You can also view our most recent newsletters to learn what the ASAP network has been delivering. Links to the most recent editions are listed below:
Winter 2018: https://mailchi.mp/137b832448ff/asap-winter-533471
You can also view our most recent newsletters to learn what the ASAP network has been delivering. Links to the most recent editions are listed below:
Winter 2018: https://mailchi.mp/137b832448ff/asap-winter-533471
Ravina Khela, the incoming Chair of the ASAP Students-Birmingham Chapter, speaks to Sophia Ireland about her role as Midlands Youth & Schools Coordinator, Oxfam. Ireland shares insights on Oxfam’s approach to poverty alleviation and offers some tips for students who may want to apply for an Oxfam internship or pursue a career in development more generally.
Oxfam is well known to most people, but could you give a brief introduction of the organisation, and what makes it different from other NGOs?
The main aims and objectives are outlined in Oxfam’s Mission Statement, but it basically comes down to overcoming poverty and suffering — so, really big issues! There are a few ways we go about that, all are equally important. The first is humanitarian emergency relief. For example, in the wake of natural or manmade disasters such as earthquakes and wars or conflicts Oxfam is a leader in providing clean water. Oxfam is also often one of the first organisations on the ground to provide clean water, hygiene kits and other things you need to stay healthy. When you have a lot of people in close proximity in a camp it’s really important to have access to things like clean water to prevent disease spreading.
The second way Oxfam goes about reducing poverty is in terms of Development. We are involved with long-term programmes in which we work with communities for 5-10 years to embed practices such as work and education schemes, and try to ensure the sustainability of the work we start there. At the moment the majority — and the aim is for eventually all — of our projects to have someone from Oxfam, a representative from partner organisations and members of local government and the local community on the organising committees. This is particularly important so that when we move out the work we started has been embedded within the local government and community. When we stop delivering a project the work is then able to continue, for example livelihood projects could be continued by ensuring proper infrastructure in terms of adequate transport and government support.
The third way we work in is Campaigning, putting pressure on governments all around the world. We work with pressure groups and support people in order to have an impact in their local communities. One aspect of what we do at Oxfam is getting involved with high level research, so that what we say and what we ask for is well backed up and substantiated. A lot of our activity involved working in partnerships, for example on of our current projects involves helping women who grow onion plants to get realistic and sensible money and adequate support.
A lot of the work we do crosses over all of these three areas. In our UK based work we do a lot of policy and research, and advocacy work with the private sector and government to ensure development policies are appropriate. Our public campaigns try to make sure that the general public understand issues relating to aid, climate change, food security and other poverty related issues. These campaigns try to ensure people are taking action and really shouting about issues that matter to them and that they can speak with credibility about them.
What is your role at Oxfam?
My role really consists of ‘two hats’. My main role is as the Youth and Schools Coordinator in the Midlands. My job involves working with schools and youth organisations to develop global learning and campaigning. I work with volunteer speakers who deliver workshops, assemblies and lessons on topics spanning healthcare, climate change and food justice.
I support teachers to understand issues and how they can pass them on to their students. We use a participatory learning methodology: Learn, Think, Act. It’s about students using their own critical thinking and really developing that and getting them to engage with issues, thinking about how to take appropriate social action and how to deal with controversial issues, and ultimately acting – being an active global citizen.
My remit is to make sure that there is good strong learning that underpins the social action that young people take. The workshops we deliver meet the national curriculum so can fit into a regular school timetable and be delivered in class time.
How would you define poverty?
A lack of power, choice and agency. We can look at it as not having much money, but more than this it is also not having enough money to feed your family, or to get an education for yourself or your family, not enough money to see a doctor or enough money to ensure your home is watertight. It’s really about the lack of power to change things in your life, that’s poverty. If you are a farmer and are experiencing drought but you have poor education then there may be very few ways for you to work your way out of poverty, or a farmer whose land has been grabbed by a company, the ability to engage with a legal process.
How do you think the issue of poverty alleviation can be best addressed, on an individual level and also at the national and international level?
I have recently been involved with some really interesting work on poverty and shame, with the University of Oxford. Some of the reasons people aren’t able to move out of poverty are partly to do with shame and the sense of not being able to come forward and admit it or feel stigmatised by the community around them.
Often other people in a community will look at people in poverty and make a judgement, in the UK for example there’s this ‘chav language’ and a lot of looking down on people who are not working, who can often be labelled ‘benefit cheats’ or the deserving and undeserving poor. We need to overcome this stigmatisation and rhetoric; this is what will be so important in overcoming poverty.
I did a workshop a few years ago with some young people about youth participation in governance and their view was the young people need information in a language that is accessible to them. This is not just the case for young people – information needs to be accessible to all. To the average person if a document is in very technical language they will most likely become disengaged or not understand elements of a piece. Furthermore, this kind of information needs to be in a location that is easy to access. You really need to think about how to get information out to people, don’t just assume that everyone who may be interested in what you have to say will have Twitter or Facebook, although these are often great places to start.
It’s really about education, and developing education for all people so that there is the possibility of choice. Education really opens up opportunities and for people who are, for example, struggling with a traditional way of making a living, it can allow them to change their livelihood, or adapt their work to be able to provide for themselves and their family. Referring back to the Poverty and Shame work with the University of Oxford that I mentioned before, educating the general public is so important in reducing the ‘shame’ surrounding poverty to open up honest debate and more tolerance.
In your work, in what ways and in which areas are you able to see the crossover between academia and practical action?
Academia has a really important role to play in good quality, long term research. It gives us the ability to look at comparative studies, to undertake the deep research that is needed to understand the deep underlying causes of poverty. I studied Anthropology and am interested in how poverty alleviation programmes look at what people need in specific locales, what are the causes and how can these be overcome, and ultimately what is the impact on the people involved.
Also in terms of advocacy, academic research is essential for advising government and policy development. It can also really help when advising private sector companies on their actions, and for looking at the ways in which the impact they are having is positive and negative and how opportunities can be created for developing good practice.
We definitely need rigorous research, but a lot of academic books and reports, are often complex and not very accessible. We need to look at communicating this research to the general population. It’s about making it easy for ‘Joe Bloggs’ on the street to think that they can really learn something and engage with the theories. One way this can be achieved is to simplify the language but not the message.
What kind of voluntary experience have you had and what made you decide to work within a development organisation?
I had worked in schools and theatres as a drama and creative education practitioner and delivered community theatre projects across England and in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India before I decided to make the move into a development organisation. I spent some time researching education departments in development agencies and was successful in gaining an internship with Plan UK whilst I studied for my masters in anthropology (development and rights) in the development education department. This gave me the chance to use my existing skill set and learn more about development/global education and global youth work, the area I had decided I was most interested in. I was then successful in gaining part time work with Plan whilst I completed my MA as their youth coordinator, which gave more opportunities to develop a solid base of experience in the field. However it is important to remember that completing an internship is not a guarantee of a job at the end of your placement.
What do you think is the most important or useful thing to know about poverty alleviation as a student?
For anyone, it is such a complex and difficult area. I don’t think that alleviating poverty is really about raising GDP. Overcoming poverty is about power and freedom and the ability to have a better life.
For students I would say, think about what area you are interested in and what work you are interested in. You don’t have to be in Malawi building toilets in order to make a difference! At Oxfam, for instance, we have working for us lawyers, auditors, stock-takers, campaigners, academic researchers and policy advisors. It’s about having an efficient organisation. Think about the impact you want to have. You don’t have to live in another country to do development work. It’s about thinking about the impact of your choices and actions, for example in making the choice to buy really cheap clothes what message are we sending to the manufacturer whose workers may be in appalling conditions. You could pressure those companies to have better working conditions, for example the War on Want Campaign pressuring Adidas.
Keep an eye out for jobs, not necessarily with a mind to apply for but to give ideas for areas you may want to apply to. A great site for that is bond.org.uk, it has loads of jobs listings from a good range of organisations here and overseas. Most development organisations will advertise internship roles here, and all Oxfam internships are advertised on Oxfam’s website – there are new opportunities posted regularly so check back to find something suited to your interests.
Could you give a brief outline of the internships and volunteering opportunities available with Oxfam?
Oxfam recruits a large number of volunteers across the UK so there is lots of opportunity for people to gain more experience in the NGO sector. Applications will vary from post to post and are either based on an application form or covering later and CV. We get large amounts of applications so check carefully how you need to apply, in order to be asked to interview.
Internships are created to support specific areas of work and as such we are looking for people with interests and skills that match, for example, I primarily work with schools and young people so am looking for people with experience of working with young people and an interest in the British education system as well as understanding of development issues. When you are looking at internship adverts please do think carefully if this is an area of development that you are really interested in, ‘I just want to work for Oxfam’ is not all that we are looking for.
What advice could you give to prospective applicants?
When completing your application do answer very clearly how you meet all the competencies we are asking for, paying specific attention to the essential criteria. Within excess of 30 applications for each post you need to communicate clearly how well you fit, and how committed you are. These are generally voluntary positions but we also want to know you are reliable, enthusiastic and will stick the course of the internship. In return you’ll normally get a great development opportunity with the chance to take a lead on new ideas and projects, some form of training process, a reference for future jobs, support in your future jobs and ‘a foot in the door’.
Do: Your research – on the organisation and role. Narrow your area of development interest… programmes, campaigns, policy, fundraising, marketing… Pay close attention to the person specification and competencies required. Be adaptable and ready to try new things.
Don’t: ‘Just want to do development’ – focus. Don’t write a very brief covering letter… or an essay! Think they should be happy to have me work for free… it is a competitive process and most staff have done an internship or two themselves. We do value all interns but you have to meet expectations.
Final thoughts: If you want to have a positive impact on global issues you don’t just have to work in development. Teachers, for example, have such an important and valuable role. You can go into business or social enterprise and have an emphasis on ethical practices. You can be part of this movement to overcome poverty by being part of a local campaigning group and getting involved with raising awareness.
Members of the new ASAP Students chapter at Delhi-area universities staged a successful launch workshop bringing together experts on food security and exclusion. Students from the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University Delhi came together on the Delhi University campus to engage on crucial issues of poverty, to strategize and elect officers for the new chapter.
They were joined by a five-member delegation from the ASAP Students chapter at the University of Birmingham in the UK, as well as by ASAP Board Chair Thomas Pogge, who was visiting Delhi to speak to various audiences about his Health Impact Fund initiative. Pogge led the students in dialogue about current and potential ASAP projects, and ways in which the two chapters could work together to have concrete impact on poverty-related issues in India, the UK and elsewhere.
Suparna Priyadarshini, a PhD student at Delhi University, was selected as the first Chair of the Delhi ASAP Students chapter, and several other members were chosen for officer posts. The group will be advised by Dr. Ashok Acharya, ASAP Board member and Associate Professor of Political Science at DU. An initial emphasis at the chapter will be the inauguration of the All Rights India project, aimed at helping the very poor learn about and actually claim their social entitlements.
At the July 19 workshop, discussion focused initially on problems with the way India’s government counts the poor. Utsa Patnaik, professor emeritus of economics at JNU, provided detailed evidence showing that the number of those unable to buy sufficient food has dramatically increased in recent years, even as government poverty-line figures have decreased. Dr. Arindam Banerjee, assistant professor of economics at Ambedkar University, provided further detail on ways in which the government’s counting methods ignore recent worsening of conditions in how the poor actually live. In terms of access to food, shelter, decent housing and other indicators, he said, India’s new economic dynamism has not filtered down to the poor.
Narayan Sukumar Associate Professor at Delhi University, gave an impassioned talk about the persistence of discrimination against lower-caste persons in universities across India, as well as outside the academic sector. Despite laws formally banning caste discrimination, he noted, it remains pervasive in virtually all aspects of university life and the broader Indian social context.
For information on the ASAP Students Delhi chapter, including on how to join, contact Suparna Priyadarshini at firstname.lastname@example.org
Undergraduate student leaders from the Birmingham UK ASAP chapter gained invaluable insight into the lives of the global poor in taking the poverty-line challenge. They pledged to spend no more than £1 per day on food for five consecutive days. That limit is approximately equivalent to the World Bank’s global poverty line, or the level below which a person is said to be living in extreme poverty. The challenge has been promoted by the Global Poverty Project. The Birmingham ASAP chapter adapted it as a fundraiser for the Deshkal Society, an Indian NGO working on behalf of lower-caste persons.
Here, two ASAP Students members and their staff (faculty) adviser share their experiences of taking the challenge:
In June 2012, for 1 week, I pledged, along with my ASAP colleagues, to live on £1 a day to symbolise the 1.4 billion people that live in severe poverty — people who, through no fault of their own, are suffering from a complete lack of the most basic of human needs. Meanwhile, those lucky enough to be born in a land of plenty continue to live our lives comfortably.
We decided undertake the challenge to raise funds and awareness of extreme poverty which affects so many across the world. Of course a week-long challenge is nothing compared to the experiences of the countless men, women and children who, day in, day out, live through the harsh reality of poverty.
I learnt so much from the challenge (though I did cheat slightly by taking a day off and making it up later due to a family celebration), and also had a lot of support from family and friends, raising around £100 for the Deshkal Society in India.
I began by collecting my £5 for the week and making a trip to the local supermarket. I quickly found that certain products such as cheese were just too expensive to include, as were fruit and fresh vegetables. I began to realise that whilst so called ‘developed nations’ have increasingly become so health conscious, this is a luxury. I couldn’t afford to have a balanced diet – only enough to satisfy my appetite – though I did manage to sneak in a pack of donuts that had been reduced to 20p. I left the supermarket having bought bread, rice, sauce in a jar, eggs, beans, and not forgetting the donuts.
The response from friends was interesting. I went out with some friends half way during the week. Whilst they ate lunch and snacked on chocolate, and urged me somewhat worriedly just to take a bite of what they were eating, I ate my stick of bread, which I found very fulfilling. I saw that my level of appreciation for the simple things in life was so much higher. When you’re hungry, you don’t mind if your bread is a little dry and crumbly. You appreciate what you have. A friend who had completed the challenge before me said something so profound – “Eat for need, not for greed.”
Our society has become enveloped in a culture of eating. We eat as a hobby, not as a necessity – and with the great diversity in colours, tastes and textures that we are lucky enough to experience, we become picky and unappreciative. The challenge above all taught me the importance of gratitude, of humility and of the strength of human will and determination.
We can make ethical choices in life, and whilst we may sometimes have to give up some luxury in order to do this, ultimately that’s the road that people are increasingly inclined to take. Why should a man or woman in the developing world have to go without the basics in order grow mangoes and papayas to satisfy our exotic diets?
We have to challenge the injustices of the system we have helped to create. Buying cheap chocolate for example only fuels the unjust cocoa trade which relies heavily on child labour. Let’s each pledge to join the movement for change.
Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.”
— Nelson Mandela
I began the challenge of living off £1 a day powered by the belief that such a task would be hard but possible. I soon realised that, in reality, being surrounded by expensive branded food in the shop I worked at, and becoming sick at the start of the challenge, the task both broke my spirit and was impossible once I became physically weak. It also made me realize that the things I consider normal in my daily life are mostly luxuries that many never get.
I spent my £5 budget for the week on mostly carbohydrates, firstly because they were the only things I could afford in this country (Britain), and secondly because I hoped they would fill my stomach for long enough. Even then I did cheat. I stole food from my house-mates’ fridge when I became hungry, and my craving for caffeine led me make two guilty cups of tea.
Working at my store proved both a luxury and a curse. People would approach me at the till with chocolate boxes that cost my entire food budget for that week! I really began to watch how much everything people bought even in a convenience store was actually a luxury. Chocolate bars, crisps, pieces of fruit, coffee all being bought simply because it was what someone ‘felt’ like having, whilst I served them hungry and wanting that chocolate bar that I couldn’t have.
The only positive side of my work was that I could eat food that would be thrown in the bin. It was considered ‘too old’ to be sold to customers but was still perfectly edible. Thus at the end of every day, I came home with a bag filled with expired treats I could never afford on my £1 per day. This got me thinking of how much I actually waste in my day to day life, and how wasting something is really a luxury that many wouldn’t dream of.
My final thought on this challenge was that for those who have no choice but to live off £1 a day, being sick or weak is simply not an option. Only one day into my challenge, I became ill, however I had the privilege of stopping until I became healthy and strong enough to start again. Many don’t have that choice, just proving that you can’t get sick if you live in poverty as the consequences are often dire.
Luis Cabrera (ASAP Students Birmingham Adviser)
I’ll add just a bit to the compelling accounts offered by Shabaana and Heather. I was very pleased at first to find that by sticking to the ‘Basics’ line at ubiquitous British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, I was able to buy sufficient calories for the week, with vegetarian protein and green veg as well. What I couldn’t buy was variety.
For my £5, I brought home a large bag of rice, several cans of kidney beans and, at 10 pence the can, a number of portions of that favourite British vegetable serving, mushy peas (far better than they sound). I also bought a cheap bag of popcorn for my treat food.
The first thing I realized was that I couldn’t afford anything to season my dishes. Nor did I have any oil for the popcorn. Most importantly, I hadn’t been able to afford any caffeine to support my pot-a-day coffee habit! The latter proved to be the most difficult part of the challenge, as I spent the first day absolutely listless, barely able to move from the couch at home.
So, I started to cheat. I took coffee from the cabinet, at home and at work. Then I took salt for the first batch of rice, beans and mushies. By the third batch, I had snuck some pepper, then paprika, then, shamelessly, a packet of that Puerto Rican spice-mix staple, Sazon Goya. At night, I snuck oil for the popcorn. I managed not to cheat with the free buffet food available at various campus events, but I can’t honestly say I ate on £1 per day. It just proved a bit too challenging to eat the same rather plain meal three times per day without any seasoning. And, shamefully, I only lasted four days of the five-day challenge.
What did I learn, besides affirming my rather low willpower threshold where savory food and caffeine are concerned? It was brought home to me just what a struggle it would be to try to feed oneself on such a small income, never mind trying to feed a family, and trying to keep them in adequate shelter, clothing, medicine, etc. I do recommend the challenge as a way to develop greater empathy and insight. It doesn’t put one directly in the shoes of an extremely poor person, of course, but it gives an invaluable glimpse into the barriers the global poor face in securing even the most basic necessities for themselves and their families.
by Benjamin Hill, Public Relations Manager, University of Birmingham
Interacting with the media (in whatever form) allows your research to reach thousands or even millions of people, through TV, press, blogs and social media. Although there remains residual reluctance amongst some academics to undertake this kind of activity it offers unique opportunities to raise the profile of work to funding bodies, create public awareness of an issue or to communicate research to other specialists through trade and academic press.
The world of the web and social media has opened up new opportunities for academics to discuss their work with a wider range of publics than ever before. This can help to generate wider interest and debate about a particular topic, although with that opportunity comes the potential for greater scrutiny.
In an academic environment where impact is being measured and where academics are keener than ever to demonstrate the importance of their work the question shouldn’t be do I need to do this work? But rather can I afford not to?
The Media and Academia
Academics are of huge interest to the media and the wider commentariat, although it can sometimes be hard to convince academic colleagues of the synergies that exist between the two worlds.
Journalists, even the most experienced correspondents, are not experts in every story they are asked to cover. They need experts from a range of backgrounds to provide information and help tell stories accurately, communicating to a non-specialist audience.
Journalists are also wary of being seen to comment personally on stories, so expert comment helps give readers and listeners an idea of the issues involved without forcing the journalist to take sides. Academics have two things that journalists particularly value: independence and expertise. A correspondent tackling the complex politics of North Africa or the complexities of international aid policy will almost certainly need to seek advice on some of the intricacies of these issues.
Aligned to this, the growth of a 24/7 global media has created its own demand for people who can provide informed and impartial comment: channels like BBC News, Sky News and Five Live, look to academics to provide expert comment on the day’s news agenda on a daily basis.
The independence and robust methodology of academic research is also attractive to the media. Study results from university research form a significant part of the news. A cursory look at the BBC News homepage reveals how many stories emanate from research or reports across an extremely wide range of topics from medicine to politics.
Commenting on current events requires academics to think about how their research can add value to the news agenda. There is a need for academics, particularly in the social sciences, to think about how best to define and create impact with their work and to recognise the power that communicating through the media has in developing discussion and challenging perceived wisdom.
Communicating your research outputs to the media can initially seem daunting: a loss of control, allowing your work to be interpreted by someone else. Nevertheless there are huge benefits in overcoming this reticence as interacting with a media allows your research to reach thousands or even millions of people.
Your press office can offer help and advice if you are contacted directly by a journalist or would like to use facilities. Before contacting the press office it is worth thinking about who you want to see the story. If you are looking to contact internal clients or academic peers a press release may not be the most effective solution. Other options might be social media, email or internal newsletters.
The press office team are always delighted to discuss any publicity ideas and suggest possible media organisations you could target. To attract wider interest a story will need to have certain elements that make it attractive to journalists. Although it is always difficult to predict with certainty which stories will be successful, there are key ideas, which are always important.
Is there any part of the story, which can be used to make attractive and striking moving footage?
Some other considerations:
Is there any aspect of the story, which is likely to excite particular controversy or criticism. If so it may be necessary to prepare answers and ideas in advance.
Before you do any interviews, make sure you know what publication / station / journalist you are being interviewed by, how long the interview is expected to last and, if it’s a broadcast interview, whether it will be live or pre-recorded.
Try to get as good an idea as possible of the kind of issues the journalist wants to discuss. It is often worth speaking to the journalist in advance of a formal interview or alternatively, speak to a member of the press office team, who can ascertain the angle of the interview on your behalf. However, it is not common practice for a journalist to supply a list of questions in advance.
Once the interview has started you can’t start looking for facts and figures.
In the Interview
In the interview, the key point is to answer questions directly and accurately. In broadcast interviews, manner and tone of voice create just as strong an impression as the content of your answers. Try not to refuse to answer questions, but if you have to: explain why.
Most journalists, whether working in print or broadcast, will be looking for short clips or sound bites to use. Depending on audience they are trying to reach this could be as short as 8-10 seconds (commercial radio). Generally it is important to try and be succinct in answering, even when dealing with complex topics. If you are aware that you are being interviewed about a complex story, it may be worth outlining two or three brief key points in advance.
Radio and TV thrive on examples so try and use accessible parallels during the interview, or metaphors that can help bring your story to life. Most importantly, speak naturally. Both TV and radio are intimate mediums. Although you may have an audience of several million people, you can speak to each person individually. Interviews should ideally be natural and conversational.
Commenting on Current News
There is considerable scope for academics to comment on ongoing news stories. The University of Birmingham, for example, regularly contacts the media to highlight academics who are interested in commenting on ongoing news stories. We actively encourage academics to be proactive in becoming involved in media.
In cases where there is an important ongoing story, eg: the credit crunch, Iraq or General Elections: the demand for comment, to move the story on is even greater. This is an excellent chance to raise the profile of a department and to provide a platform to discuss your research interests with a wider audience.
Getting involved in someone else’s story can potentially create controversy, particularly if journalists are looking for a contrary opinion or to stimulate debate. This does not happen often, but if you have doubts about becoming involved with a controversial story, please feel free to discuss it with the press office.
Writing a release
The key to a good press release is to tell the story simply and effectively. This is sometimes broken down into five principles:
Although this simplified list may not apply exactly to releases dealing with complex research outcomes, it does give a sense of what journalists are looking for from a good release.
Most releases will contain:
In this featured essay, ASAP Board Member and Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong Keith Horton explains the genesis and evolution of ASAP. He also outlines current projects and aims, as well as answering some possible critiques of the effort.
I floated the original ASAP proposal in 2009 and, in partnership with Meena Krishnamurthy, made the first efforts at enlisting other academics. My background is in moral philosophy, and I had become convinced that people and governments in rich countries (the ‘global rich’) are morally required to do much more than they are currently doing to tackle severe poverty in poor countries. The bare fact that given their relative wealth the global rich are in a position to make a major impact on such poverty at relatively little cost to themselves had always seemed to me enough to ground a very strong argument for such action. The fact that the global rich have various forms of connection with the global poor – through international trade and tourism, historically through colonialism and all its evils, and so on – would widely be taken to strengthen that argument further. And the fact that the global rich continue to act in ways that are known to make it harder for the global poor to escape from poverty – by imposing trade rules rigged in their own favour, for example, and by buying resources that warlords have in effect stolen from their own people – strengthens that argument further still. The combined case is overwhelming.
Most philosophers and other normative theorists who research these issues would agree with that conclusion, I believe, though of course they would disagree about the details. That message doesn’t seem to be reaching many people beyond academia, though. Most people in rich countries still seem to regard any action taken to tackle global poverty as a matter of charity – admirable, perhaps, but not morally required. The pressure on governments in rich countries to reform policies that worsen global poverty is weak at best. With one or two notable exceptions, moreover, there seems to be surprisingly little attempt by philosophers to get this message about the moral priority of tackling severe poverty out beyond academia. Most publish exclusively in academic journals, focusing on the smaller issues that divide them rather than the larger issues that unite them.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by this, for it is not generally taken to be part of the role of academics to try to change the world. Academics should focus on purely on truth-seeking; others may then select any ideas of wider interest and disseminate them more broadly. At least in the case of normative work on global poverty, though, this latter role seems to have been largely neglected. And so there are strong reasons for academics to work harder at disseminating their own ideas, given the moral urgency of the issue. After all, if one’s research leads one to the conclusion that the global rich are living in a way that is deeply morally wrong, with consequences that are (without any hyperbole) catastrophic, then surely that ought to be enough to motivate a departure from normal practice.
It was such thoughts that led me to try to find out if other philosophers would be interested in forming a group that would aim at having more impact on global poverty than we were currently having. By working together as a group, I thought, we would be able to have much more impact than if each of us worked independently. We could discuss strategy together and draw on each other’s insights, expertise, and connections when determining how it would be best to concentrate our efforts. We could share tasks between ourselves so that contributing to the enterprise did not become too time-consuming for any individuals. And the very existence of the group might catalyse certain individuals who have felt vaguely that they would like to ‘do something’ about global poverty, but without being able to see what.
With this in mind, I presented a proposal for such a group at a workshop on global poverty in Canberra, Australia in July 2009. The first to show an active interest was Meena, who had already been working on a similar idea. She helped me to develop the proposal and then we sent it out to our networks. We were heartened by the positive response, and particularly by the fact that a number of other philosophers – above all, Thomas Pogge and Paula Casal – showed a willingness to give their time and energy to the project. With these new people came new ideas. The first major innovation was the decision to expand the membership of the group to include academics in disciplines other than philosophy. The advantages to doing so were clear enough, given that many of the issues relevant to global poverty are interdisciplinary, and that using the networks of people from a broader range of disciplines would help to publicise the group’s activities more widely. Accordingly, we rewrote the proposal for the group again, and called ourselves ‘Academics Stand Against Poverty’ (ASAP), a name suggested by Thomas, who now serves as Chair of the ASAP Board.
As if to mock our choice of acronym, progress was initially very slow, but we gradually moved forward. Our list of interested academics expanded steadily, now including people from many different disciplines. Thomas arranged for the Global Justice Center at Yale University to provide organisational support and some funding. In July 2010 we had our first public event, a workshop on the theme ‘How can academics have more impact on global poverty?’ at a conference on Global Ethics in Bristol, England. Andrew Williams chaired the workshop and Sabina Alkire, Paula, and Thomas gave presentations, stimulating an interesting discussion. A little later, we got funding from Yale for our first project, an experiment to test the comparative effectiveness of different kinds of philosophical argumentation in inspiring moral concern and action regarding global poverty. John French and Paula worked on the logo and web banner with comments from the Board. We drafted a mission statement and set of aims, and established ASAP as a not-for-profit organisation in the US, with much help from Joy Gordon of the Global Justice Center.
Most importantly of all, ASAP continued to attract new academics and students, including some – such as Matt Lindauer, Luis Cabrera, and Gilad Tanay – who were to play major roles in the development of the organisation. Gilad, Matt, and Justine Kolata organised the ASAP US launch conference at Yale University in April 2011, and Luis organised the ASAP UK launch conference at Birmingham University in May 2011. Thomas headlined both events, and both were a great success. Attendance was excellent, new ideas were proposed and old ideas improved, and new people emerged prepared to carry these ideas forward.
We are now endeavouring to put some of those ideas into action. One example is World Poverty Forum. It’s designed to bring research and expert dialogue on global poverty to a broad public. A second is the Global Poverty Report, which aims to identify and articulate a broad overlapping consensus among academics on some of the most important normative and factual claims about global poverty. Gilad is playing the main role in pulling this project together. Matt and Meena are leading a third project, Moral Motivation and Poverty Alleviation, which aims to bring together academics working in moral philosophy and the cognitive sciences to discover more effective means of motivating individuals to contribute to measures aimed at tackling global poverty.
Another theme that came forward strongly at Yale and Birmingham concerned certain impediments in the way of academics seeking to have an impact on global poverty, and how an organisation like ASAP might help to overcome them. Many thought it would be helpful, for example, if such an organisation could facilitate better coordination, collaboration, and mutual support both among academics working on global poverty in different fields, and among such academics and NGOs, governments and multilateral organisations. We are now developing the ASAP website in ways that are intended to serve these ends.
In relation to research, the website will help to make it clear who is working on which poverty-relevant topics around the world and thus allow for more efficient collaboration. In relation to projects, the website will contain information on which projects are in need of what kind of help, and how academics and students can make an effective contribution to them. It will also enable people to fill out a form specifying how they are able and willing to contribute and thus join a database which activist academics can use to enlist their help. This should help academics and students who want to contribute their time, resources and skills to the cause of poverty reduction but aren’t quite sure how best to do so. The ASAP website should also allow academics to share their scarce resources (grant-writing expertise, data-bases, guidance on campaigning and public persuasion, and so on) with one another in an efficient way, as well as to make available to the community of global poverty academics shared resources that will improve our collective impact.
These are some of our current ideas and plans. How much of a difference might we make? Though many are enthusiastic about the project, there have always been some who are sceptical that an organisation like ASAP can have a significant impact on global poverty. A variety of reasons have been put forward for such scepticism. It is sometimes said that academics lack the skills necessary to make such an impact, for example. They write in styles that are technical and obscure, and lack the networking and political skills necessary to influence events. Such claims stereotype academics, though. Some academics write in styles that are technical and obscure and others don’t; some have highly developed networking and political skills and some do not, and so on. In so far as we lack the necessary skills, moreover, we can either develop them or collaborate with those who do have them. So there does not appear to be any decisive reason for scepticism from this quarter.
A different reason for scepticism is that academics are said to be too divided to be able to make much of a common cause together. Ours is a profession in which novelty is rewarded: when we publish, we aim to show how we differ and not where we overlap; when we respond it is usually to criticize and not to support. Again, though there is something in this complaint, it does not appear to present any decisive obstacle. We at ASAP believe that there is in fact much more consensus on what can and should be done to alleviate global poverty than might appear on the surface, and we hope to identify and highlight this consensus. We also believe that lots of academics will be willing to support this effort, given the benefits that might follow. Doing so may enable academics to present a unified front on poverty, which should significantly improve our prospects for achieving a real impact on policy.
More broadly, the claim that academics can’t have more impact on global poverty than they are currently having implies that academics are already acting in just the way that has the maximum possible impact. One only has to state this implication, though, to see how implausible it is. There must be steps we can take that would enable us to have more impact, especially if we work together in a coordinated way. And that being so, we should find out what those steps are and put them into practice. I have already indicated some of our ideas, and more can be found on the ASAP website. We are still at a very early stage, though, and welcome new ideas, as well as criticism of our current ideas and suggestions for improvement. So if you have any thoughts, do please let us know.
As for the immediate future, there are upcoming ASAP events in Oslo, Washington DC, New Delhi, and London. We hope there will be such events in other countries too, as well as ASAP branches in many different countries. If you would like to be part of this enterprise, please consider becoming a member of ASAP, and let us know how you would like to contribute.