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)

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.