This week, Save the Children launched what the Guardian referred to as ‘its first domestic fundraising campaign‘, seeking £500,000 to help fight child poverty in the UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the response has been mixed – but I’d like to know what you think. Should NGOs like Save or Oxfam be highlighting UK poverty and inequality?
The launch report, It Shouldn’t Happen Here, starts with the bare statistics – an estimated 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK, expected to rise by 400,000 – and then highlights the impact by presenting the results of a survey on the experiences of living in poverty of both children and parents. As the report’s figure 8 (below) shows, many UK children living in poverty appear to be going without quite basic items. To pull out a couple of broader points:
- half of parents in poverty (61%) say they have cut back on food and over a quarter (26%) say they have skipped meals in the past year
- half of children in poverty (52%) agree that not having enough money makes their parents unhappy or stressed
Research by the Young Lives study and others that I’ve discussed before stresses the long-term damage done to children’s personal development and life prospects from being on the wrong end of this type of (socially salient) inequalities, and the survey findings really show how aware children are of their family situations. This short film from BBC Newsnight has one child telling their story.
The UK government has committed to ending child poverty by 2020, and Save the Children is calling for the government to set out how it intends to ensure it does not fail. The report also outlines more specific demands to protect children from further damage caused by government cuts, and for labour market and benefit changes to reduce the harsh inequality at the bottom of the income distribution.
The launch was picked up widely in the press and TV, as well as across social media. It seems clear that there are deep concerns about the human impact of the crisis, and also about the government’s response. A report from Oxfam earlier in the summer also highlighted these concerns, and their spokesman is quoted in the Guardian coverage of Save’s launch as saying that an equivalent Oxfam campaign could not be ruled out.
There has also been, however, some criticism. This stems in part from the view that child poverty in the UK is either not a problem (compared to in low-income countries), or is no more of a problem than it was before the crisis; in part from a view that NGOs should not be ‘political’; and in part from . As a commentator called ‘englishvote’ posted under the BBC story:
Save the children playing politics. No difference between poverty now and 5 years ago, but Save the Children would not have played this stunt with a Labour government in power. Sad, very sad when children are dying of starvation in Africa and people want to play silly games.
In The Telegraph, Conservative MP Philip Davies (with whom I once clashed over aid on BBC Radio 5) made a similar point:
It is just a publicity seeking campaign. I think people will see through the fact that this is an organisation that has been campaigning for as much money as possible to be sent abroad for many years so it’s no good now telling us there’s no money left to go round to British children.
In the same article, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell disagreed instead with the policy implications:
I don’t actually mind charities making political interventions but I totally disagree with them in terms of the causes of child poverty. We have actually spent a very large chunk of taxpayers’ money creating a state of dependency in this country – that’s one of the main causes of child poverty.
The point about whether the same campaign would have been run under a Labour government is an interesting one. Both the Telegraph and Huffington Post articles highlight that Save’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, worked in the office of the previous (Labour) Prime Minister, Gordon Brown – which carries with it at least a suggestion of political partisanship.
While you can understand this thinking, it’s worth noting that others have criticised the big development NGOs – and Save the Children in particular – for being too close to the current government, and insufficiently willing to challenge their policies. [Full disclosure - I was at the meeting of which that link is a note.] Being partisan is at least partly in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.
The more fundamental point here is perhaps this – that development NGOs have long been highly ‘political’, in the sense that the theory of change of each has political power front and centre. The difference lies in where that power is understood to sit – some see power as mainly about a few (probably) white (probably) men in a room taking policy decisions, others emphasise the engagement and empowerment of mass movements of people, and so on.
Why then should addressing UK child poverty be any more political? Somehow it’s ok, more or less, to challenge policy thinking on international development; but not so much when it comes to domestic policy. In that sense, it really shouldn’t happen here (sorry).
I experienced a similar dynamic when I worked for Christian Aid and we launched the tax justice campaign, seeking greater transparency from corporate accounts and tax havens in order to reduce tax losses in developing countries (and corruption everywhere). Suddenly, after decades of lobbying for policy changes to promote the end of poverty, Christian Aid was accused of being too political, by all sorts of people including long-term supporters. Well do I remember my first phonecall from the then Bishop of Winchester, whose bishopric includes Jersey… but that’s another story. On that note though, I see Christian Aid have teamed up with the (UK-focused) Church Action on Poverty to run a Tax Justice Bus tour that combines the domestic and international concerns on tax dodging.
One last thing to mention. Last night’s BBC Newsnight showed a really great film of children discussing their families’ poverty, followed by a debate which featured Justin along with Tracey Nugent (a working mother on a low income), Christian Guy from the Centre for Social Justice and Graham Stuart MP. At least from my (biased) snapshot of social media, the response was pretty strongly supportive.
Dear reader, the question is this – should ‘development’ NGOs campaign on domestic poverty? In case it’s not completely clear from the above, I think so. The imaginary line that has often been drawn between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ is surely unsustainable, whether you think about the International Monetary Fund lending to governments across Europe, or try to imagine a post-2015 successor to the Millennium Development Goals that confronts inequality – but only in countries below a certain level of income per capita?
But perhaps I’m overlooking better arguments against it. What do you think?