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)

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war