Socialist Worker

A critical mass in July

Martin Drewry of Christian Aid gives his view on how public pressure has shifted the terms of the debate on poverty

Issue No. 1954

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

Picture the scene. It’s 1994 at the headquarters of the World Bank. A couple of Christian Aid lobbyists are, if not exactly being muscled out of the building, very much being asked to leave.

Their crime had been to suggest that some of the debt owed by some of the poorest countries to the World Bank should be written off.

But of course, if you did that the world’s economic system would collapse and it would be the end of civilisation as we know it. How dare an established development organisation such as Christian Aid suggest such a thing!

Fastforward four years to 1998. I drove one of Christian Aid’s partners in Tanzania to a BBC Radio 4 studio to talk about debt cancellation. It was the day before the G8 protests in Birmingham. After the interview they got a representative from the World Bank to respond.

I thought, well this should be interesting. The question was, “There’s going to be this big demonstration tomorrow outside the G8, calling for the cancellation of some of the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries to the World Bank. What do you think about that?”

The response of the World Bank official was, “The World Bank completely supports this campaign and there will be World Bank staff on that demonstration.”

So what changed? There had been lobbying going on over this issue ever since the early 1990s—not just from Christian Aid, but from all the high profile development organisations right across the world.

The difference was that in 1998 this subject became open for public debate. The debt issue had previously only really been debated in financial papers and in terms of the economy.

People gained access to the information. This subject that no one thought could be the basis of a really popular campaign became so.

And we learnt a lesson—that there is no subject so complicated that it can’t be made accessible in a popular way.

So why do we need to go to Gleneagles? First, when Nelson Mandela comes over here and says, “Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great,” he’s earned the right to say that.

We as a movement — as Make Poverty History — may not have earned that right yet. We have got a long way to go, but greatness is called for.

Every three seconds someone dies because of poverty. Every day more people die because of poverty than were killed at Hiroshima. There is no bigger issue.

And although we are not as a generation able to call ourselves great, we do have a great responsibility. We have the means to end poverty.

But why should people make their way up to Scotland? Because the Make Poverty History campaign has probably the biggest profile of any campaign in the world at present.

Unlike Band Aid some 20 years ago, this campaign doesn’t ask its supporters to put their hands in their pockets to solve the problems of poverty.

Instead it calls on them to get their arses to Scotland. The world will see this demonstration — they will see how many come. This demonstration will be televised around the world.

I think we need a critical mass of people in Scotland in July. But just getting lots of people there is not enough. There are some real demands in the Make Poverty History campaign, but there is a danger that no one will listen.

For example, last September a demonstration of around 12,000 people called for trade justice outside the Labour Party conference. And afterwards Gordon Brown came out and gave a little speech—in which he said not one syllable about the campaign.

Everyone who was there had come specifically to campaign about trade justice. But he got a standing ovation.

Now there were enough of us there who were really angry, who crowded around afterwards and made sure that they knew this was not OK. And they left with the day not going as well as they may have hoped.

But come forward to the Trade Justice Networks event in Whitehall this year, attended by thousands of people. And this time there’s a call from Gordon Brown’s office, “Can Gordon Brown send a message of support?”

We said that would be great — but if he says one syllable about anything other than trade justice, we will publicly slate him. And we couldn’t have written the message he sent better ourselves.

The point is that there has been a shift in the way these issues are discussed. But it is not nearly enough to get policy changes — yet.

That’s why people should get to Scotland and make their voices heard — but more than that. We need people with an understanding of the issues, people who will not go away, people who understand that if trade justice is not dealt with, poverty will continue to exist.

Malcolm Drewry is head of campaigns at Christian Aid. For more go to

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Sat 4 Jun 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1954
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