This is not about ending world hunger. It is a political stunt

Published in The Independent (June 19th, 2013)

The broadcasters fell for it, of course. Those colourful images of a “flotilla” of two longboats sailing near the venue of the G8 Summit, with aid activists wearing those hackneyed huge leaders’ heads and sails emblazoned with the slogan of the IF Campaign: Enough Food For Everyone. Who could quibble with that?

Just as with the previous weekend’s Hyde Park rally and hunger summit in Downing Street, we heard how dedicated campaigners from leading charities had forced issues of food security, poverty and tax on to the agenda, the politicians forced to bow to their brilliant campaigning and righteous message. Impressive and inspiring stuff.

Although you may have missed it, the woefully titled IF Campaign was intended as the successor to Make Poverty History that mobilised millions of people when Britain last hosted the G8 summit in 2005. Poverty, of course, was not made history, and many of the bold promises were never kept. But at least China’s rise combined with global capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions more people into greater prosperity these past eight years.

Ministers and their mates in the swollen aid industry wanted another “moment”. So they came up with something deeply cynical – a campaign designed to dupe the public. They cooked up the IF Campaign, created by charities in collaboration with the politicians who were the purported target of their pressure. It was simply a stunt to use first the Olympics and then the G8 summit to shore up support for their increasingly unpopular aid policies.

Supposedly independent charities – all trousering hefty sums of taxpayers’ cash – were warned to avoid criticism. One of those involved in discussions said they were told that since they created a mass movement in alliance with Blair’s government, they had to help the Coalition. “The implication was clear,” the source said. “Either you do this or there might be repercussions.”

The clandestine deals are disclosed in documents obtained under freedom of information. They were requested by War on Want, infuriated by the way the interests of farmers’ movements in the developing world were ignored in favour of pushing the interests of global multinationals. The Department for International Development (DfID) – which loves to pontificate about transparency – contested their release; it is still trying to block more documents about these private meetings from public gaze.

Those that have emerged reveal the manipulative nature of this campaign. The aim was simple: to “shore up support for 0.7 per cent”, that discredited target of the proportion of national income a nation should give away in aid, by finding an issue even an austerity-hit nation could coalesce around. Hence the focus on hunger – although once again, this perpetuated the false and corrosive message that fast-growing Africa was a helpless place in need of our salvation.

One DfID email in 2011 shows Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell suggesting a “golden moment”. Justin Forsyth, the former adviser to Tony Blair now running Save The Children – which is one of the biggest recipients of DfID cash – offered to mobilise a coalition in support of keeping the “home fires” of public support burning. “They agreed on the Olympics as a moment to put a flag in the ground.”

It feels highly questionable to have used this wonderful sporting festival for such nakedly political purposes. Yet you may recall, on the last day of the Games, there was a “hunger summit” at Downing Street, with gold-medal winners including Mo Farah called in to campaign against child malnutrition.

There were several more meetings between politicians, civil servants and charity chiefs as they evolved their plans, but War on Want, to its credit, refused to join such duplicitous actions. “We were told if we joined the campaign we couldn’t be critical of the Government,” said John Hilary, the executive director. “This seems a very dangerous precedent whereby NGOs are co-opted to provide cover for the government, especially when its actions are causing such devastation around the world.”

Hilary is right to be concerned about these effects. Last month, I was in a dusty Kenyan refugee camp talking to victims of the devastating consequences of British aid. I met Ethiopian farmers, among thousands of families forced off lush traditional lands farmed by their ancestors for centuries. They told me of torture and rape, of seeing friends butchered, family jailed, homes burned. These Stalin-style forced relocations are being carried out by a brutal one-party state, with much of the land then sold to foreign firms or given to cronies.

Yet Britain gives more aid to Ethiopia than anywhere else – £1.3bn over the course of the Coalition. We fund the officials carrying out these land grabs, then help build new facilities for farmers whose lives have been ripped apart. Meanwhile the Government holds summits on food, boasts about its good deeds and charity chiefs go along for the lucrative ride.

This campaign underscores the uncomfortably close relationship between major charities and Whitehall; indeed, the links with some of those feeding off the charity boom would attract huge controversy in any other industry. It was noticeable that climate change was mooted as an issue, then disappeared since presumably too politically controversial.

The hypocrisy gets worse. For the IF Campaign and the G8 summit focus also on a tax avoidance clampdown. Quite right, too. But then why was Bill Gates speaking at the Hyde Park rally and treated with such reverence by politicians, given that he made his fortune from a company that is such a grotesque tax avoider it was used as a case history in a recent US Senate inquiry? And why were other companies using tax havens invited to the hunger meeting and carrying out security for this week’s summit?

If we really wanted to tackle tax avoidance, we would use government to stop doing business with firms that fail to pay their share, shut down havens, and insist on British-listed companies publishing full details of tax payments, allowing consumers to take custom elsewhere. For all the progress made yesterday, it is far easier to hold summits, talk tough and create campaigns that milk the public than it is to take on the world’s more intractable problems.

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