Make Poverty History and Live 8: what really happened

20,000 gather in Trafalgar Square to hear Nelson Mandela launch Make Poverty History, 3 February 2005
20,000 gather in Trafalgar Square to hear Nelson Mandela launch Make Poverty History, 3 February 2005

Was the 2005 Live 8 concert a cynical exercise to portray Tony Blair and other world leaders as saviours of the world’s poor, while simultaneously undermining the Make Poverty History campaign’s effort to achieve a genuine change for good in the fight against poverty and injustice?

That was the thesis of Starsuckers, the documentary film shown by More 4 last night. After an hour and a half of observations about the celebritisation of almost everything, the film lurches towards its big finish: yes, even an effort to harness the voices of millions to save countless children’s lives is actually just the latest work of faceless corporate puppet-masters who would intoxicate us with their celebrities and their scams.

Plausible? Critics seem divided. Scientist Raymond Tallis said this strand of the film “stops just short of a freshman conspiracy theory”. Geeks.co.uk, on the other hand, felt the Live 8 swipe was “the icing on a very fattening cake”. But the film’s argument is harder to question when it is articulated by two people presented as representatives of Make Poverty History itself. Surely if they are prepared to say that Live 8 undermined the movement and derailed their efforts, there must be a case to answer?

But all is not as it seems, and this film has reactivated an ache long felt by many of those at the heart of the Make Poverty History campaign. Like millions of others I believed in that slogan, and a somewhat off-white band still sits on my wrist today. I know what we meant to achieve with that campaign and I know that Live 8, with all its challenges, was not part of the problem. It was part of the plan.

In writing this I am painfully aware of the danger of sounding like the nerdish obsessive. Message-board observers of the “Geldof vs activists” scrap generated by this film remind me of the dangerous territory into which I wander. “One might observe that the more you tear each other apart the less interested the general public become in genuinely worthwhile endeavours,” said someone on Comment is Free. And this one: “Wonder how all those in poverty are feeling while you all fight it out with words and documentaries?” Quite.

And Bob Geldof does not always help his own cause. He is entitled to be angry when his efforts over 25 years are denigrated on such a personal and vicious basis, and he is almost entirely innocent of the specific charges laid against him in Starsuckers (ranging from near-complicity in the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians to not being able to get Elton John to remember the right number of signatures in the petition to the G8). That does not excuse his dismissal last weekend of the quarter of a million people who marched under the Make Poverty History banner in July 2005. I think he knows better than this. On the day of the march, I heard him and Bono commenting on how exciting and important it was that the numbers at the Make Poverty History event north of the border had eclipsed those who had turned up the same day in Hyde Park for Live 8.

It is hardly a revelation that Bob Geldof has an ego and is an extreme character. Nor is it news to say that he can be brilliantly insightful, wholly unfair and entirely self-contradictory in one sentence. It is also true to say that no single individual has done more than he has to make recalcitrant world leaders shift uncomfortably in their seats and think again. But this is not about Bob Geldof.

I chaired the first meeting in 2003 of the organisations that went on to form the Make Poverty History coalition. I was one of ten elected members of the coordination team that drove the campaign and I led the group that took decisions about messaging and communications. I spoke proudly for Make Poverty History in Trafalgar Square before Nelson Mandela took to the stage to rally a ‘great generation’ in support of the campaign. I was one of the four or five people charged with representing Make Poverty History in the media.

Does any of that make my perspective any more valid than that of anyone else who also put on a white band and called for action against global poverty in 2005? Absolutely not. But it is frustrating to hear John Hilary – who I can’t remember seeing more than half a dozen times in all the two hundred or more meetings I must have attended over two years as we designed, built and dismantled Make Poverty History – presented by Starsuckers as the voice of the campaign, when he was in fact the voice of his own organisation, War on Want, one of the 540 that made up the Make Poverty History coalition in the UK. Even more frustrating that the film’s director, Chris Atkins, was warned of this risk – and when I asked him today by email why he took no notice, he replied: “We were entitled to caption John Hilary as being from MPH. At no point did we say or suggest he was ‘speaking for’ MPH.” So that’s alright, then.

War on Want is a great organisation with an important part to play, but I couldn’t disagree with its spokesman more about what Make Poverty History was and what it was ever meant to be.

When a campaign rooted in 540 different organisations is over, there are 540 accounts of what actually happened. And every one of them, in a sense, is true. The beauty of Make Poverty History was that it made sense from so many different starting points. But the start and end point for me was that the campaign was always intended to harness the power of the insider and the power of the outsider – with a wide-eyed understanding of how hard that would inevitably be. The post-match debate on this campaign, which has rumbled on for five years, has typically seen the ultras at each end trade blows – one end implying that the whole thing could have been done by insider-lobbying by well-connected, high-profile individuals, the other suggesting that all that mattered was the grass-roots activism. That starkness suits a polemical documentary maker and plays well in the media. But the majority view in the middle has largely been squeezed out.

For a year or more I was one of those who worked for what many of us felt would be the approach most likely to deliver success: first, the launch of the campaign by hundreds of great organisations representing millions of people; then, the catapulting of that campaign into the mainstream public space by the combination of mass communication moments like the celebrity-heavy ‘click’ film; meanwhile, the maintenance of the political edge to the campaign with Nelson Mandela’s speech in Trafalgar Square, marches to Downing Street, vigils, rallies and the campaign’s response to the Commission for Africa. Then, the final cranking up of the popular noise, days before the Gleneagles G8, with simultaneous concerts seen by billions worldwide and the biggest political rally Scotland had ever seen.

At the beginning we didn’t know if we could pull it all off, and we knew it would take many people, well beyond the formal campaign coalition, to do it. It didn’t all come out exactly as we intended. But something along these lines was always meant to happen. The campaign was never designed to be a narrow effort focused only on delivering long policy analysis to an audience of those activists who already agreed with us. The aim was to reach a wide, mass audience with a strong political call to action: to insist that political leaders took the opportunity given to them in 2005 to agree and implement significant steps to cancel debt, deliver more and better aid and justice on trade. From the beginning, most of those in the leadership of the campaign recognised the importance of celebrity supporters and high-profile figures in helping us achieve these aims.

The only authoritative published account of the campaign (Nicolas Sireau’s Make Poverty History: Political Communication in Action) lists a series of interviewees who confirmed this – and the mutually-reinforcing relationship between Make Poverty History and Live 8. Martin Drewry of Christian Aid said: “I think Live 8 elevated the thing to stratospheric levels … I think it’s after Live 8 was announced that Make Poverty History really had massive power in terms of brand profile.” Glen Tarman of the Trade Justice Movement said: “So without the public figure, celebrity endorsement, without the unusual organisations sitting alongside each other, without the Mandela moments, without this kind of spread, we wouldn’t have got anywhere at all on such a wide slate.”

Even the independent evaluation commissioned by the campaign at the end of 2005 concluded that “the effectiveness of the coalition was thought to be the combination of (a) the fact that coalition members committed to work together; (b) the popular communications – this included the brand, the portfolio of tools used, media coverage, celebrity support, Live 8 and the Edinburgh rally; (c) the policy research and lobbying that supported the communications”.

My point is not that there were no tensions in the campaign about the use of celebrities and about the role of Bob Geldof in particular. There were – more than in any other campaign I’ve known. It was a hairy ride at times. My belief was that we could attempt to stay on these wild horses and somehow steer them towards success, or we could opt for a more sedate journey and risk woeful underachievement. We chose the first option. Did it work?

Ultimately the campaign should be judged against its stated objectives. A significant cancellation of debt was agreed; debt relief and additional aid worth annually $50 billion was promised (of which around half has been delivered); little progress was made on trade. Should leaders have promised more, faster and on better terms? Absolutely. Should they be collectively ashamed that we are in 2010 and a lot of their promises are still yet to be honoured? Yes they should. But are there AIDS patients now contemplating near-normal life expectancy, children now in school, parents who can audaciously begin to expect their children will live to adulthood and outlast them, because of what happened in 2005? Yes – and in my work for Save the Children and Oxfam I have seen the evidence with my own eyes.

And beyond those policy outcomes, imperfectly and uncertainly, something stirred. We saw it around the world, as the international dimension of Make Poverty History triggered an entirely new global campaigning organisation, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), which is now active in more than 100 countries and is led from the parts of the world most affected by poverty and injustice. But it was just as evident here at home. I spoke to many activists, brilliant people with decades of experience of manning stalls in high streets to sign people up to their campaigns against poverty, apartheid, debt and so on. They would speak of how – in 2005 – people would for once cross the street towards them as they approached, rather than hastily crossing to the other side.

Make Poverty History did this. 540 organisations did this. And yes, Bob Geldof and Live 8 did this too. And we will need to do it again. This summer the 1GOAL campaign seeks to use the power of football and the FIFA World Cup to secure a breakthrough on primary education, and get millions of the children into school who are currently denied the right to learn. Like Make Poverty History, that campaign will have to make some uneasy alliances.

Back on the message boards, as commentators on this topic spiral into ever-decreasing circles of cynicism and conspiracy, the simple voice of sense and proportion occasionally breaks through. “Sorry to sound like an airhead but MPH and Live 8 were both inspiring to me.” I promise it wasn’t me that wrote that post. But it illustrates perfectly the two truths of which I wish I could persuade my fellow campaigners. First: in the world out there, they think we’re all on the same side. Second: we are. And if that’s airheadedness, check the space between my ears and count me in.

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