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IA-Forum Interview: Graham Harrison

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International Affairs Forum: Can you give us a brief outline of what you’re researching at the moment?

Graham Harrison:: Representations of Africa within British politics – especially within the campaign sector.


IA-Forum: Do you think the aims and demands of Africa campaigns are appropriate or realistic?

Harrison: Yes – the demands are if anything moderate and attached to the Millennium Development Goals which are also moderate. It is a reflection of the indifference of governments that they might be seen as unrealistic. There is a failure of political leadership.


IA-Forum: To play devil’s advocate, couldn’t it be argued that governments are reflecting public indifference?

Harrison: There is a chicken and egg aspect to this. I think on balance that it would be disingenuous to argue that people get the leaders they deserve because it is self-serving for politicians. The mass popularity of Make Poverty History demonstrates that public indifference is not a natural phenomenon.


IA-Forum: Has the drive to raise awareness come at the expense of more tangible political gains?

Harrison: With Make Poverty History (and perhaps ONE in the US) the widespread popularity of this mass campaign did not lead to a great increase in awareness of African or global issues of poverty or development. The pressure exerted by mass awareness was significant, but the issues and politics were driven by an already-established core of supporters.


IA-Forum: What are your views of such campaigns’ analyses of the politico-economic problems faced by African nations?

Harrison: These are largely very good. There have been strong debates about the way some NGOs have put their cases regarding debt or aid. But, no one would deny that campaign NGOs such as Action Aid have become hubs of expertise. The deeper limitation is that almost all the issue campaigning is based around debt, aid, trade, and the environment. There are other perhaps more profound questions relating to the livelihoods of poor people: for example government policy in Africa, the regulation of transnational corporations and land tenure, which are by and large not integrated into campaigns. This is understandable except that aid and debt relief directly affect poor states’ budgets and politics which makes the politics of these states relevant to any claims for debt relief or more aid.


IA-Forum: How far are the subtleties and complexities of the challenges being undermined by the need to present a simplified narrative?

Harrison: This is inescapable for mass mobilisation; but in regard to campaigning, NGOs are highly skilled at engaging in the issues. There is a need to distinguish between mass mobilisation and the interactions between campaign groups and government.


IA-Forum: Would you say, then, that the role of many of these NGOs has been to create that mobilisation through simple narratives, before mediating it to government in a more nuanced and politically-aware manner?

Harrison: Yes – NGOs generally have different people working on mass appeals/campaigns and lobbying and research.


IA-Forum: There seems to be an increasing trend for NGOs to unite in issue-based coalitions – for example the Trade Justice Movement. Do you think this is a helpful approach?

Harrison: Yes – the issue coalitions such as TJM, Jubilee Debt Coalition, and BOND, Stop Climate Chaos… have been very effective in terms of lobbying and in some cases also of generating mass support. There are always tensions within coalitions though.


IA-Forum: Have those tensions—and the compromise they entail—resulted in a loss of focus and coherence, or do they tend to remain under the surface?

Harrison: The large coalitions are not really seeking much coherence. They are more about ‘voice’: the brining together of as many people as possible to express a ‘lowest common denominator’ message which a wide variety of separate organisation can agree with. This might allow liberal, environmentalist, Marxist, and religious groups to agree a basic message and work together for that specific reason. But, the tensions don’t go away…


IA-Forum: How has the involvement of faith groups affected Africa campaigns?

Harrison: Faith groups have been very important and largely ignored. Local church groups – often supporting Christian Aid and CAFOD – have driven mass appeals by being ‘on the streets’, putting up posters on churches, and posting flyers. Both Christian Aid and CAFOD have linked faith to claims for social justice which makes them more political than simple charitable campaigns would be.

IA-Forum: What are the support bases of these campaigns? Is it a hard-core of veteran campaigners surrounded by a looser set of less committed middle-class supporters, or is the picture more complex that this?

Harrison: This is basically true. But, Make Poverty History and StCC both brought in a broader section of the population including people you might describe as working class. Make Poverty History used celebrity endorsements that made the campaign relevant to a larger number of people and StCC was attached to the alter-globalisation/Reclaim the Streets networks that are not simply Guardian readers.


IA-Forum: How democratic are these campaigns? Do you think development professionals need to be under more scrutiny? Is there a danger of professionals working in UK-based campaigns losing sight of the broader aims of their work?

Harrison: Some like World Development Movement and Christian Aid have a strong emphasis on local organisation; others are pretty unaccountable – apart from to the Charities Commission.


IA-Forum: Does that have much of a bearing on the quality of their work?

Harrison: The deeper question is: how do we evaluate the quality of their work? Large development NGOs handle very large amounts of money but in the public realm it is difficult to make any evaluation of their performance or results.


IA-Forum: Do you have any thoughts about the methods and tactics of these campaigns?

Harrison: In general, campaigns are too close to government.


IA-Forum: Could you expand on that? Couldn’t one say that having good relationships with government is an important way to gain powerful backing for some campaigns’ aims?

Harrison: Most people see NGOs as non-governmental! And, NGOs have generally been seen as based in civil society or as independent of government politics – this being NGOs specialism and strength. I wouldn’t want to suggest simplistically that NGOs are dominated by government agendas, but with larger NGOs, government funding does affect their behaviour. And, if one has a cynicism about government will to promote effective poverty reduction and social justice, then these connections can be problematic.


IA-Forum: Is there a danger that contemporary (and sometimes competing) campaigns are involved in a kind of race to the bottom as they try to attract the attention of a distracted media and public?

Harrison: Yes – campaigners will say that this is the situation and the only thing they can do is conform to it. But, in doing so, they might well contribute to it. The idea is that you ‘capture’ someone’s interest and then try to ‘migrate’ them to a more engaged involvement.


IA-Forum: How has the internet changed the way in which these campaigns are run?

Harrison: Campaigns are now substantially disseminated through the internet. E-petitions, e-advertisements, info-rich websites, email circulars… This is, I think, a good thing. It allows sophisticated discourses to be presented effectively for those who want it.


IA-Forum: You have focused in particular on the Make Poverty History campaign. What did you think of the campaign’s decision to dissolve itself in 2006?

Harrison: Necessary. The coalition was falling apart anyway. Also, it was entirely focussed on the G8 meeting. I think that way it ended was rather abrupt and many local groups were upset that the impetus was lost. There were arguments that the Make Poverty History ‘logo’ should be maintained as a banner for ongoing campaigns.


IA-Forum: Your research is focused on campaigns in the UK. How far have these campaigns attempted to work with allies abroad, both in developed and developing countries?

Harrison: Make Poverty History was attached (in a strange way) to the Global Call to Action Against Poverty which still exists. Some NGOs such as Christian Aid, maintain partnerships with NGOs elsewhere. Comic Relief has tried to ‘break’ into America. There are some strong European coalitions - for example, EURODAD. But, by and large, campaigns are very British.


IA-Forum: Doesn’t that limit their influence? Or are they simply restricted by resources?

Harrison: I think that campaigning in Britain has always been largely a ‘British’ affair, even when it is concerned with international issues. It was the same with the abolition movement. The key objectives of campaigns are to mobilise citizens and to affect government policy. Many campaign organisations have become more engaged with international summits, UN for a and so on, but this kind of activity is likely to remain secondary. States still matter and a national support base is still the main source of funds for NGOs in Britain.


IA-Forum: Are there any campaigns that have been in ways that you fell deserve special praise?

Harrison: My personal preferences are for World Development Movement, War on Want, and Water Aid. Simply because their politics is more prominent or (for Water Aid) they have a simple and clear agenda – supplying free water to people because it is a human right.


IA-Forum: Is there any practical advice you would give to the organisers of campaigns like this?

Harrison: Don’t expect too much too soon! Try to keep a balance between being popular and sticking to political convictions.


Dr Graham Harrison is Reader in Politics at the University of Sheffield. He has published works on corruption, the World Bank, globalization, and development. He is joint Editor of the journals ‘New Political Economy’ and ‘Review of African Political Economy’ and is also an associate editor of ‘The African Review.’

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