The shelves in the government goody store are about to become a lot more bare. How will the kids cope?

Those of us who try to change policy are a bit like a group of children at the sweet shop. We look at the shelves, pester our parents for money, try to do deals with our friends to maximise our purchasing power or, more often, to stop the parents noticing how much we’re planning to stuff into our mouths. Some of us are cleverer at it than others: last week, I saw a little girl of about four argue that depriving her of a tube of fruit pastilles would lead to low blood sugar and “I’ll do badly at school.” I was filled with admiration.

For all the pleading, threats and negotiation, the sweet shop has been quite a comforting place. The shelves are full, the parents have the cash, dinner will always be there however unappetising it seems after four bars of chocolate. An older lady in the village told me about rationing after the Second World War: children spent hours calculating what they could buy with their coupons. There were loopholes: Ovaltine tablets were considered supplements and some dried fruits were off ration. Saturday morning at the cinema was an intensively sugary time but food in general was still scarce and some of the sweets had to be set aside because the kids felt hungry during the week.

I wonder if we’re ready for rationing in the government sweet shop. It’s not just that the sweeties may be in short supply or that the parents might need their money to pay the mortgage. Even the big boys and the bully girls might have trouble getting their hands on enough cash for snacks and we know what that means: they’ll steal whatever rations we have managed to get for ourselves.

I’ve worked for the frightening, big kids just enough to know what a mugging looks like. Try to get farmers to stop living on hand-outs or the defence industry to give up its $1000 toilet seats and you’ll find out how a five year old feels when the big girl has taken the chocolate bar and downed it in two mouthfuls. Try to make the financiers pay tax or the doctors spend less time on the golf course and you’ll find out what it feels like to be dragged off your bike and told not to try to get the bike back if you know what’s good for you.

Most of the time, I work for the little kids with geeky glasses, sensible shoes and supermarket gym kit: emerging economy governments, development, environment, peace keeping, international health. Now that the fiscal stimulus in Europe has done an emergency stop, are they guaranteed to get a kicking? Probably, but there are a few good lessons from the playground that we — the geeky kids — might do well to learn.

  • Make friends with the kids who can fight. Wimpy friends will be too busy protecting themselves; look for a couple of the girls who play rugby or the boys who know the dealers. Make sure you have their mobile numbers. How does this relate to defending development assistance budgets? I can sum it up in an acronym: PEPFAR. Under the Bush administration, a very odd coalition of some radical AIDS activists and moderate evangelicals formed an alliance. The economy was booming but poor Africans were low on the agenda of an administration run by Halliburton and General Dynamics. In Karl Rove’s eyes, the evangelicals were the kids on the football team and the AIDS activists were the ones who deserved a kicking. Working together the jocks and the wimps got the biggest programme in the history of international assistance for health in Africa — The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The evangelicals accepted an openly gay man running the programme in return for some commitments on promoting sexual abstinence outside marriage, discouraging prostitution and encouraging monogamy. The activists held their noses and kept quiet about HIV in communities of men who have sex with men. The cash flowed. When Barack Obama was elected, there were encouraging signs that he would cultivate the unlikely coalition although the roles were reversed and the activists had to protect the evangelicals. Within 48 hours of Hillary Clinton taking over as Secretary of State, Mark Dybul (the gay man who ran PEPFAR and whose inauguration had been attended by Laura Bush and his male partner) was fired. Soon the programme had been rewritten to become impeccably PC and linked to a broader effort to fund global health. Predictably, the funding has almost dried up. To read an example of how the new big boys turned on the new wimps, read this impeccably PC piece on “Misogyny Kills” Hundreds of thousands may die as a result.
  • Tell the grown ups about the bad boys being nice to you – it’s what you can do for them. If a mining company expends political capital getting an environmental programme funded or a right-wing think tank argues for more spending on gender equality, thank them very publicly. Greenpeace are — despite their stunts and shouting — very clever at this. Recently the largest Canadian forestry trade group including Kimberly-Clark, the world’s largest manufacturer of tissues, agreed a moratorium on logging in 29 million hectares of boreal forests in Canada. Greenpeace tamed its triumphalism and allowed the logging industry to present it as a truce to allow planning on sustainable harvesting. Now the loggers can tell their shareholders that they got something for the deal other than an end to bad publicity. Predictably the radical Greens went ballistic — That just made forestry industry even more grateful.
  • Help your new big friends with their homework — you’re the geek, they’re the muscle. The arms industry, the pharma companies and the bankers are hopelessly inept at dealing with civil society or pretty much anyone who doesn’t work in their own inner circle. If they’re nice to you, don’t exploit their incompetence. Help them. I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve seen UN organisations, big universities or big NGOs milk corporate sponsors for cash and deliver, in return, a few press releases and some meaningless seminar. The people who run many industries may be socially inept but they’re not stupid. In time they realise that they are getting nothing in return and retire to count their losses.
  • Practise occasional ruthlessness. I very rarely hit anybody when I was in school but when I did, I hit them hard. It meant that I only had to get in a fight every few years and that I never got into trouble: the teachers assumed that I was the victim. Don’t rage, don’t issue frequent hostile press releases and don’t encourage a few dozen supporters to sign silly petitions condemning companies or governments. Wait until an opponent is vulnerable and then hit them very hard in the press or in parliament. It will encourage others to pick on easier targets in future. Trafigura has to be one of the world’s least attractive corporations. They have been involved in propping up Saddam Hussein, buying oil so dirty that no other company would touch it and dumping toxic waste in Africa. They minimised reporting of their behaviour through a sustained campaign of legal action against any NGO or news organisation unwise enough to cover them. One day, their lawyers went too far, securing an injunction that attempted to prevent reporting of a UK parliament debate on their misdeeds. The journalists who had been gagged for years pounced. Here is The Independent’s report on some of what has happened since Senior managers are on trial in The Netherlands and the company is at least £30 million poorer. Trafigura’s lawyers are reported to be rather short of new corporate business.
  • Don’t get distracted by the by-standers: lots of kids will be shouting and screaming and, no matter how much the crowd sympathise, they won’t get their sweets back. It’s easy to get Le Monde or The Huffington Post to express outrage and almost as easy to get liberal bloggers and Tweeters to kick-start electronic traffic. In good times, this can work. Years ago, we were arguing that a new type of very expensive dressing should be made available on the British National Health Service to people with chronic leg ulcers. About a month after the campaign started, I was called by a very irritated civil servant: the minister had summoned him in and asked how much it would cost. “About £50 million,” the civil servant said. “Fine. Just give it to them,” replied the minister. “I can’t take another old lady telling me about the revolting details of her seeping leg.” The civil servant was calling to ask how to negotiate the rapid end of the campaign. In hard times, ministers find it easier to put up with old ladies than their colleagues in the finance ministries. If you can show a real political cost in a constituency they need, you might just get the money; if all you have is the ability to hassle, you will go away empty handed.