was certainly noticed by decision-makers. The impact was increased by the Live8 concerts, which were held not just in London but in other G8 capitals and in Africa and which brought the political message close to the seats of power in each of those locations.

A recipe for change
It is hugely important that such campaigns are closely connected to work at the grassroots. At ONE, for example, several hundred thousand of our three million members are in Africa. They are involved in striving for global outcomes, but much of the time they are focusing much closer to home. Last year our members in Tanzania got together to urge the president, Jakaya Kikwete, to prioritize investment in agriculture and ensure he met his promise to invest 10 percent of government revenue in agriculture. After tens of thousands of Tanzanians got involved on email and by SMS, and with many of them physically marching to the State House, he decided that he was going to make that commitment. This kind of national-level change is certainly as important – if not much more important – than anything we can do elsewhere. However, the point is that we want to do all of this; achieving change requires not an a la carte menu, but a recipe. We need action at the front line, in the countries where poverty is felt and where we want to see it eliminated. But there is absolutely a responsibility and an opportunity for campaigners in France, Germany, the UK, the US, Japan and other developed countries to hold their own governments to account, and to support the values that they hold dear.

Adrian Lovett is Europe Director of ONE, the global anti-poverty campaign

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