Whatever the failure of the G8 leaders to meet the demands of the
campaigners, there is little doubt that Make Poverty History has
made a difference. Africa’s problems have been in the spotlight as
never before. And long after the Gleneagles summit is forgotten,
politicians will continue to feel under pressure to take action.
Make Poverty History may not have fulfilled all its aims, but it
will have had a long-lasting effect on progress towards reducing
poverty in the developing world.
Anti-poverty campaigners here in Britain will now be hoping some of
this success rubs off on them. The domestic poverty agenda has not
enjoyed anywhere near as much attention. The fact that every three
seconds a child dies from extreme poverty in the developing world
is now etched on the public’s conscience. But few know the scale of
child poverty back at home. How many people realise that the number
of children living in poverty in Britain is equivalent to a queue
stretching from London to Gleneagles and back again? Britain’s
experience of poverty bears no comparison with Africa’s, of course.
But the need to act is no less important.
So, what lessons can be taken from the success of the Make Poverty
Firstly, there is much to be said for having a memorable slogan.
Make Poverty History was an inspired choice. It is a simple call to
action that conveys plenty of ambition. And it is the kind of
slogan that everyone can unite around, whatever their views about
the nature of the action that needs to be taken.
Secondly, the wristband craze may have seemed a gimmick but it
provided an easy way to demonstrate mass support for the campaign.
Millions of people took to wearing a white wristband as a sign of
solidarity. It seemed to appeal to our natural British reserve,
allowing individuals to take part in the campaign with minimum fuss
and without risk of confrontation.
Thirdly, Make Poverty History recognised the value of people power.
The campaign was directed primarily at harnessing the public’s
support because politicians are ultimately impotent without it. By
demonstrating the sheer number of people supporting its aims, Make
Poverty History will have achieved much more in the long term than
it would had it focused all its energies on lobbying a small number
Fourthly, although at times the relationship between the
campaigners and the politicians was contentious, Make Poverty
History showed that it was possible to work constructively with
political leaders without compromising the campaign’s ideals. Bob
Geldof and others were prepared to be bold and rebellious but at
the same time willing to engage in a grown-up conversation with
politicians. Make Poverty History demonstrated the value of setting
out challenging goals, even in the knowledge that policy-makers
would only ever be able to meet them part way. In many ways it was
a triumph of hope and determination over the evidence. Yet it
showed the power of articulating an ambitious vision, the kind that
politicians too often feel unable to articulate themselves.
Finally, Make Poverty History offers anti-poverty campaigners in
Britain some grounds for hope. The central message of the campaign
was that a society as rich as ours can afford to do more. It showed
that when confronted with the evidence people are not selfish or
greedy but generally want to change the world for the better. There
was no talk of the burden that would be placed on the developed
world if Africa’s debts were written off or aid substantially
And, behind the simple slogan, Make Poverty History conveyed a
sophisticated message about the need to move beyond aid handouts to
addressing trade issues and debt relief. There were few toe-curling
appeals for sympathy or charity. The campaign showed that relieving
Africa’s poverty meant that the world had to be prepared to close
the gap between rich and poor, to tackle inherent inequalities – a
lesson we have yet to learn at home.
Progress towards tackling poverty in Britain is dependent on
learning these lessons. Unless there is demonstrable public support
for a push towards eradicating poverty, policy-makers will have
little power to act. Even now, the action the government has taken
to reduce poverty is not widely recognised. Nor is the scale of the
task that lies ahead. But if Make Poverty History can make a
difference on a global scale, so it must be possible to galvanise
public support for action at home.
Lisa Harker is chairperson of the Daycare Trust