Real Aid: making it happen
This issue of the New Internationalist has presented six ‘Rules for Real Aid’ — ways to make aid benefit the poorest 800 million people in the world. But will donor governments take any notice? John Clark thinks they might, but only if large numbers of ordinary people give their support to a Campaign for Real Aid.
For many years the ‘development lobby’ has called for reforms in official aid. The main focus, however, has always been the quantity, rather than the quality, of aid. Ever since 1969, when the UN first called on all aid donor countries to set their aid budgets at 0.7 per cent of GNP, this magical figure has served as a convenient rallying point.
But now, disillusioned by the negative effects of much official aid, development activists are challenging donor governments to reaffirm the relief of poverty as aid’s primary purpose. A Campaign for Real Aid has begun in several aid donor countries. It may take some years for this to change official aid policies, but it can be done. The key ingredients are:
• Developing a campaign strategy through analysis of what is wrong with present aid and working out proposals for its reform.
• Mobilising public support through the media, special events like fasts and marches, public meetings and contacts with church groups, trade unions, political parties and Third World solidarity groups.
• Finding key allies in the development fraternity — aid agencies, consultancy firms, universities and colleges — and among prestigious groups such as scientists, doctors, artists, authors, church leaders and Nobel Prize winners.
• Lobbying politicians at local and national level.
• Forming local groups to initiate discussion and action.
• Presenting the case to decision-makers in the government and the civil service.
• Analysing the opposition’s case and preparing responses.
The starting point is a carefully planned campaign strategy. At the moment there are two main approaches. The first takes an unequivocal moral stand, arguing that it is a fundamental human duty to eradicate hunger and starvation from the face of the earth, and that this can be achieved with the resources at our disposal. This approach is best exemplified by the Radical Party in Italy and by the Brussels-based organisation, Food and Disarmament International. The second strategy focuses on the issue of global security. The argument of ‘mutual dependence’ between North and South, articulated so eloquently in the Brandt Report, strikes a chord with many people across a wide band in the political spectrum of the West.
There is, of course, some overlapping at the edges of these two approaches and many activists embrace them both. But they converge in suggesting that much more official aid should be channelled into projects aimed at meeting the basic needs of the poorest people in developing countries. This proposal may sound banal but it is hotly resisted in the aid capitals of the West.
How to get a Real Aid Campaign off the ground? The strength of any initiative rests on its individuality but some tried and tested campaigning techniques might give useful pointers.
Church groups are a likely base of support. In Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury, in an address to a prestigious conference on official aid in London late last year, gave valuable support to the Real Aid Campaign. Other possible support bases are some trade unions, non-governmental aid agencies, Third World solidarity groups and political parties.
In parts of Britain development activists have also set up their own Campaign for Real Aid groups. Some groups raise specific issues with their local Member of Parliament. Politicians the world over are always ready with the glib response ‘I sympathise with what you say, but unfortunately there are no votes in aid’. Mobilising public opinion so that politicians can no longer take refuge in this argument does not necessarily demand mass demonstrations, petitions with millions of signatures or general strikes. Most politicians monitor their constituents’ concerns by the letters in the mailbag or by how many voters feel strongly enough about an issue to come and argue it out in their office. Twenty individual, well-argued approaches to a politician may carry more weight than a 2000 strong march through the city centre. But well-planned, spectacular events can also be highly effective. In Rome last year 50,000 people, led by Nobel Prize winners and mayors from all over the country, marched through the streets with the slogan ‘Save 5 million lives’. This attracted widespread, favourable media coverage. In Belgium last December 140 people fasted for a week to put pressure on the government to pass a new aid bill. Three months later the Belgian government unanimously approved a special $200 million ‘Third World Survival Fund’ with the specific purpose of reducing death rates and increasing life expectancy in the world’s poorest countries.
It’s also important to follow-up politicians to check if they are keeping their promises. In Finland, an aid lobby group baked a cake for every government minister and wrote on each one the minister’s promises for improving development aid. The group presented the cakes to the ministers during a debate on the aid budget and asked if they now intended to eat their words! Not surprisingly this witty gimmick attracted sympathetic media coverage.
But no amount of gimmickry can substitute for the hard slog. An effective Real Aid group should eventually have members who can do a 10-minute local radio interview; give a short talk at the local W.I., consumers association, school, trade union or political party branch meeting: write leaflets and draw up posters, and organise special events. Finding local ‘pegs’ on which to hang the issues is important. Is there a local firm, as a group in southeast England discovered, which is building an aid-backed luxury holiday resort in a poor country? Alternatively, is there a local company, as another group found, producing railway equipment actually needed by a Third World country but not being supplied because the aid budget is badly allocated?
A shopping centre survey of public attitudes would probably show that most voters in your town think that the main purpose of aid should be the reduction of poverty in the Third World. In Britain a Gallup poll held in January 1983 showed 59 per cent in favour and only 28 per cent against Britain helping poor countries. This information should influence even the most nationalistic politician.
But no matter how well-researched our proposals for reforming official aid, one thing is certain: presenting them in a vacuum to government ministers will not, in itself, have much effect. Only when there is a groundswell of public opinion in our favour will any progress be made. We need to show that there are votes in Real Aid.
John Clark is OXFAM’s Campaigns Manager. To find out more about the Campaign for Real Aid write to John Clark, Campaigns Unit, OXFAM, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford 0X2 7DZ.