Secret aid worker: charities have been gagged in the UK election – this is why


The Guardian


This election should be prime time for us to challenge leaders on human rights, the arms trade and environmental issues, but no one wants to get fined
Wondering why this election has seen no reasonable discussion about human rights, the environment or development? That’s because the Lobbying Act, which everyone said was merely a “transparency tool”, has successfully managed to gag any organisation that could have added some depth to the election debate. Instead, polarised views based on opinion, rather than fact, dominate.

Over the past six weeks, I’ve been sitting in my quiet corner “knitting” as the election rages around me. Apparently that’s what charities do best. The 2014 act, which restricts what NGOs can say in the year before a general election, has managed to cower charities across the country to do precisely what they said they wouldn’t do: shut up and sit down, and let the politicians and the media do all the talking.

The freedoms I fight for elsewhere in the world are no longer my freedoms

My leaders are being cowardly. We should be risking the fines and standing in solidarity with each other. But with environmental groups charged in the last election – for example, Greenpeace was fined £30,000 for refusing to register as a “third-party campaigning organisation” – nobody seems to want to put their head above the parapet.

Everything we do at the moment needs to be cross-checked by lawyers: a planned campaign on aid before the election was even announced; a local meeting organised where we would have invited our MP; a fundraiser on inequality. These are all day-to-day activities of an international development charity. Expenses are pored over and staff time is monitored. Forget about what would have been normal scrutiny during an election period – commenting on a manifesto; writing to supporters to challenge their candidates about aid; a digital campaign to support refugees. Coalition work with other NGOs is basically a no-no, because how on earth do you account for that?

The Charity Commission says “of course you can keep campaigning”. Bullshit. All we’ve done is waste time, energy and money figuring things out.

The reality is manifesto pledges on aid spending, the environment, human rights, closing the inequality gap, and immigration go unquestioned by those who understand the impact of them the most. For example, the Tories’ manifesto includes the line: “We do not believe the international definitions of development assistance always help in determining how money should be spent on whom and for what purpose.” The risk is that aid money could be spent on anything: defence, corporate subsidies, immigration.” Charities can’t challenge one particular party, they have to speak in generalities, so any campaigning is watered down and somewhat meaningless. You need to be targeted if you’re going to have an impact.

The media is so biased, but nobody can call out the Daily Mail when it publishes yet another untruth.

I have found myself in the uncomfortable position of supporting organisations in the global south to strengthen their voice on a range of issues from inequality to land rights, with my own tongue virtually cut out at home when it matters the most. The freedoms I fight for elsewhere in the world are no longer my freedoms. When I speak to friends in India or Kenya or Venezuela, they say to me: “Well if you people can’t protect your own right to campaign, what hope do any of us have?”

It’s not that we can’t campaign, but if we do, there are strict spending limits, or we have to register as a non-party campaigner under the electoral rules. What seems like a simple judgment call, though, isn’t. Putting aside the fact that the expenditure includes money spent during the EU referendum too as the spending limits cover all campaigning in the year prior to an election – now if you’re talking about inequality, human rights and even the environment, that seems to be considered a political act. Those brave enough to challenge the rules in the last election were fined and now nobody wants to take a chance. It’s not surprising – the electoral rules are murky and seem to capture even basic awareness raising if it may seem to be against the policies of a particular political party.

With the exception of the Quakers, we are all keeping our heads down and our mouths shut. Yes, we could register as a non-party campaigner but the consensus seems to be that that would threaten the trust that the public have in us and risk our registration as a charity. It suddenly says: “Our aims are no longer charitable.” Standing up for the marginalised is a political act.

Nobody seems to be waking up to the fact that this isn’t a minor administration issue – it’s a threat to our democracy. It’s a slippery slope from here to becoming a country where any criticism of a government is declared treasonous. And with the number of countries that fall into this category, closing space for civil society isn’t just happening in the developing world, it’s on the rise in Europe too.

If the law allowed me to, I would be using all our might to challenge the mainstream parties about everything that matters to development, such as their lofty words on environment, or the issues that arise with redefining aid. I would be campaigning on the arms trade, about human rights and inequality. I would talk about our appalling treatment of migrants and refugees, and ask why nobody seems to care any more.

Perhaps most importantly, I would be shouting about the travesty of the Lobbying Act itself. I would be doing what I’m paid to do – standing up for the most marginalised in society and holding our politicians to account. Only I can’t do that. I guess I’ll be joining the craftivism movement next because I’ve had my tongue cut out. I might as well put my knitting skills to good use.

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uploaded: Wed, Jun 7 2017
modified: Tue, Dec 30 1969


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