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Totems and Stories: Lessons from "Give Us the Money"

December 17, 2012

There are two sides to every story, and the story of the role of aid and celebrities in global development is a case in point. The Why Poverty? documentary, Give Us The Money, gives us a glimpse into some of the fault lines. One the one hand, you have celebrities like Bono and Bob Geldof, using their fame and a good heft of professional lobbying to win commitments from some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet, up to and including President Bush. On the other hand, you have people like Dambisa Moyo saying this is the white saviour complex at full tilt; a mindset and approach grounded in paternalistic attitudes that are ultimately more harmful than helpful.

But if we take a step back from the fiery edge of that debate, there are some broader lessons to be learnt about how communication works, and how we can best engage the public everywhere to support global development.

Firstly, there’s a lesson about totems.

Aid has become a totem of the development industry. No wonder, as it is such a simple concept, easy to grasp and transmit in communications; rich give to poor. It’s as old as history itself and therefore so easy to invoke and reinforce. You only need to look at the polling in most developed countries to see that aid and development are treated as interchangeable. That’s a mission-critical problem because it’s a sign that we’ve allowed confusion to arise between “one kind of beneficial activity” and “the solution”.



In this crazy busy world, where most people have time and space for at best one underpinning logic to understand global poverty, thinking it is about relatively small transfers of money from rich to poor leaves no room for more vital truths, the most important being that mass poverty is persistent and widespread because of how we organise power and resources that create and perpetuate it.

Which brings us to the second lesson: the power of the story.

If what you are interested in is getting other people to do things – which is what campaigning and lobbying all about - the story you wrap and cast them in is all-important. The story sets the tone, the parameters, indeed the very logic that is used to respond. Bob, Bono and the ONE crew know this, which is how they managed to get right-wingers like Jesse Helms and president Bush on board. They not only overcame the idea that foreign aid [sic] was a left wing issue, but they cast them as the good guys. Masterful stuff.

The real challenge now is to move aid out of the role as primary protagonist in the bigger development story and find ways to capture the public’s imagination around the root causes of poverty and inequality.  And of course, there are many – financial rules that create tax havens for the rich so they can extract wealth from countries with secrecy and impunity; rules on healthcare and vaccines that over-incentivise profit to a degree that results in the active neglect of the welfare of hundreds of millions of people; and rules on land rights that allow governments to re-allocate or sell their citizens’ land from underneath their feet without consent or compensation.

At /The Rules, we’re trying to bring these alternative stories to life. We’re only one organisation and it’ll take a lot more than us but here are just three elements of how we’ve started.

Firstly, by calling ourselves /The Rules we’re declaring from the rooftops what we believe global poverty is actually about: it is the logical outcome of a set of rules that have consciously been created by people, and therefore, can be changed by people.  We don’t actively deny the importance of aid, but nor do we give it the spotlight.

Secondly, we define our mission as tackling the structural causes of poverty. We’ve chosen the tax haven system as our first target not only because change there will make a huge practical difference (i.e. the usual policy change analysis) but also that connecting tax havens to global poverty in a narrative form, entirely free from any connection to aid, will, we hope, start to invoke different logic, from which different, larger action will flow.

And thirdly, we’re engaging people in the global south as our primary guides and partners. If people in impoverished countries had been in charge of the development story, do you think they would have spoken so much about charity and aid?  We don’t think so either. So let’s work with them, and see what they want this story to be about.

Bob, Bono, and Dambisa would all, I’m sure, agree that just because a particular story was thought good yesterday doesn't mean that lessons can't be learned that require it to be fundamentally changed today.

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