Make Poverty History Lesson: what can it teach us 10 years on?

Published by Tony Charalambides on

You probably remember it much as I do: the white wristbands, the star-studded Live8 concert, the remarkable celebrity ‘finger click’ ads, Blair and Brown and the G8 summit engaged and involved. And all of it geared to one heartfelt plea: Make Poverty History.

In the campaign’s own words that meant: ‘trade justice, dropping the debt, and more and better aid.’ It was elegantly, stirringly simple, urgent and empowering. How could any of us say ‘no’?

But as extraordinary as it was to witness and be a part of, Make Poverty History was not without its controversies or critics – far from it.

white wristbandTen years on it has an extraordinary amount to teach us: about mobilising hundreds of thousands; about capturing public imagination; about morphing those achievements into the fundraising mechanics that make the wheels of such an ambitious campaign turn.

But I think what’s really striking about it – especially at a time when organisations like the UK’s Understanding Charities Group are grappling with the problem of encouraging nuance in public and media understanding of NGOs, and less than a year after Bond’s landmark report into public attitudes to poverty uncovered that exact same need for nuanced understanding – is the fundamental discord between the complexity of real-world poverty the powers behind it had hoped to communicate, and the streamlined message ultimately adopted to prompt masses of people stand up and join in.

It’s a reminder that the tension between the intricacies of real-life crises and their associated solutions, and the simplified way we find ourselves forced to communicate them, is nothing new in the world of charity.

And that this is one fault line we as fundraisers and campaigners will always have to step carefully around.

A masterclass in public engagement

Let’s think about all the things that Make Poverty History did right – and there were plenty of them.

MPH was a masterclass in public engagement. A rousing, extraordinarily empowering message was twinned neatly with a cavalcade of celebrity backers (an old First World War trick) and the resulting outpouring of support was vast and spectacular: in Britain 440,000 people emailed then Prime Minister Tony Blair to signal their allegiance to the campaign’s aims and close to a quarter of a million people took to the streets of Edinburgh for the flagship Make Poverty History march.

bradpittMake Poverty History wasn’t (or didn’t feel like) a fundraising campaign per se: the outstanding ‘finger click’ advertisements in which the likes of Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson and Kate Moss snapped their fingers every three seconds to mark the jaw-dropping regularity of needless child death from extreme poverty asked for only a visit to the MPH website (where the main call to action was a campaigning one). And those who attended Live8 itself were pointedly not asked to dig in their pockets (though the ‘free’ event tickets were, strictly speaking, applied for via text message that cost £1.50).

And yet it was, quietly, a fundraising phenomenon.

First of all there were the little white wristbands, totem of one’s adherence to the movement’s aims, and under-the-radar money maker too. A significant (and justified) media storm around the working conditions of those actually making the bands notwithstanding, millions bought them (some 4 million had been sold by July 2005), and given that each cost £1 (with 70 pence going to the campaign itself) they were a potent source of funds for INGOs playing a part.

Then there was the income member charities were able to raise through associated fundraising campaigns. The likes of Oxfam and ActionAid were able to ride the wave of Make Poverty History (with which they were intimately associated, Oxfam having assembled the coalition behind MPH in 2003) by incorporating it into their own campaigns, not least face-to-face, where the iconic white bands often became part of a thank you for pledges made on the street and elsewhere.

And of course there were the leads generated by the campaign action itself: almost overnight, UK INGOs had many thousands of new names on their databases interested in their work.

Success: in the eye of the beholder

But things weren’t as simple as that, and for some the subordination of the coalition’s early, pretty radical aims to a simplified (though hugely mobilising) and apolitical public-facing message ensured MPH was a failure from the word go.

On the one hand, MPH really did achieve some incredible things. Here’s a quick summary from a 2013 Oxfam online article that touches on the excellent things MPH did do:

The display of people-power led to unparalleled pressure on G8 leaders to take action at the Gleneagles Summit. They responded by committing to cancel debts owed to the World Bank, IMF, and African Development Bank and to increase annual aid to poor countries by US$50 billion by 2010.

It points out, too, that pledges made as part of the G8 summit – which few could argue weren’t influenced by the message MPH was sharing – enabled some remarkable changes worldwide including the launch of free healthcare in Zambia, and abolished primary school fees in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda (leading to millions more children enrolled in schools). Per a survey of 10 African countries with cancelled debts, they saw an approximate 40% increase in education spending, and 70% in healthcare spending.

But the problem, at least to hear some tell it, was a conflict between the campaign’s originally sophisticated message, and the techniques that made it such a public engagement phenomenon. As one insider was quoted as saying:

“Our real demands on trade, aid and debt, and our criticisms of UK government policy in developing countries (were) consistently swallowed up by white bands, celebrity luvvies and praise upon praise for Blair and Brown.”

mph_blairFor many, Make Poverty History and its core decisions makers made it easy for Blair, Brown and the UK government to co-opt its message so that they, and it, became indistinguishable from one another, even though the UK government was one of the bodies that needed to be held to account above all – and not perceived as a flag bearer for the fight for financial justice somewhere out there in the world.

And much like the enduring debate around Band Aid, there was the sense, too, that Make Poverty History and its associated communications were – once again – depicting Africa as hapless, helpless victim.

And in fact, not everything went to plan as far as deliverables were concerned: the G8’s collective $50 billion aid promise was short by $20 billion at its 2010 deadline, and European countries remain a long way off meeting their collective promise of 0.7% GNI target by 2015.

A Make Poverty History lesson

Whatever side of the fence you’re on (what matters more: huge changes achieved and hundreds of thousands engaged, or a larger, arguably more groundbreaking vision for change irretrievably lost in the process?) there are few better case studies to illustrate the perennial clash between complex truths and the limitations of language used to express them.

My own opinion is that a fundraiser’s job is to engage people quickly, as Make Poverty History did, and that once he or she has successfully captured a supporter’s attention, it’s then incumbent upon them to unpack complexity as the relationships with that supporter develops (which is supporter engagement and retention by any other name).

And in the end the simplicity of the Make Poverty History message produced public engagement that helped ensure $30 billion of aid was provided. And even if that figure was 40% short of what was originally agreed, one could argue – as I would – that it’s $30 billion more than might have been pledge without it.

But the larger question remains: can fundraisers and campaigners really communicate about need in the world and expect significant public engagement without sacrificing the depth of their message?

At a time when the initiatives like Britain’s Understanding Charities group are fusing together their combined grey matter to try and answer that question, the 10th anniversary of Make Poverty History forces us to recognise it’s never been achieved before.

And yet it also reminds us that historic firsts – of which Make Poverty History recorded many – can, and do, happen.

And that nothing is achieved without the trying.

Tony Charalambides

Tony is the Founder/Managing Director of Listen, an award-winning telephone fundraising agency based in the UK and now raising money and awareness for good causes worldwide. He has been fundraising since 2003 and is particularly interested in supporter engagement and innovation. He is a regular blogger and you can follow his tweets @Tcharalambides or e-mail him.


James M Schaffer · March 20, 2015 at 15:13

Tony, good analysis and balanced commentary. Thank you.

Sam Butler · March 22, 2015 at 09:50

Great read Tony. Campaigners and Fundraisers working together always raises conflicts of interest around brand/PR, and so messages can either get diluted, lost altogether or, as you address with Blair/Brown, stolen and taken through a reinterpretation to best suit the celebrity/political powers you’ve asked to assist. So many components in one movement will often not work!

Christian Dapp · April 14, 2015 at 10:39

Hi Tony,

Just discovered this- really like it- as James says above, a really balanced account.

I’ve never understood a lot of the controversy around MPH to be honest- to campaign or market at scale, you can’t just preach to the converted, you can’t just be marketing to the people that ‘already get it’. You’re talking to people that genuinely have no idea about the complexity of the problems. If you try and ‘teach’ in that first interaction, invariably it sounds didactic, dull and limits the conversation to those people willing to stick with it.

It goes back to that oft used line- is it simple enough for a 12 year old? If so, great. If not, try again.

Thanks, great blog.


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