“Most politicians believe deep down that they have the monopoly on good ideas, rarely learning from but constantly repeating each other’s mistakes…”
GOOD-BYE TO THE MACHO CULTURE OF POLITICS
Many people have asked me, since I joined Cafod last year, how working in the charitable sector compares to my previous career in politics, and whether I miss the old life. There are some things I do miss. In my current role as Cafod’s head of communications, I wish getting coverage for some of our life-changing work around the world was as easy as it used to be to get column inches for a relatively inconsequential speech by Gordon Brown.
But there are elements of political life that, with the benefit of some enforced hindsight, I would never want to go back to: the partisanship, the macho culture, the win-at-all-costs mentality and the delight taken in seeing other human beings brought low, all of which I was guilty of in my own time. More than anything, I don’t miss the atmosphere in the House of Commons – behaviour which would not be tolerated in any other
CHANGING THE WORLD FOR THE BETTER
There are some things the political and charitable worlds have in common, notably that the vast majority of people who work in them are decent and principled individuals who came into those careers determined to change the world for the better. There is also a constant debate in both sectors about what tactics are appropriate to inspire support. Do you appeal to negative instincts like guilt and fear, or positive feelings such as faith and hope? Which has more potency: a campaign based around self-interest or a sense of solidarity?
Cafod’s approach to such issues is clear, inspired by Scripture and Catholic social teaching, always appealing to a sense of hope and solidarity among our supporters, and portraying those in the poorest communities with the dignity and respect they deserve, not as helpless, suffering victims. It is heartening to see that same Catholic social teaching currently so in vogue among politicians looking for alternative ways to address Britain’s social and economic problems in an age of austerity. But the difference between working for an agency like Cafod and working in politics remain far greater than the similarities, in four main respects.
THE LIVING EXPRESSION OF FAITH
First, despite the best efforts of some individual MPs, there remains an unbridgeable gap between the leadership of each party and its core members: those who pay their annual dues and go knocking on doors at election time. Every new party leader is encouraged to assert their authority and prove their mainstream appeal by “taking on” their members over issues such as gay marriage and all-female shortlists. That may be sensible politics, but it is hardly a sign of cohesive organisation. By contrast, Cafod sees itself as nothing more than the sum of its supporters. Its core purpose is the living expression of their faith. We were born 50 years ago from the efforts of individual volunteers and, while we have grown in size and stature over the years, our lifeblood
remains the support of Catholic parishes and schools around the country.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE PAST
Second, despite the pretence of public consultation and their constant rhetoric about “listening to the experts”, most politicians believe deep down that they have the monopoly on good ideas, rarely learning from but constantly repeating each other’s mistakes, and too often inclined to make announcements for the sake of a new headline, without considering how and whether they will ever be delivered in practice.
An agency like Cafod is different in every respect: actively seeking out ideas and new ways of working from our partners in the poorest countries, and benefiting from a vast institutional memory, where every way of operating in those countries has evolved from lessons learned in the past. The practicalities of delivery are the first consideration in weighing up new commitments, even when responding to emergencies.
Third, politics is all too often, and almost unapologetically, about winning that day’s argument, getting on that day’s news and establishing short-term advantage over your opponents. It is all too rarely about facing up to the most difficult long-term problems and investing in long-term solutions. Little wonder when the politicians making the decisions have their eye on what will get them advancement at the next reshuffle or secure a majority at the next election, rather than what will benefit the country in 15 or 20 years time. Compare that to the increasingly influential approach Cafod has adopted to tackling humanitarian emergencies, not hopping from one crisis to the next handing out tents, food and medicine, but going into vulnerable communities in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and elsewhere together with the Church on the ground, and working with them on major long-term transformation of their livelihoods and resource management, so that when the next cyclone or drought hits, they can withstand it and carry on.
WORKING TOGETHER FOR THE COMMON GOOD
Finally, what I see constantly in the charitable sector that remains almost unheard of in our modern politics is a willingness to work together for the common good. Appalling as it is, the overriding desire for short-term political advantage makes the idea of agreeing a joint approach seem almost pointless to many politicians. By contrast, agencies like Cafod have an automatic instinct to work in coalition, knowing that we are stronger standing with other like-minded organisations than standing alone, even when it means subsuming our own identity. Those coalitions are not characterised by trading of different party pledges, but by agreement of the most important shared priorities, as we will see next year when Cafod joins all the other major British development agencies to campaign on the issue of hunger.
In all these areas I believe my old friends and foes in politics have much to learn from the way that charities like Cafod work, and the contrast with their own practices…
– The above is an excerpt of the article “Give me Cafod over Westminster any day” by Damian McBride, published in “The Catholic Herald” on December 21, 2012