How should INGOs respond to growing nationalism in the UK?

June 6, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Matthew Spencer, (@Spencerthink) Oxfam’s Director of Campaigns, Policy & Influencing

Kirsty McNeill, my counterpart from Save the Children UK, asked me this question last year and it’s been troubling me ever since. I had a vague answer, but wasn’t entirely convinced. We have no mandate to take sides on Brexit, but I reasoned that INGO’s enabling the British public to show compassion to others across international boundaries is in itself a meaningful response to the darker sentiments stirred up by British nationalism. Inviting UK citizens to campaign for refugee rights as Oxfam has done as part of the Families Together coalition (film below) feels like a small but authentic response to the monstering of migrants by some in the media and politics. And highlighting extreme economic inequality and its solutions is very relevant to the grievances of communities left behind by globalisation.

But are these measures adequate to the challenge of populist nationalism? Unilateral nation-first politics has the potential to undo the best of our international rules-based system.  After three years of UK political paralysis and public disillusionment our formula for good development – empowered citizens and effective government, may now be less true here than in some of the developing countries where we work. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer the Indian public have almost twice as much trust in their government as UK citizens.

So at the heart of my discomfort lie two questions. The first is whether we must take sides in the battle about British values which the Brexit referendum has triggered, or is our role to help build alliances between warring tribes? My heart says that we will be forced to pick sides because we are internationalists and must defend our values, but my head says that picking sides could be harmful if the result is stronger defensive walls around our ‘tribe’. Our collective mission to end poverty and achieve sustainable development requires the consent of the vast majority of our citizens, not just those who support INGO’s. The second question is whether we can be relevant to an anxious, inward-looking nation if our mission is framed as helping ‘other’ people?

I recently had the chance to explore these questions for a whole day with some brilliant colleagues from the development, human rights and environment NGO’s, and the benefit of some outstanding input from external thinkers, researchers and pollsters.

The morning got off to a bracing start with a talk from journalist and commentator Paul Mason, who described a

Manichean world, where forces of evil (fascism 2.0) were exploiting the legitimate grievances of citizens around the world to destroy multilateralism and create an ultra-libertarian, rule-less world. In this dog-eat-dog future, the mandate of development and human rights NGO’s would evaporate. In this scenario, Mason said our job was to join with the forces of good and uphold the defences of international human rights law.

The counterpoint was presented by Alex Evans, now leading the Collective Psychology Project at New York University. He confessed that when he wrote his book The Myth Gap he wanted to help social justice and environmental organisations like us get better at telling stories, so that we could win. He now thinks that because the dangers of extreme polarisation are so great, ‘winning’ is less important than ‘healing’. The weaponization of our deepest anxieties by social media means that public debate is now dominated by ‘them’ versus ‘us’. The development of mutually exclusive narratives will make resolving issues like inequality and climate change impossible. Evans’ plea to INGO’s was to build ‘a larger us’ by bridging differences within and between communities, and above all to do no harm by avoiding reinforcing tribalism.

Irrespective of the choice of approach could we be relevant to any debate about the future of the UK? Deborah Mattison, founder of Britain Thinks, showed us the world maps drawn by participants in her focus groups. Unsurprisingly, most had a big Britain in the centre, with France often floating nearby and occasionally the US or Russia drawn at the periphery. Very rarely China would make it on to the paper, but Africa and Latin America were absent from all of the maps. She said that in the many discussions she organised, International issues never came up spontaneously. Given that most INGO’s effectively have an offer which is ‘help other people who live a long way away whom you’ll never meet’ it’s perhaps not surprising that we not front of mind to most Brits worrying about the future.

However, because we think our mission to end injustice is universal, and assume that we have things to offer the UK beyond our international mission, this finding was still a shock. But it did lead to some great discussion. What would it take for us to build a ‘bigger us’ and to become more relevant to the concerns of British citizens? Should we make more of our anti-poverty agenda in the UK and if we did would we need new supporters, or would we carry our existing base? What could we bring to the UK from our experience of community organisation in the Global South?  Crucially, could we justify spending more of our precious unrestricted income in the UK, and by implication less of it in the developing world?

These are not new questions, but they have a new urgency given the UK’s political and social upheavals. Many of our organisations were born in the first half of the 19th Century, in response to the appalling human impacts of the last era of nationalism. We owe our founders and our supporters a serious answer to this latest version.

June 6, 2019
Duncan Green