News: GJN asks – is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

If you’ve read the blog, you might be aware that I’m not exactly the greatest supporter of The Gates Foundation. Our team at The Rules criticised their ‘Narrative Project’, which invested much in pushing foreign aid as a solution to global poverty and inequality; and I have called them out on here for Melinda’s use of patriarchal language to talk about ‘development‘ and the organisation’s neoliberal agenda – I just don’t think they’re good news.

So it was really good to see UK organisation Global Justice Now releasing an important research project today: ‘Gated Development – is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?’, which examines how it is pushing a corporate vision of development features.

The report demonstrates that the trend to involve business in addressing poverty and inequality is central to the priorities and funding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and argues that this is far from a “neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation. Big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities, despite evidence to show that business solutions are not the most effective.”

Global Justice Now suggests that, for the foundation in particular, there is an overt focus on technological solutions to poverty. They argue that while technology should have a role in addressing poverty and inequality, long term solutions require social and economic justice which “cannot be given by donors in the form of a climate resilient crop or cheaper smartphone, but must be about systemic social, economic and political change – issues not represented in the foundation’s funding priorities.”

One of the most poignant parts of the report for me is where it highlights the fact that despite the Gates Foundation’s aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices. Global Justice Now is concerned that the foundation’s influence is so pervasive that many actors in international development, which would otherwise critique the policy and practice of the foundation, are unable to speak out independently as a result of its funding and patronage – this is something I certainly have witnessed explicitly speaking to organisations and people working within the development sector.

Specifically, the report calls on the OECD to undertake an independent international review and evaluation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and the UK’s International Development Select Committee to conduct an inquiry into the relationship between DFID and the foundation and the impact and effectiveness of any joint activity in addressing poverty and inequality.

Read the full report here >>

It’s also been featured in the UK’s Independent newspaper, which you can read here.

Let me know what you think – is the Gates Foundation a force for good or an exercise in rampant neoliberalism…?

NEWS: Modi critic under investigation in India amid crackdown on foreign charities

According to Reuters India’s leading crime-fighting agency registered a case on Wednesday against a prominent critic of the prime minister for accepting foreign funds, amid concerns that overseas charities are interfering in the country’s domestic affairs.

An official at the Central Bureau of Investigation said Teesta Setalvad faces charges of fraud, misappropriation of funds and violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. She did not respond to a request for comment.

A home ministry official said an investigation by government auditors revealed her non-governmental organization, Sabrang Trust, was accepting funds from the U.S.-based Ford Foundation without government permission.”The NGO was cheating the government and even the donors,” said a senior home ministry official, requesting anonymity. Since the start of the year, India’s government has canceled the registration of nearly 9,000 charities for failing to declare details of donations from overseas. Earlier this year, the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, was put on a watch list after the home ministry said it was investigating the funding to Setalvad’s group. A spokesperson for the Ford Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Critics have argued that the government’s crackdown is an attempt to stifle the voices of those who oppose Modi’s agenda. Setalvad has pursued legal cases against Modi accusing him of failing to stop anti-Muslim rioting in 2002 when at least 1,000 people died in attacks on his watch as chief minister of Gujarat. Modi denies the accusations.

(Reporting By Rupam Jain Nair; Editing by Andrew MacAskill)

Life-changing letters – An open letter to international development charities…

Dear Mercy Ships and Plan and the many others for whom this is relevant,

I know that you have the best of intentions. I know that really I should be writing to the corporate elite, the banks, the investors, the off-shorers, the mining multinationals, the Big Pharma, the fund managers…

But the letters I received through the door from you the other morning are dangerous. They’re dehumanising, they’re ‘othering’, they’re disempowering, they’re telling people in the UK stories that aren’t true; making them believe that the world’s problems, and their guilt, can be alleviated ‘for less than the price of a packet of crisps’. And you need to take responsibility for that.

Let’s examine the stories you’re telling…


“You could change a life for less than the price of a packet of crisps”

“Children like Rosa are waiting for a sponsor – a sponsor like you”

“One in five children born in the poorest countries won’t live to see their fifth birthday. The lack of something simple as clean water to drink, leads to the appalling loss of so many promising young lives. Millions of children go without education or opportunities, and live without hope of things ever changing… But if you become a child sponsor with Plan, you could make a better life possible for a child, their family and their community.”

Mercy Ships

“Without urgent medical care, children like Memuma will die. Will you help us reach them before it’s too late?”

“I had to warn you. I had to let you know that the picture of Memuna that you can see above is upsetting.”

“…without Mercy Ships, children like Memuna, in the remotest, poorest parts of our world, don’t have a chance. Without medical care, they’ll never be able to see, walk or be free of deformity again.”

“If it [Memuna’s tumour] had gone untreated it would have killed her in the most agonising way imaginable. But thanks to kind supporters just like you, I was able to remove her tumour.”

“Thank you on behalf of every child we can save together.”

NB: I also completely take issue with the name of your charity. Mercy = “compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” With this choice of name you have immediately elevated yourselves to a position of power over those you want to ‘help’, disempowering them and reducing their ‘salvation’ to an act of mercy, rather than a matter of social justice, equality and humanity.

Your words and images reduce people to a spectacle. You remove their agency and their power. You make them ‘different’. You reduce them to graphic photographs, to heart-wrenching descriptions, to painful voyeurism, to their problems. You take away their history and their experiences, their feelings and the full spectrum of their being. You make the impossible seem possible. You make them a salve for a consciousness that ignores that fact that in the world today people are poor, because ‘we’ are rich. You put value on ‘promising young lives’ and not lives; You reduce lives to the value of a packet of crisps.

Most dangerous of all, is that you allow people to think that we’re separate from all of ‘this’. That we’re different. That the actions we take here, the system we’re complicit in, the things we buy, the choices we make, don’t affect people around the world. You’re not telling the truth. You’re telling stories. And that’s why things aren’t changing.

All I keep playing over and over in my head are the words of Nick Dearden, Managing Director of Global Justice Now, who recently wrote in an article in Red Pepper:

But over the past two decades, the war on global poverty has been subverted and co-opted. In an age when obscene wealth became once again something to boast about, those big campaign groups and politicians concerned about poverty moved with the times. To keep ‘poverty’ relevant to Thatcher’s children, they gutted it of political content. Through the new concept of ‘extreme poverty’, it became possible both to believe in me-first individualism and free market economics, and to care about the very poor.’

Not possible. The two are mutually exclusive.

I really appreciate what you’re trying to do, and I’m sure a lot of people will diasgree with me, but, it’s time to tell different stories, and campaign for real change. Honestly, we all know that Ali from Finsbury Park’s 50p a week isn’t going to change the fate of developing countries and those living in them, when the West is taking billions of pounds resources out of Africa every year, when the World Bank is run by a handful of powerful countries, when John in New York’s congratulating himself on moving another $50m into his offshore account. It’s a big task I know, but you’re in the position to educate people about what’s going on and call for real, lasting, earth-trembling change. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but telling the truth is a good start…

Yes Memuna has a tumour, and she’s unlikely to have access to medical care. But why not talk about the fact that “The World Trade Organization (WTO) enforced the privatisation of health care and opened the developing countries health markets to Western Health Care industries. In 1995 the WTO-GATS agreement (on trade and services) prevented signatory governments from providing subsidised goods and services in the health sector for which there is market demand.” This is just ONE tiny example of how Western neoliberalism isn’t playing fair in healthcare, you can read plenty more here.

Yes Rosa lives in a “tiny one room shack with her mother, sister and another young family…She was forced to leave school, as her mother could no longer afford the fees.” But, before you get me started on the effect of neoliberalism on education; Rosa’s life isn’t going to improve with a daily donation of 50p from a Western saviour. What we need is an international political and economic system that’s equal. Where all countries have a say in making the rules, where trade is actually fair, where countries have autonomy over their choice of leadership and over their economies, their politics and their cultures. Where we talk about how much Europe benefited from colonialism and slavery and continues to do so. Where leaders who challenge Western models of capitalism and neoliberalism aren’t assassinated. Also, don’t tell people that Rosa’s sat in (insert African country here), waiting for a sponsor like them, as if that’s all she knows and all she has to live for. You know that’s not true, although you probably haven’t asked. You haven’t given her a voice.

I know it’s a tough position to be in, but you’re in a position of serious responsibility. Real justice isn’t going to come from a place of guilt. It’s not going to come from a place that perpetuates damaging stereotypes or misinformation. I don’t have the answers, but:

  • Why not stop writing to the public asking them for money, and instead write to them (because I agree that we should all take more responsibility for what’s going on on this planet) to let them know what’s really going on. Tell them what the UK government and the businesses we buy from are really responsible for, so people can make informed choices about who to vote for/buy from. You can also ask them to campaign/educate/raise awareness and demand change.
  • Ramp up campaigns targeting those who lead global inequality and that we blindly follow.
  • And finally, if you insist on continuing with donor-supported fundraising requests. PLEASE please PLEASE sort your messaging out. For many people living in the UK, their only experience of ‘developing’ countries comes via you lot, or the media, and we know how representative that really is… You have a responsibility to tell the TRUTH about what’s really going on in these countries and for the people living in them.
  • And why not actually AMPLIFY the voices of those you speak of. Instead of searching for stories of woe and projecting your own stories to suit your aims, why not ask people in developing countries what they want the UK to know? Why not speak to the hundreds of thousands of vocal, mobile, passionate people living in ‘developing countries’ or ex-pats who are angry and active on these issues and give them more air time here.

Do you really think things in the world are going to change if everyone in the UK thinks that everyone in the global south needs ‘saving’ and that it’s something that we’re capable of giving with a fleeting moment of guilt and a monthly financial donation. That it’s possible without giving anything up or standing up, without learning and listening and taking responsibility for the lives we live, the systems we create and the world we make every day?

Advertising aid – the good, the bad and the ugly

I had intended to post about this a long time ago, but hey, it’s better late than never eh? You might remember back in November last year, I posted a parody video Who Wants to be a volunteer? by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund.

Back in December, they held their annual Rusty Radiator Award in Oslo for charities using damaging development stereotypes in their advertising campaign. You’ll know from reading my previous posts that I believe that these stereotypes are not only unfair on those people portrayed in the adverts, but also perpetuates disempowering misconceptions and hinders long-term, effective development.

The winner of the award, as decided by social media voters, was South African aid organisations Feed A Child advert, the MOST ridiculous and offensive portrayal of a white women feeding a black child like a dog.

Jury’s comments: Completely ‘White Saviour’. David had to turn it off after 10 seconds. Racism isn’t something of 200 years back, it’s something very present in South Africa today. It’s interesting how this was produced by one of the biggest advertising companies in the world, and how they got it so very wrong. The message doesn’t justify using the same stereotypes to both raise awareness and steal agency. The poor are already depicted as incapable of their own rescue, now they are being compared to dogs. What next? Is there a score worse than 0?

Others shortlisted, include:

Hunger Stops Here – Concern Worldwide

Jury’s comments: “What mother would put their suffering kid in the middle of the sun and just sit there? This is straight up staged, with shocking images of children in HD. You would never put an American kid in an ad like this, because there’s too much dignity given to the privacy of the children. It promotes every stereotype about malnutrition, and tries to encourage giving and donation out of guilt. It’s like they found them by the roadside just waiting to die.”

The Most Important “Sexy” Model Video Ever – Save The Children USA

Jury’s comments: Uhm, wow. We’re speechless. They just got it wrong. This is an attempt to get Facebook likes and clicks by putting sex and poverty together. By using celebrities in this fashion, the message becomes hollow and meaningless. The models are made to look stupid. “I detest this kind of bullying. This video made me cringe”, says David

What Does Poverty Look Like? – CCF Canada

Jury’s comments: The winner of the Rusty Radiator 2013 is back! We thought we were watching a parody of it. They are basically using the same scenes they always use, we’d like to know how old these shots are. “Do you know what poverty looks like” – does it look like a person? Who talks about a human being like that? Teddy describes it as “poverty porn, white saviour complex, over-simplification to the causes of poverty to the missing $1 silver bullet solution to poverty”, and Boima as “everything that’s wrong with fundraising”. “I am amazed that this would run at any TV-station in the world”, says Rosebell.

The winner of the Golden Radiator Award, goes to the fundraising videos using creativity and creating engagement. In 2014, it was Save The Children UK’s Most Shocking Second a Day video

Jury’s comments: Any advocacy ad that can put you in the middle of the situation instead of casting people and situations you’d never imagine is a good one. This video presents conflict porn without overwhelming you with it, because you are so invested in this girl’s tragic day. You feel for the little girl as if she was someone you knew next door or your children went to school with. It emphasises the universality of suffering and empathy, and breaks racial stereotypes about who suffers.
– Video produced by Don’t Panic London

Also in December, The Guardian published a list of what it deemed ‘11 of the best aid parodies‘, turning the tables on the newly released Band Aid single. Including videos from Saturday Night Live and Africa for Norway/Radi-Aid, you can find the full list here.

One of my favourites is this Radi-Aid classic; Let’s Save Africa:

What do you think about these adverts? How do they make you feel? Are they totally inappropriate and offensive, or realistic representations of those living in extreme poverty? Do you know of any others worthy of this award?

NGOs losing the war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head

Back in August, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah wrote an article for the Guardian, entitled: NGOs losing the war agains poverty and climate change, says Civicus head. The piece focussed on answering the question: “Charities are no longer drivers of social change; for many saving the world has become big business. How did we lose our way?”

In my opinion Sriskandarajah is spot on with his evaluation of civil society. The ‘commercialisation’ of charities is something that I have become increasingly aware of and it is a concern of mine.

In the ‘more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’, I hope that charities cease to exist because they are no longer needed. But until that point it worries me that even ‘charity’ has been subjected to our modern culture of immediacy and instant gratification. If charity means ‘big business’ there is less of an incentive for those who become disillusioned and lose their way to put themselves out of a job, which is what the majority (not all) of people working for a charity should be trying to do. As Sriskandarajah notes: “And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution.”

I have reposted the article text here. The original article can be found here.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think about this. I’d like to write about this issue in more depth another time. But I found this piece thought-provoking and wise and thought it was important to share before I forget to.

In the last 40 years, we have witnessed an explosion of growth in civil society. There are now up to 4 million charities in India (pdf), 1.5 million in the US and 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90% of them launched since 1975.

This should be music to my ears. The organisation I lead exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world. So why am I worried? Because this exponential growth, and the institutionalisation and professionalisation that has accompanied it, has some serious downsides.

Sure, we’re winning battles here and there, but we’re losing the war; the war against poverty, inequality, exclusion and climate change. Too many of us who work in organised bits of civil society – including myself – have become removed from the forces that drive deep social change; from the causes that first inspired us. In devoting our energies to designing log-frames and reporting to donors, we’ve become mired in bureaucracy.

For better or worse, the biggest NGOs today look and act like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of workers around the world and their annual budgets reach hundreds of millions. They have corporate-style hierarchies and brands worth millions. Saving the world has become big business.

And big isn’t always bad; just as small isn’t necessarily beautiful. But it’s the effect of these trends on global citizen action that should unsettle us. We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.

And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.

To bring about radical political change, we need to build from below. We need to help communities organise and drive change. We need more Arab Springs, but we need them to endure. Organised civil society must prioritise meeting the challenge of how we can build upon these sudden upsurges of social energy without suffocating them. When peaks of protest are connected to long-term action, temporary shifts in power have a far greater chance of becoming permanent gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

How can civil society reform and re-energise itself to meet this critical challenge? On 6 August we published an open letter, endorsed by some leading figures in global civil society, calling on all of those who have the privilege of working in this sphere – getting paid to do the things we believe in – to engage in this debate.

We believe we need to find better ways to put the voices and actions of people back at the heart of our work. Our primary accountability must be not to donors but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, recognise the power of informal networks, tap into the wisdom of the street and re-balance our resources. We must promote and protect civic spaces, and strive to build global people-to-people solidarity from the grassroots up. And this should not be about abandoning the civil society organisations we have created, but rather we must evolve these NGOs to be more open, agile and accountable to those they seek to serve.

All this will be not be easy to do – especially for those of us who have to keep an eye on donor deliverables and balancing the budget. But it will be worth it. Civil society needs to offer a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm, an alternative model. No-one else is going to do it. And, if we can – if we can turn the tide of corporatisation and technocratic management that threatens to overwhelm us – we will rediscover our understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. And it is these relationships, history teaches us, that can truly change the world.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organisations and activists. Follow @civicussg on Twitter

Why I’m not “Living Below the Line”

This week, if you have the slightest interest in international development and live in the Western Hemisphere, it’s likely that you’ll have been bombarded with people tweeting/blogging/facebooking/instagramming photos of lentils and noodles as they undertake the Live Below the LineChallenge’, where they live on £1/$1.50 of food per day for five days.

I’m going to put my hands up right now and admit that in 2012 I undertook this ‘challenge’ for a month and last year again for five days. This year, however, I am not taking part because I’ve woken up and realised just how bad this campaign really is… for a number of reasons:

My main issue with the campaign is the same issue I take with other Western international development campaigns – it’s (inadvertently) patronising. However well-intentioned, the campaign has, for many, turned into a funpersonalchallengetoseewhetherIcansurviveonapoundaday… LBTL is also, along with many other Western fundraising campaigns/NGOs/development organisations, designed to make the participant feel good about what they’re doing; believe that they are a little closer to understanding what extreme poverty looks/feels like and that they are playing an active role in eradicating poverty and going some way to ‘saving’ those who live in it (a) I know I am making sweeping statements here and b) these are the issues that I have with the majority of Western-led development orgs and campaigns). The harsh reality is that Live Below the Line is a shallow campaign built for social media – it’s the McDonald’s of international development campaigning and fundraising – fast, palatable, gimmicky and marketable, but damaging. This is yet another campaign that groups people living in extreme poverty as a homogeneous group with the same problems and issues and values, it labels them as poor, helpless and ineffective agents to be acted upon, saved and…not much else, thus dehumanizing. This campaign is not educating, it’s eliding the facts of poverty, reinforcing stereotypes and obscuring the real challenges being faced and the truth about the people facing them.

My second issue with the campaign is that, by focussing on extreme poverty purely in economic terms and drawing ‘poverty lines’, the campaign manages to trivialise the many complexities of poverty and what it will actually take to alleviate it. I appreciate that, for a campaign like this to be successful in getting people’s attention, it needs to focus on a single issue and that the Global Poverty Project and Live Below the Line do allude to some of these complexities if you dig a little deeper into the campaign. However, the general public face of the campaign, that has an awareness raising objective alongside fundraising targets, focuses on income (and the food that it can buy) alone, which is an inadequate measure of poverty –  and very shortsighted. As Ben Coleridge wrote in his blog post: “People’s capacity to translate income into wellbeing differs according to cultural, social and political contexts. While people’s incomes might set them above the determined ‘poverty line’, without access to a functioning justice system for example, their capacity to translate income into real opportunity is severely reduced.” The income focus of the campaign also ignores complexities such as the intra-household distribution of the wellbeing derived from income (gender is a huge factor here) and the fact that most people living on £1 a day spend only half of this daily income on food.

My third issue with the campaign is pretty much this:

Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word “live.” To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn’t “living” below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you’re living like them because you’ve decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.”

and this:

“Poverty is not a f**king game.

Poverty does not have rules except you have to do it again tomorrow. Poverty is not new or exciting. Poverty is not neatly quarantined to one area of your life. Poverty is not something you can control with neatly defined parameters. And it does not come with prizes.”

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the Live Below the Line campaign, whether you’re in favour of it/have undertaken it or not. Am I being too harsh or too kind?