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Marching on empty slogans?
08 June 2005
by Julian Baggini

I recently spotted Bob Geldof and Richard Curtis in the swanky surroundings of London's Landmark hotel. They were probably discussing how to solve the problems of poverty, while running up a drinks bill that could have fed a family in the Sudan for months. But while it's easy to sneer at celebrity philanthropy, at least Geldof and co devote huge amounts of their time to the causes they support. If we really want to ask uncomfortable questions about good causes, shouldn't we look to the public who so eagerly support them?

For how many of the three million people in the UK who have pledged their support to the Make Poverty History campaign, the million who have bought a white wristband, or the 150,000 people who are expected to gather in Edinburgh, really know or understand exactly what measures the Make Poverty History campaign is calling for? And if they don't, aren't they just being at best sentimentally indulgent and at worst downright irresponsible?

According to Steve Tibbett of ActionAid, a Make Poverty History campaign coordinator, getting the support of the relatively uninformed is all part of the plan. "As campaigners, we understand from the start that there will be different levels of engagement," he says. "Any campaign these days will have in its communications strategy different levels of sophistication in terms of the message."

But isn't it worrying that to achieve a breadth of support, depth in understanding has to be sacrificed for the sake of simplicity? "I don't necessarily think it's irresponsible for someone to show support for something they only have a certain understanding of," Tibbett says. "Any campaign will have a kind of pyramid structure, where you're talking in a very sophisticated way to people who would be willing to lobby their MPs or write complex letters to ministers, right the way down to people who would just signify their support. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, as long as the campaign is legitimate."

Yet there is a tension here. The supporters at the bottom of the pyramid may be expressing a general desire to confront poverty. But those at the top are committed to a very particular course of action, where, as Tibbett says, "the specific goals are really important".

Stephen Pollard, a senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe, is a leading critic of the Make Poverty History campaign. He accepts that "most people think they're not signing up to a detailed set of proposals but endorsing something that is wholesome", and he doesn't blame them for that. But where he does feel some supporters go wrong is to become convinced of the righteousness of their cause and so dismiss the alternatives without taking the trouble to find out the facts.

"If you are supporting something because it is clearly a good thing, then someone who pedantically says, 'Hold on, what they are specifically saying is actually wrong' is almost by definition criticising a good thing and must therefore be a bad thing. But it is rather that you are both trying to achieve the same end, and one of you has a different prescription."

Richard Norman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Kent who has been active in the Make Poverty History campaign, believes that details are unimportant. Those who support the campaign without a deep grasp of the issues, he says, are in some ways entering into its true spirit.

"The job of popular campaigns is to support the broad objectives, not to fine-tune detailed policies," he says. "The point of campaigning is to put pressure - essentially, moral pressure - on the politicians, and it's the politicians' job to make the decisions. In the case of Make Poverty History, the reason why a popular campaign is needed is to overcome the inertia and the vested interests which stand in the way of politicians doing what they know ought to be done to alleviate poverty."

Tibbett too points out that we don't expect people to be fully informed about everything they take a stand on. "If you think about a general election, for instance, you're not saying that a general election in the UK is invalid somehow because some people only read the Sun. In all these issues there are levels of sophistication and I don't think we should be too mean on some people who haven't got the time or interest to go in depth."

In any case, by no means all the campaign's supporters are woolly-minded idealists expressing no more than a pious wish to help the poor. Luke Houghton sports multiple white wristbands and will be travelling from Bristol to Edinburgh to protest at the G8 summit. Like many committed enough to campaign and protest, he can recite the three goals of the Make Poverty History campaign and defend them. "I feel it's important for me to know what's going on. I want to know what I'm fighting for," he says.

Joanie Willett from Cornwall is also making the trip to Edinburgh and talks about the different ways of understanding free trade with more subtlety than some media detractors. "A lot of people are actually really quite well informed," she claims. "Oxfam and Christian Aid did a Make Poverty History day at the Eden project at the weekend and you didn't have to tell people much because they already knew about the issues. Obviously you get some people who are just jumping on a popular bandwagon, but that's always going to happen."

The truth is that all of us have opinions, some of them very strong, on subjects we are not experts on. And unless we believe we should have no views and take no action on anything outside our expertise, that is something we just have to live with. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate why some non- expert views are dismissed as naive and ill-informed, while others will be entirely respected at dinner-table conversations.

The answer might be suggested by a remark in John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses. Make Poverty History has become a mass movement and, as Carey claims, the function of the term "mass" is "to deprive [the majority of people] of those distinctive features that makes users of the term, in their own esteem, superior".

The consequence of this is what we might term Carey's Law: anything which reaches a certain level of popularity will become despised by the minority who see themselves as society's elite. The anti-war campaign was the exception to the rule, only because the elite detest Tony Blair more even than they do the masses.

But what this elite needs to recognise is that they too hold a variety of views, only a few of which are backed up by in-depth knowledge and understanding. In the Times on Wednesday, for example, Bruce Anderson wrote that Geldof "would like his young followers to believe that the west is to blame for all of Africa's difficulties" and that his solution is to "stop encouraging Africa to participate in global trade and content ourselves with providing enough aid".

Yet, no doubt to the disappointment of many who will descend on Edinburgh via Seattle, Make Poverty History is manifestly not promoting an anti-capitalist, anti-free trade revolution. Indeed, although it wants developing countries to be able to protect some of their markets, on the whole, its goal is to make trade more free by abolishing punitive import tariffs in the west and ending Europe and America's huge farm subsidies, in order to open up western markets to developing economies.

Of course, we should all try to understand better those things we hold strong opinion on. But time is limited and if we think a lack of expertise should encourage humility, then the corollary is surely that we should be willing to defer to experts. And in the case of Make Poverty History, supporters are not being asked to support some ragbag coalition of fresh-faced idealists. "We're talking about nearly 500 organisations in the UK alone, representing a consensus on views on the types of issues that we recognise are the keys to unlocking poverty in Africa," says Tibbett. "These organisations consult widely and speak for partners on the ground in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

That people should choose to back such an alliance without first becoming well versed in the issues seems to me not a rash abdication of responsibility, but a perfectly reasonable respect for the judgments of people who care for what we care about, but who know a lot more about it. Open hearts and half-empty heads is not a lethal combination, unless those heads are also closed.