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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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”