Those were the words of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in their 2010 statement: Choosing the Common Good.
The symbols of campaigns for change – the badges and t-shirts, the wrist bands and looped ribbons – are all around us in today’s society. They are part of our culture and identity.
But as the Catholic community looks back on 50 years of campaigning against international poverty and injustice with CAFOD, there is not one defining or unifying symbol; for it is not one campaign moment, wristband or slogan that call us to action, but rather our shared faith, hope and love.
Campaigning has always been at the heart of CAFOD’s mission. We believe that it is powerful because it seeks to address poverty and injustice head-on, tackling the roots of the problem and not just the symptoms. And that’s why we encourage supporters, schoolchildren and the wider Catholic community to learn about poverty and injustice and to recognise the call on all of us to challenge it. But with such a long history of campaigning, how has our approach changed as the organisation has grown and developed?
During the 1970s, our education campaigns focused on particular countries – such as Brazil or the Philippines – as well as raising awareness about specific issues, including emerging concerns about the environment. As we identified key issues common to poor communities worldwide, it became clear that in order to make progress we would need to look at the political system and influencing those in power to make the right decisions for the poorest in their policies and practices.
And this has had its own challenges. During the 50 years since CAFOD was founded, we have seen ten different Prime Ministers, thirteen general elections, devolution for Scotland and Wales, and the joining of the European Union. So as the political environment has changed, we’ve adapted our methods of campaigning to keep pace.
Together we’ve taken on some huge issues: aid; the environment; trade; debt; the responsibility of big business; land rights; treatment of vulnerable people; water and sanitation; and food and hunger. A diverse mix, reflecting the complex nature of poverty and its root causes. Yet there’s a common thread: our vision of a world free from poverty, and our determination to take action alongside the poorest to bring this about.
And while traditional forms of campaigning such as letter-writing, lobbying and marching are still going strong – especially with CAFOD’s growing network of MP correspondents, who build up vital relationships with their MPs locally – new ways of activism have emerged, harnessing the power of the internet and social media. So we’ve been working to embrace these too.
However we come together, the most important thing is that we do. We are one body, with many parts, and together we can be a powerful force for change. Need evidence? Think of the coalitions of UK agencies which powered massive campaigns like Make Poverty History in 2005 and Jubilee 2000 or set up lasting initiatives like the Fairtrade Foundation or Ethical Trading Initiative. Or the partnership across Europe with other Catholic aid agencies which underpinned 2009’s Climate Justice Campaign.
Both behind the scenes and out on the streets, CAFOD has been at the heart of all this joint campaigning, and the same will be true next year when we help lead a coalition of charities uniting to campaign for action against world hunger.
However, no one knows a community’s needs better than the people that live there. No one can speak out with more passion and authenticity about an injustice than someone who is directly affected by it. That is why we have always tried to boost the power of campaigns initiated and run by the local organisations who we work with overseas, by sharing ideas, sending messages of solidarity and through prayer.
Earlier this year, families in Sao Paulo, Brazil faced being thrown out onto the streets. With help from our partners in Brazil, the families themselves organised marches and meetings with local authorities, and communities in England and Wales added their voices by signing petitions to the Brazilian authorities, presented by the families under threat of eviction. As a result, the eviction was suspended.
But does it always make a difference? When we are talking about challenging vested interests and powerful power structures, we know change will not happen overnight, and that – as with the Sao Paulo evictions – a threat suspended is only a threat postponed. But together we have played our part in some major successes: more than 7.5 million farmers, producers and their families now benefit from Fairtrade; 144 countries have signed an anti-landmine treaty; and 24 million people signed the Jubilee 2000 petition resulting in 110 billion dollars of debt being cancelled. And, with your support, we’ll keep on fighting for more.
Campaigning remains firmly at the heart of CAFOD’s work: a crucial part of our call to give, act and pray during Lent and throughout the year. It changes the world; it changes communities; and it also changes you. So in CAFOD’s fiftieth year, we’re inviting you to join in. Our new campaign, Hungry for change, is a great place to start. With one in eight of us going hungry, it’s an injustice we can’t ignore. And our hunger for change, in solidarity with our neighbours and through the grace of God, can begin to transform our world.
Take action now: www.cafod.org.uk/hungry
About the author: Clare Lyons is CAFOD’s Head of Campaigns. This article was first published in the Catholic Times.