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Poor campaigns fail the poor

By Howard Glenn - posted Monday, 15 August 2005

The guitar amps were still being packed away for despatch to much trashier venues when the London bombs exploded - making the Make Poverty History campaign history faster than the organisers’ wildest expectations.

“You’ll never see this again,” said Sir Bob Geldof, of the Live 8 concert. Actually, unless you were a subscriber to Fox 8, you wouldn’t have seen it live at all in Australia. But is this such a bad thing?

Working as an educator on development and poverty issues at the time of the Live Aid concert 20 years ago, I had mixed feelings about the event then - envy and appreciation for the sheer scale of the message about the African famine, but real disappointment at the proposed solution of individual donations - a short-term feel good. Those of us then in the left-wing of the overseas aid movement were convinced that only through getting a change in governmental priorities would we see lasting solutions to African poverty - ending apartheid, global disarmament and aid targeted to community development.


That year in Australia, we - as development educators - had what we thought was a great success in convincing the new Hawke Labor Government to respond to the recommendations of the Jackson Inquiry into overseas aid, with the establishment of a development education fund, and with greater channelling of aid through non-government aid organisations. No longer, we thought, would discussion of the causes of global poverty be confined to a scattering of geography classrooms across the country. More money would empower community change activists like ourselves to find lasting solutions in our own countries.

As the money started to flow, I left that field of work, getting what I saw as a real job in the public service, spending nights in the disarmament movement organising Palm Sunday rallies and stopping Australian support for the Marcos regime in the Philippines. I’ve had my share of successes and failures in political campaigning. I’ve had some surprises too, when successful campaigns turn sour - like the introduction of tertiary tuition fees by the same key allies who’d helped us defeat fees when they were proposed by the Fraser Government. And in reverse, when disarmament became such a mainstream issue the Australian Government even appointed an ambassador to play a global role.

Sometimes though, one only sees the down side of a campaign victory over time. Over the years of the Hawke and Keating governments, most major non-government overseas aid agencies became so locked into the processes of receiving government grants, that the cutting edge of their work in political and social change became blunted and remains so. The development education fund professionalised a group of activists who now no longer sharpen that cutting edge, and there has been a real loss of engagement with the public as a result.

With the Howard Government, overseas aid levels continue to fall as a proportion of our national income - and the proportions have even fallen in comparison with other donor countries. There is little effective opposition or public campaigning from the aid agencies on this issue.

That we are out of kilter with the rest of the world is not just shown by the narrow range of the broadcasting of the Live 8 concert. The event wasn’t even acknowledged by a media release from our foreign minister - while heads of state from other countries made commitments for action.

Oxfam Australia jumped on the Make Poverty History campaign band wagon, because it has the Australian rights to that branding and the slogan through its European affiliations. Sure you can wear a wristband, watch a celebrity advertisment or donate money, but attention is on what other countries’ governments should do - G8 action - and not on what we have allowed our own government to get away with. Through the Oxfam website, one can email John Howard, but it’s such a shame that this is the full extent of any domestic political campaign activity.


Oxfam is not alone in importing successful overseas pitches - World Vision, CARE and Plan are all global brands which operate in Australia, convincing the caring they can make a difference, through well-tested marketing campaigns. Bob Geldof realised, over the 20 years from Live Aid to Live 8, getting action from governments can lead to much more significant resources being applied than just dipping into individual pockets. These agencies need to recognise supportive Australians can achieve more by forcing some action out of our own government.

Make Poverty History was always going to be a campaign set up for long-term disappointment. Poverty is both an absolute and a relative term - it will always be with us. We can tackle some of the absolutes: immediate famine, particular diseases, barriers to sustainable development and the circumstances of the poor. But we will always lose a fight against an abstract noun. Now even the abstraction of poverty has been blown away for a while, and terrorism has returned as the abstract noun du jour.

For those of us who live in non-G8 nations, Make Poverty History is a campaign leading to much more immediate disappointment. The hard slog of addressing the Australian Government’s contribution to global poverty, and the creation or entrenchment of new classes of poor in Australia is one with which overseas aid agencies are still to re-engage.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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