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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.

New Statesman
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.

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)