Activists hope Make Poverty History won’t become history next week

02 November 2006

THE Make Poverty History (MPH) coalition looks set to end as an umbrella organisation, despite an ardent campaign for it to continue by several smaller organisations within the coalition. Its national assembly meets next Tuesday.

The year-long campaign, which called for the governments of the richest countries to make political decisions to deliver justice for the world’s poorest people, describes itself as "part of a powerful people’s movement that believes in progress through democracy".

Eight million people in the UK wore the white band to express solidarity for the movement’s aims, and the click of the fingers to indicate a child dying of poverty every three seconds caught the public imagination.

The coalition of more than 400 campaigning groups sought to capitalise on Britain’s leadership of the G8 and presidency of the EU in 2005. More than 225,000 people marched on Edinburgh on the eve of the summit meeting in July, and the Live8 concert was beamed to billions across the world. There were also 20,000 people in Trafalgar Square, at the start of the campaign, to hear Nelson Mandela issue a global rallying call to ordinary people, and their governments and leaders.

Important issues remained unresolved, but decisions on debt cancellation and an increase in aid were made at the G8 summit, along with a commitment to universal access to HIV treatment. There was the biggest ever trade-justice mass lobby of Parliament in November, although MPH’s verdict on the World Trade Organisation talks in December was that the potential for justice for the world’s poorest people had been squandered.

The campaign believes it has demonstrated that governments could deliver real change when faced with such public demand. It credits people for responding "with an outpouring of compassion for humanity, solidarity and respect for the value of human life", and also acknowledges that significant changes have been achieved outside the direct demands of the campaign.

The explicit agreement that this was a one-year campaign only is enshrined in the coalition’s founding document. But there has been growing support among smaller organisations for the coalition to continue. Churches and fairtrade groups in particular have backed the statement: "We believe that the Make Poverty History campaign, name, website and mailing list should continue into 2006 and beyond in a modified and sustainable form."

Groups such as the Chester World Development Forum say that they would regard it as "extremely foolish" to ditch the "strong, evocative ‘brand’" that was Make Poverty History.

The Bishop of Knaresborough, the Rt Revd James Bell, said: "Poverty is one of the most critical justice issues in our world; let’s continue MPH as a means of uniting the vision and energy of individuals and organisations in search of justice."

Alun Davies of Trade Injustice and Debt Action Leeds, declared: "Make Poverty History is a brand as recognisable as Nike, Coke, or Virgin. It is known among millions, if not tens of millions, of young people as a symbol of international justice, poverty reduction, and a challenge to the status quo.

"To abandon the brand now would be equivalent to throwing millions of pounds of goodwill down the drain. It would also be throwing away the most powerful platform from which to ensure the goals of the campaign are achieved in their entirety."

MPH has been co-ordinated by 17 representatives from the larger organisations, including Christian Aid and Oxfam. The group will present proposals to the assembly next week for the way in which the banner and slogan in particular can be used locally in the future, but it will not be recommending that the coalition itself should continue.

Martin Drewery of Christian Aid, a member of the co-ordinating group, said on Tuesday: "Some groups do want MPH as a nationally run single campaign, with a secretariat set up to lead it forward. But the co-ordinating group doesn’t support that view, and neither does Christian Aid.

"Different organisations must now focus on specific policy changes and have more tightly targeted demands. We’ve also got to be able to trust each other as a sector. The broader it gets, the greater the level of political difference. You can hold it together under a broad message for a year, but I don’t know how sustainable it is to hold it together for evermore."

Christian Aid had "some incredibly exciting campaigns" coming up in 2006, he said; and other organisations also had plans. "Millions of households’ livelihoods depend on the success of those campaigns. I want there to be the political and organisational space to deliver them in a big way.

"No one’s stopping campaigning — the amount of activity needs to grow. There’ll still be Make Poverty History banners and placards — as a slogan, it will still be there. The white band will still be sold and promoted, and if people want to use it as the title of a local campaign action day, there’s no problem with that at all."

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