NGOs, Lobbyists and the Campaigning Blob

As the pre-positioning for next year’s UK election begins in earnest, one strand of the Conservative Party strategy appears to be becoming ever clearer: an attempt to undermine organisations whose campaigns, research, or focus might produce narratives that counter the government’s assertion that we are all in this together. Conor Burn’s attack on Oxfam’s campaign on UK poverty has become part of a broader attack on NGOs, think-tanks and other organisations whose work on poverty, inequality and the effects of government policy sits close to that blurred line where charitable status meets political campaign.

Last week, Tory MP Charlie Elphicke led a debate in the House of Commons on the political independence of charities, having the likes of Oxfam in his sights, but also the left-leaning think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. In relation to the former, he denounced the campaign highlighting the impact of government policy on poverty and inequality in the UK as something that ‘could have been written by Labour Party HQ’. He followed this up with the intellectually lazy cliché of suggesting the NGO misleading ‘the hard pressed pensioner [who] donates to Oxfam … believing the money is going directly to help people in deep need – particularly overseas’ (many of the development-charity supporting ‘hard pressed pensioners’ I know have a better understanding of the politics of poverty that Mr Elphicke seems to display, and are entirely supportive of Oxfam’s campaigns overseas and in the UK).

In relation to the second focus of his attack – the IPPR – Elphicke criticised the Labour Party for out-sourcing its policy-making to the organisation; and highly conveniently fails to mention, in his criticism of IPPR links to the Labour Party, those of the right-leaning Policy Exchange to the Tory Party. Of course, there are great differences between the ‘political’ think-tanks which have always had close personal and intellectual links to whole parties, or elements within those parties, and development NGOs. But by conflating the two under an umbrella of the dangers of partisan lobbying, it becomes easier to attack all targets rather than engage in a nuanced debate.

In Sunday’s Telegraph we had another Conservative MP, this time recently-sacked Minister for the Environment, Owen Paterson moaning about the ‘green blob’ (borrowing from Gove’s own metaphor for those who disagreed with his education reforms): ‘lobbyists’, supported by ‘their industrial and bureaucratic allies’, whose sole purpose is not to improve environmental sustainability and protection, but to ‘enhance their own income streams and influence by myth making and lobbying’. Who are these core members of a Lobbyist-Industrial-Bureaucratic complex, reliant on European grants, representing no-one but their own self-interest, the ‘tangled triangle of unelected busybodies’? Why, it’s those ‘anti-capitalist agitprop groups’, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth!

Now, Greenpeace has come in for some criticism over the past few months, and as campaigning organisations, both (as with any organisation who presents research and analysis on policy and practice) should have their claims and assertions tested and challenged. But their characterisaton here is deeply misleading, and, well, wrong. Patterson is not seeking to engage with their ideas and arguments, but chanting ‘I was right, I was right’ until he hopes we lose the will to challenge him on this. His assertion that green movement doesn’t believe in improving the environment, and only he did, is the political commentary equivalent of my four year old daughter yelling at me, ‘no, you’re wrong!’ and then sticking her fingers in her ears (actually, I do her a disservice – she has moved beyond that: shame the editors of this piece didn’t ask for something a bit more substantial).

Patterson’s article is really about defending a poor record, and as such is a rather unimportant footnote at the end of the government career. Except, what is interesting is the return to the language of lobbying, influence and ‘public funds’ being used (or misused) for political campaigns. Referring to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as ‘lobbyists’ is very deliberate. It is intended to muddy the waters that separate commercial lobbying firms, or the lobbying undertaken by particular industries for their own commercial advantage, with organisations who lobby and campaign for a social purpose. It will not be long before attacks on Oxfam, or whichever development charity next seeks to campaign on a UK-focused issue, refer to them as lobbyists rather than NGOs or charities.

Ironically, given the current Tory complaints about public money going to such organisations, it was under the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s that NGOs came to be supported with public funds to an ever increasing degree. Seen as a way of bypassing the ‘governance blob’ of cumbersome, corrupt, inefficient and bloated public sectors and governments, and of bringing the efficiency of private (albeit non-profit) sector expertise to bear on issues related to poverty, support for marginalised groups, etc, governments began to channel ever more official aid spending via NGOs. Inevitably, this created tensions between organisations whose very existence was in effect a criticism of the government (for why would such organisations need to exist if government policy was working?), and those governments with whom they were now partners. It was a relationship that would inevitably, and frequently does, come back to haunt both partners: governments of all stripes who get cross at being criticised by those in receipt of official funds; NGOs who feel implicated by their linkage to those governments.

Of course, government attacks  on charitable campaigning are not new: remember Thatcher’s furious response to the Church of England’s Faith in the City report when published in 1985? However, they have been given teeth by the so-called anti-lobbying bill which is widely seen as a blunt instrument that fails to distinguish between the lobbying of, say, an oil company, and that of an anti-poverty NGO. But also by what looks to be becoming a concerted attack by Conservatives on any organisation that present a challenge to the government narrative of four years of economic success: charities, think-tanks, unions, etc.

So far the debate has been controlled by the critics of charitable campaigning, focused on the public funding aspect, or the potential misleading of hard-pressed (and presumably hard-working, to borrow another Tory mainstay) members of the donating public. The response needs to focus on the issues: on the illogicality of a politician suggesting poverty, or the environment, or social alienation, are not inherently political; on the pretence that the public-funding of charities is a left-wing policy; on the idiocy of suggesting that anti-poverty organisations can only focus on poverty ‘overseas’; and most importantly, that seeking to inform debates on poverty, environment, etc, is inherently, and must be political.

There are many legitimate and serious criticisms that can be levelled against NGOs: for the way in which they work; on their levels and processes of accountability; on their claims to represent particular constituencies; and yes, on the political influence they can bring to bear. But the current debate is not about challenging some real dilemmas of  and facing the NGO sector, rather it is about a political party seeking to limit the scope for public questioning of its own claims.

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It takes a village, revisited

So the UK government is facing a judicial review in the High Court for providing aid to Ethiopia without regard to its human rights record. As reported by the BBC and The Guardian (amongst others), an Ethiopian farmer who was forcibly resettled as part of a villagisation programme in Gambella Region in 2011, is arguing the UK government has acted unlawfully in supporting the Ethiopian government through aid payments.

The argument is that the aid provided through DFID has allowed the government to pursue its Commune Development Programme, which aims at resettling around one and a half million families in newly established ‘model’ villages. Although UK aid has not directly supported the CDP (according to DFID), the claimant accuses Britain of being complicit in the policy he says led to his violent eviction from his home, and the failure by the Ethiopian government to provide sufficient land, water or other resources to allow those evicted to survive. Failing to challenge the government on its human rights record, and by continuing to provide aid, the UK enabled the government to pursue this policy through the fungibility of aid.

I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago, when a US report criticised DFID and USAID for failing to act in the light of evidence of physical violence, intimidation and other abuses resulting from the villagisation campaign. I also noted the continued belief in resettlement as a development tool by national governments, donors and other development agencies alike, despite decades of evidence that should strongly advise caution.

This case has made the headlines (the pleasing image somehow reminiscent of Ealing comedies in which the Powers That Be are brought to book by the most unlikely of heroes). Its chances of success may be questionable (although whether that would be an appropriate finding is a very different matter). But the prospect of DFID defending its approach to monitoring good governance in the countries it supports, and in particular its rationale for why in some cases it chooses to be more forceful in making challenges against poor practice, is a juicy one.

The legal review might not tell us anything new, but it may force greater transparency on the decisions being made as to when to stay quieter than others. It will put pressure on DFID to clarify just how seriously it takes its ‘good governance’ mantra when deciding on its aid spending. We may have moved on from the Cold War years, when tyrants and dictators were endured provided they were ‘our’ dictators and tyrants. But there is no doubt that if you are considered to be a strategically important regional power, considerations other than respect for human rights, ‘good governance’ and constitutional niceties come into play (yes, I’m looking at both of you, Rwanda and Uganda).

But of course, as I noted in the last blog, it isn’t just donors who have been engaged in supporting large scale, and deeply controversial resettlement campaigns. Tanzanian villagisation drew into its orbit a host of otherwise impeccably liberal-credentialed NGOs and activists. Elsewhere, during the 1985-86 Ethiopian famine, money raised by NGOs and other charitable giving was used in a resettlement campaign that was highly political. Indeed, Band Aid (the organisation which dominated the headlines of the humanitarian response) supported some of the relocation camps, choosing to see the programme as developmental rather than part of the Derg’s war effort against Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels in the north. Here the result for tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, was not just violence and destitution (a bad enough outcome), but death.

These failures may be at the extreme end – support for interventions that culminate in human rights abuses, violence and deaths on a massive scale – but dark outcomes resulting from good intentions are not unusual, nor should they be unexpected. Development interventions have resulted in sufficiently frequent harm that they cannot simply be ignored as isolated cases.

This case raises the question as to whether development interventions can result from deals made between national governments and donors, or whether participation from those directly involved must be taken seriously. That would make policy formulation and implementation more of a challenge, but people cannot simply be treated as parts of a machine to be manipulated and moved about without regard to their own agency to achieve ‘Development’. For development without acknowledging the individual and communal human impact is not development at all. The legal challenge may not result in substantial change to DFID and broader donor policy, but it may add momentum to debates on how meaningful accountability can be improved, for all development actors, not just donors; and for how the voices of those who are forced to leave their homes as part of the Drive Forward can be better listened to and understood by all.

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Oxfam and Conor Burns’ perfect storm of manufactured outrage

Conor Burns, who a few weeks ago reported the British charity, Oxfam, to the Charity Commission, alleging it had broken laws governing what constitutes charitable activity by directly engaging in an “overtly political” campaign, is now calling for all charities to be prohibited from political campaigns using public funds.

Burns was “shocked” (I imagine he gasped, and clasped both hands over his mouth at the sheer horror) at an anti-poverty organisation pointing out that cuts to welfare support might be making things worse for many people.

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Actually, what he was really objecting to was less theposter and twitter campaign, and more the efforts to persuade people to contact their MP with a pre-prepared letter pointing out how many people in the UK need to use food-banks due to the ‘perfect storm’ of high prices, low wages, and welfare cuts. Writing to (Conservative Party appointed) Chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, Burns stated the campaign was “aimed at the policies of the current government”. In interviews later he said:

Many people who support Oxfam will be shocked and saddened by this highly political campaigning in domestic British politics

Burns is my MP, and absolutely apropos of nothing, recently sent letters to all his constituents encouraging us to write to the committee exploring plans to build an offshore windfarm 9 miles off the West Dorset coastline to argue against it (apparently the existence of Europe’s largest onshore oilfield in Poole Harbour is one thing, but wind turbines 9 miles offshore will destroy Bournemouth’s tourist industry).

But back to the issue at hand. I found it interesting that Burns tried to draw attention to the supposed anomaly of an organisation dedicated to anti-poverty overseas undertaking a domestic UK campaign. “Most of us operated under the illusion”, Burns said, “that Oxfam’s focus was on the relief of poverty and famine overseas”. If Burns thinks Oxfam only works on overseas poverty, and not that in the UK, he hasn’t really been paying attention to the work of this, or any of the main UK-based development / anti-poverty NGOs.

But more significantly, it is yet another reminder of the politics of poverty. Wearing my history hat (the favourite of my hats), the comments reminded me of how, in the mid-1960s, charities who sought to focus on poverty, rather than solely humanitarian disasters, were similarly accused of being political, and hence acting outside their permitted boundaries. In the early 1960s, the Charity Commission became concerned with ‘development’ projects being undertaken by organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, the British branch of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, and other UK charities. It argued that whilst campaigning and raising money for ‘relief’ (in times of natural or human made disaster) was appropriate charitable activity as defined by the law, ‘development’ was not. In a 1962 report, the Commission wrote:

…propaganda and advocacy for legislation, whether in this country or overseas, have been described by the courts as political, and not charitable; so, too, has the promotion of international friendship. (Cited in Jennings, Surrogates of the State)

Two years later, in 1964, the Charity Commission announced an enquiry into the activities of those charities with an overseas development focus (with Oxfam very much in its sights). Luckily, the House of Lords came to the rescue, pronouncing humanitarian aid for development to constitute charitable giving, and the evolution of the main British overseas development NGOs could continue to create the sector we have today.

So ‘development’ and campaigning against poverty has always been political (as any first year Development Studies student could tell Mr Burns). They have also long been the subject of efforts to control and limit by those who feel they are the potential targets of such campaigns. This attack is the latest salvo in a struggle that will continue as long as their are politicians and governments whose interests can be damaged by unhelpful interventions criticising their policies.

So Burns is right, Oxfam’s campaign is political. It is deeply political. But that is because poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation are the result of political decisions: decisions about what welfare is or is not provided; decisions on regulations concerning minimum wages or what types of worker protections are to be enforced; decisions on economic policies; decisions on laws, etc. Burns knows this, of course. Indeed, he campaigns on the fact that political decisions affect people’s wellbeing, arguing for his party’s policies over others. So why so coy about the politics of poverty now?

As for his latest proposals that charity UK-based campaigns should not be funded from the public purse (around which a consensus seems to be building that some reforms might actually appear in October), it is far from clear that this is actually an issue. UK aid channelled through NGOs is given for specific programmes, not to general pots that can be used for any purpose the organisation chooses. But there is an important principle here. Are we really to advocate the closing down of voices of dissent because they challenge government policy?

If you are in government, or any position of power, you cannot expect your policies to go unchallenged if they are causing harm. To try to stifle the ability of NGOs to represent the interests of the poor, or of marginalised communities, is disingenuous, dangerous and indicative of a fear that they may have it right. Moreover, where does the ‘public funds should not be used to support political campaigns’ principle stop? Should academics in British universities be stopped from criticising government policies, in the UK and overseas, because they are supported by the public purse?

This is not to say that campaigns from NGOs cannot and should not be challenged. Their evidence should be challenged; their conclusions tested. Governments can fight back and fight back hard. But to try to pretend that the existence of poverty is apolitical? To argue that organisations whose self-declared objective is to address poverty and the causes of poverty should only be allowed to speak about the policies of other governments, those overseas? What nonsense. If you really believe poverty is not political, Mr Burns, what on earth are you doing in Westminster?

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Conor Burns has pointed out in interviews that the criticism of his comments and actions have come from lefties and supporters of the Labour Party. In the spirit of openness, in case it wasn’t clear, I didn’t vote for Burns in the last election, and won’t be in the future. Whether that devalues my opinions, that’s for you to judge.

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Escaping the realities of the health care system – at your expense.

There’s nothing like allowances for representatives of national assemblies to really get people fired up. Annoyed as people get about MPs salaries, it’s the perks that lurk below the headline wage that cause righteous spluttering and indignation. The UK’s parliamentary expenses scandal that erupted in 2009 resulted in resignations, de-selections, and even jail sentences for those MPs unable to come up with even the barest semblance of a plausible reason as to why they should pay rent to their partner, have their hedges trimmed, or buy new toilet seats or duck houses with public money (OK, the duck house claim was actually rejected – but the picture of some hapless MP trying to argue it was legitimate is too good not to mention).

The salaries and benefits of MPs in Tanzania and Kenya have in recent years come under fire. In Tanzania, reports over the past few months – denied by government – that MPs have received increases to their salaries and benefits (including a grant of $98,000 when they leave parliament, and a 285% increase in sitting allowances) has caused a scandal. In Kenya, Kibaki may have vetoed a planned pay rise that would have made Kenyan MPs the highest paid in the world, but in 2012 MPs quietly voted substantial increases in benefits packages.

But it’s not all about the monetary benefits. Less often commented upon, but equally (or perhaps even more) pernicious, are the health benefits that accrue to those with power. For legislators, it seems, health care in Europe’s finest hospitals and clinics is one such perk. In Tanzania, MPs, their spouse and up to four children under the age of 18 are provided with medical insurance that will cover ‘treatment within the United Republic and abroad‘ (my emphasis). Up until last year, Kenya was more generous in the scope of its coverage, allowing for up to two spouses and eight children. Changes in 2013 mean one spouse and four children up to the age of twenty-five can be treated in US or European hospitals, as well as in private wards of local hospitals, with cover worth up to $115,000 for in-patient procedures (as well as support for outpatient treatment, maternity, dental and optical support).

Now there’s nothing wrong with the principle that health insurance should be part of the benefits package of MPs. But paying for treatment abroad might be. Isn’t it a bit of a problem if they don’t have to come into contact with the same conditions politicians are ultimately responsible for ensuring government provide to the rest of their compatriots? If MPs are not subject to the same problems, delays and difficulties in accessing decent health care, where is their incentive to improve it (or their ability to really understand the nature of the challenges?).

In the UK, the annual September hunt for the cabinet minister who sends their child to a private school is a long tradition. What kind of vote of confidence is it, critics ask, if government members won’t send their kids to the type of establishment the rest of us use for ours? The difference is that this is not subsidised by the public purse: if you think your child will only reach their potential in the rarefied corridors of Eton or St Paul’s, you have to pay from your own salary. Similarly, if you want to be treated by a Harley Street doctor rather than go to the local NHS hospital, you need to fork out yourself.

Of course, one could hope that MPs can and will champion issues they have no direct experience of. You don’t have to have been a victim of domestic violence to realise its horrific impact and push for reforms to end it and provide support for those in fear. And, in Tanzania and Kenya as elsewhere, many do act on such principles. But giving people the opportunity to escape from the realities of poorly functioning services can have dangerous consequences. There’s nothing like knowing your health and wellbeing depends on a broken system to provide an incentive to make sure it is fixed. And if the state cannot stop the rich escaping such perennial pressures of everyday life, it certainly should not be subsidising them. If the elite want to make use of the private clinics of Europe, North America and elsewhere, let them pay for it themselves out of their (already generous) salaries.

An aside: Tellingly, perhaps, the Tanzanian act, outlining the benefits package to MPs, writes of the “Member of Parliament … [and] his family”. I haven’t read through the entire text of the Kenyan equivalent, but on first glance couldn’t see any similar assumptions as to the sex of the MP.

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Museveni, the Anti-Homosexuality Law, and the politics of the succession

So Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill has finally been passed, after years of ‘will it, won’t it’ to-ing and fro-ing, signed by President Museveni at the end of February. The law has been modified from its original iteration – the death penalty for so-called ‘aggravated homosexuality’ was dropped a while back, and the clause which criminalised those who failed to report LGBTs has similarly been taken out – but it is still a virulent and horrific attack on the rights of LGBTs in a country in which homosexuality was already illegal, and those believed to be gay subject to intimidation and attack.

I’ve spent the past six or seven years following the unfolding story of the rise in homophobia (a word that doesn’t really do justice to the absolute hatred towards LGBTS held by many) in Uganda. Much has been written about the role of foreign and local Christian organisations, the incitement to intimidation that has been the very public ‘outings’ undertaken by certain Ugandan newspapers, and the potential impact of the various clauses of the new law.

What I am more interested in here is why Museveni has so publicly signed the bill now, risking his reputation with donors and setting up an inevitable confrontation with the US and the EU.

Since the 1990s, Museveni has been one of the most successful of African leaders in promoting himself as a vital and strategic ally to western powers, and a staunch supporter (and promoter) of economic reforms pushed by various donors and international finance organisations. He has done this by manipulating conflict in northern Uganda, the existence of various rebel groups (some of which appear to rest more in Ugandan government rhetoric than in reality) in neighbouring countries, and the attacks by Islamic militants in the country linked to Uganda’s involvement in Somalia. Through these, it has been able to define itself to western government audiences as both a victim of terror, and a vital ally in the Global War on Terror that begun in the early 2000s. Allying this with just enough verbal (if not necessarily actual) commitment to economic reform, it has done a very clever job in muting criticism of its governance record, of the rampant Third Termism, of which Museveni was a prime example, or of escalating military expenditure (defended as needed to counter domestic and international security threats which would also affect western strategic interests).

At the same time, Museveni has been manoeuvring within Ugandan politics to ensure he is seen as the indispensable leader – the only one who can protect Uganda against security threats from terrorists, and challenges to Ugandan independence from donors. Over the past decade he has done all he can to undermine political opponents (whether branding them as traitors or terrorists, or banning marches and media criticism). He secured his third term as president, following the now traditional route of constitutional change. And he has presented himself to Ugandans as a nationalist leader at his prime.

On the broader East African stage, Museveni’s regional ambitions have seen him described as ‘the Napoleon of Africa’ (I can’t remember who by, I’m afraid, but interestingly it echoes a longer-standing nickname of his, albeit for different reasons). So alongside Uganda’s presence in Somalia, and involvement in South Sudan, we also see Kikwete rapidly written out of the story of efforts to reconcile Odinga and Kibaki during the post-election violence in 2007-08. Museveni is determined that he personally is seen as the regional leader to whom others turn for advice, support and mediation.

I think it is within this context that we need to see the vacillations of Museveni over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Since the bill was first introduced as a private members bill back in October 2009, it has been delayed, promised rapid action, delayed again, as Museveni has alternatively assured he would, then would not sign any bill passed by parliament. He has been seeking to address two different constituencies: donors, with his promises to water down, or even reject the bill, designed to show them that in Ugandan politics they cannot do without him to defend their interests as well as those of political and economic reform; and Ugandan citizens, to whom he casts himself as the protector of Ugandan values and independence against donors who would seek to enforce alien values (an image of the strong nationalist which also plays neatly into his regional ambitions). His actions also undermine the opposition: should they support the bill (which clearly resonates with much, but by no means all, opinion), risking making themselves look irrelevant and giving tacit support to Museveni’s claims to be defender of Ugandan autonomy; or should they garner the support of donors by rejecting it, but potentially undermining their credibility within Uganda?

This strategy has been highly successful over the past four or so years. Museveni has faced criticism from donors, but little that has seriously challenged his political hegemony. So why has he signed the bill now? Presumably the balance between donors and internal politics has shifted to the latter, and Museveni sees more political capital to be made from being seen as supporter of the bill and defiant against the donors. Perhaps the calculation has taken on board that donors have been reluctant to challenge seriously the regime over long-standing accusations of illegal detention, torture and even extra-judicial killings of opposition leaders and supporters, so why would it start taking notice now over a bill that targets LGBTs (a reading that may prove wrong, but probably not – donor indignation tends to be short-lived and short-sighted). Aid levels (and hence dependency) has been falling since 2009, which may have further tipped the scales in the calculation, and in any case some donors are already up in arms about corruption allegations. So how much is there to lose from angering this particular audience?

But underpinning the strategy must be thoughts as to his own political future and succession, especially with reports and rumours of internal divisions and disarray amongst the inner circle. Right now, to secure that future, Museveni needs to burnish his nationalist (rather than donor darling) credentials. And if, as previously in Uganda, in Kenya, and countless other examples, donor outrage soon peaks, Museveni’s gamble will look as if it has paid off.

Whatever the reasons, the result is that life for LGBTs and organisations set up to defend their rights, will become harder. LGBTs have long faced serious intimidation, violence and the threat of death in Uganda, especially since the late 2000s when attitudes and hatreds significantly worsened. But for the political elite, the law, homosexuality, and LGBTs have become pawns to be used to further personal and party ambitions. Will donors make a difference, when they have so spectacularly failed to do so in other instances of gross violations of rights? Let’s see.

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NGOs, Journalists and the media: because even NGOs have PR teams

When I read a review of a hotel in the travel section of my favourite newspaper, the fact of who has paid for the accommodation is usually stated somewhere at the bottom: accommodation was provided by a travel company / the hotel, etc. In the Observer restaurant review, Jay Raynor pays for his food himself, and actively resists the freebies that might accrue from a chef desperate to curry favour. In refereed journals, published research should as a matter of course identify the funding which supported the work.

Different examples, but one common theme: I want to know whether the review I am reading might possibly be coloured by a complimentary bottle of Petrus or a freely-provided suite. And I especially want to know whether research that tells me how good ACME Cure-fast is for healing all ills has been funded by the ‘independent’ ACME Foundation for Encouraging Tame Researchers to Say What We Want Them To. The same applies to stories on the news: have they been ‘placed’ by a PR company, ‘spun’ by the spokesperson of a government department, and who has written the narrative – the journalist or someone else?

This week George Alagiah was presenting a number of pieces on South Sudan across the BBC news platforms. They were interesting and good reports. One was on maternal and child health care services, and the tragedy of the number of newborns who die within 24 hours of birth. The interviews with mothers who had recently lost their children were sensitively done for the most part.

But in this report, a few things stood out. The health clinic with whom the reporter was travelling was, we were told, supported by Save the Children. Save the Children logos on the clothes of those being filmed, and on the cars George and his team were travelling in, were prominent. The story was linked to a report and campaign being launched by the NGO, and its Chief Executive Justin Forsyth spoke from South Sudan to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Now of course, there is nothing wrong with this campaign, nor with its being reported. But it is a reminder of how many news stories across much of sub-Saharan Africa are driven (and the narrative shaped and controlled) by NGOs. This is by no means an egregious example – this is certainly not the mess of media reporting that was Goma in the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Save the Children, from ensuring its branding is on display, and being identified as the sole supporter of the hospital at Nimule, is in the driving seat. At one point it was reported that ‘according to Save the Children’, around 4,100 children die within their first 24 hours of life. But this isn’t a figure that comes from the NGO. It comes from WHO statistics. It may seem a rather petty thing to be concerned with, given the tragedy and horror that statistic points underscores, but surely responsible reporting should be going to the source (I would, for example, expect my students to go to the original source)

There is widespread concern that too many media stories are driven by NGOs who provide not only access, transport, and ‘facts’, but more worryingly, the narrative as well. Indeed, I have heard George Alagiah himself voice concern on this precise issue. This is not to say NGOs should not get their campaigns, findings or concerns on the news; nor that journalists should not engage with NGOs. But more care needs to be taken to both assert media independence and provide full transparency. Where reporters are given access via an NGO, use their transport, are taken to particular areas or facilities by an organisation, this needs to be clearly stated during the report. Surely no-one believes any more than just because the organisation is a humanitarian one, it is free from questions of self-interest in the shaping of narratives?

NGOs have private interests, as much as altruistic humanitarian objectives. Just as we should be careful of the PR experts who spin government stories, and rightly mock the shambles of Mastercard’s PR company trying to dictate what journalists should say in return for tickets to the Brits, we also need the media to ensure full and open independence from even those organisations whose humanitarian motives would seem to be honourable and decent. Above all, let’s not forget that NGOs have increasing numbers of very professional, very skilled PR teams whose job is to raise the profile of the organisation and its campaigns. And the job of journalists should be to make use of, but not be driven by, those PR teams, no matter what kind of organisation they work for.

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A nudge, a shove, but little respect

It used to be an old joke that sociology was the study of people in rich industrialised countries, and anthropology the study of the poor in poor countries. All very unfair, but I was reminded of it when hearing the news about a trial project in the UK offering money to women who continue to breastfeed their babies for up 6 months. Described by various newspapers and broadcasters as the politics of the nudge (offering incentives of various kinds to encourage healthy behaviour), it would be known as a conditional cash transfer were such a scheme to operate in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Those of us in the global north need to be nudged to be virtuous, those in the global south, bribed.

The scheme, which is being trialled in ‘deprived’ areas of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire before being rolled out as a national pilot (if successful) will give women up to £200 in shopping vouchers if they breastfeed for the first six months of their child’s life. According to those running the scheme, the vouchers will act as incentives to promote behaviour that is seen as providing better health outcomes for children (and for mothers too).

The politics of the nudge may have a fancy name, may be seen as the gentle, encouraging look of the nanny state (rather than its punitive, “I’m very disappointed with you” variant). But it is, of course, nothing new (calling something a new name doesn’t suddenly give it a different provenance). Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) act in precisely the same way: offering cash provided the established conditions are met, be it children attending school, taken for their vaccinations, etc.

It may be that it works, but as with the underlying premise behind CCTs, it does rest upon a set of assumptions that are problematic at best. It assumes that the key reason women do not breastfeed for six months (surveys suggest that around 55% of women are still breastfeeding at eight weeks, although that falls to a quarter in more economically deprived areas) is economic. Or rather, that economic incentives will be enough to overcome other barriers. But of course (and whilst I can claim no direct knowledge of this, I do remember my wife’s experiences with our first born) breastfeeding is hard. My wife was lucky: she had excellent support in the midwife-led maternity unit, and attended a friendly breastfeeding support group. But not all new mothers are lucky enough to receive this support. Decent structures being put in place, rather than resorting to bribery, would be a far better use of resources. Explaining the benefits of breastfeeding, and accepting that some (perhaps for good reason, perhaps not) will not follow that behaviour, rather than castigating those who fail to live up to the expected standards, is surely a better idea.

There is a second problem with the politics of the nudge / CCTs. As Jishnu Das writes in his blog, both assume that the outcome is better. But they do not say better for whom, or for what. Attaching conditions to cash transfers, or seeking to bribe, sorry, nudge, people into good behaviour assumes that there is broad agreement on what constitutes ‘good’ behaviour. But more than that, it implies that behaviour or activities that do not accord with this are implicitly bad, something to be changed. In doing so, it not only denies agency to individuals, but sets up unhelpful distinctions between good and bad behaviour, and from that good and bad people. And how long do nudges need to be ignored before the temptation starts to start shoving a little harder? As Das notes, there is a big difference between children being sent to school, and children actually learning.

Won’t somebody think of the children!
Of course, in the case of CCTs (and in the case of nudging towards breastfeeding, if the pilot does appear to raise rates), the cry will go up that even if we think people should be able to make decisions about their own behaviour and life more widely, what about the children who may be denied school, denied the health benefits of breastfeeding, etc. as a result of ‘selfish’ (or ‘bad’) decisions made by their parent(s), and it’s a fair point. The state does have a responsibility to step in when children are being denied services to which they are entitled (or which carers are legally required to provide). But unless actual harm is being done, surely we have to respect the decisions of individuals? And don’t the poor have as much right to make decisions as the rich (who aren’t targeted by CCTs or shopping vouchers)? Apparently not: in publicly funded schools in the UK, parents can no longer take children out of school for holidays, or even family weddings. Such restrictions don’t apply to the privately-schooled (not by government regulation, in any case).

One could also say that governments nudge all the time: by taxing cigarettes to discourage smoking; taxing fuel or cars with heavy emissions, for environmental reasons, etc. But shopping vouchers is on a different scale. The pilot may succeed in increasing breastfeeding rates. But whether this is the best way to achieve that, on a sustainable basis, and for more than a relatively small number of mothers and children, is questionable. And whilst some may see this as a rigorous test of the viability of the scheme, it is nothing of the sort: why not try another pilot alongside, say increasing welfare support for the most deprived, coupled with investment in post-birth support for new mothers, and see what difference that makes. Testing one scheme may show an increase. But it certainly won’t show whether it is the best approach.

Nudges and CCTs have a place, and there is plenty of evidence that CCTs are linked to positive results (although here we are back to Das’ point, positive for whom?). But so have unconditional cash transfers. The lesson is perhaps we should trust people more to make decisions over their Iives, and seek to address the social, economic, political, and structural barriers that prevent them putting those decisions into effect.

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