Is the new IF campaign trying to ‘Make Poverty History’, again?

The development community must be brave enough to have an honest debate with the public and with politicians about the difficulties and challenges of aid, as well as its benefits.

With the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign launch this week, we have over 100 charities working together for the first time since the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005. Once again, the UK is hosting the G8 but, while Make Poverty History had some real successes, the issues and debates have moved on – and so has public opinion.

In 2013 we need a new public conversation, on what aid and development means in the twenty-first century. And it needs to start with where people are. ODI-IPPR research into UK public attitudes found people tired of the traditional ‘aid story’. Repeated messages which focus on a bleak (African) continent and the horrors of extreme poverty can both overwhelm people and reinforce a sense that there has been little progress over time. Too often, people hear a lot about need, and some stories of success (children vaccinated, schools built), but are given very little information about how change happens or how aid works.

So, will this new campaign move the UK debate on development forwards?

The IF campaign gets off to a good start in its use of imagery and tone. At the launch at Somerset House, it deployed impressive graphics, but this also goes deeper than branding and design. The overall “IF” framing of the campaign emphasises agency and change, something our research revealed a real appetite for: ’IF we come together, and IF we pressure our governments, change is possible‘.

The range of issues it covers - from transparency to tax to agriculture – also look and feel different to the more ‘traditional’ development issues which were the focus of Make Poverty History. The UK public wants to hear more about the role of big business and international corporations – including their tax responsibilities. This is a major plank of the new IF campaign which sets out some clear calls for action and does a good job of communicating these in accessible ways.

The most risky elements are those which look like ‘business as usual’. The campaign has a big focus on targeting the G8, which the UK is hosting this year. One risk is that this gives the public the impression that nothing much has changed since 2005 – the NGOs will need to work hard to put this campaign in a wider context of progress. Another is that we no longer live in a G8 world. A conversation that does not include China, Brazil and India might reinforce a rather outmoded view of development as being very much about ‘us and them’.

The ‘aid’ aspects of the campaign also bring strategic communications challenges, particularly given the emphasis on food. Live Aid still looms large in the UK’s collective understanding of aid and development, and perhaps the biggest risk of this campaign is that it suggests that nothing has changed since 1985. NGOs and others must be wary of suggesting either that aid doesn’t work or that it will be needed forever more. The range of issues covered by the IF campaign provides an opportunity to talk about ‘the end of aid’ in a positive way – “IF we make these changes, then aid will no longer be needed”.

This is important because the political debate about aid in the UK continues to be heated, despite the prospect this year of the UK becoming the first G8 country to give 0.7% of GDP as aid. Aid critics argue that aid doesn’t work and that it is unjustifiable that the UK should drastically increase spending on aid when other budgets are being cut. In this political environment, the simple defences of aid that have been made in the past will no longer cut it – a healthy dose of realism is needed. As Phil Vernon put it in a recent article, “we really must stop being defensive about aid, and admit its limitations”. The development community must be brave enough to use the platform of the IF campaign to have an honest debate with the public and with politicians about the difficulties and challenges of aid, as well as its benefits.

The leaders of the IF campaign will, rightly, be focused on what it can achieve in 2013. But a truly successful campaign would look beyond the short-term demands on government and look to change public attitudes in the longer term. The IF campaign has made a good start, so here’s hoping that 2013 will mark a real change in the UK debate about aid and development.

Leni Wild is a research fellow at ODI (@leniwild)

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR (@sarahmulley)

Nursery school pupils learn with teaching aids during a class at the Christower International School, Ibafo district in Ogun State, southwest Nigeria. Photograph: Getty Images.

Leni Wild is a research fellow at ODI (@leniwild)

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR (@sarahmulley)

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle