The Search for Justice: NGOs in Britain and Ireland and the New International Economic Order, 1968–82

On May 10, 1974, representatives from six leading British NGOs sat down to a meeting with Prime Minister Harold Wilson and three of his cabinet colleagues at 10 Downing Street. Their aim was simple: to persuade Wilson’s Labour Party government of the inherently global nature of poverty and the need for an appropriately global response. Coming just nine days after the UN General Assembly approved the G-77’s Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), this ad hoc Group for Action on Poverty (GAP) spoke readily to the agenda of economic and political reform. The stage was set, it warned, for “a fundamental shift in the balance of wealth and power.”With it came a need to rethink the West’s role in the world. But GAP’s reading of reform was shaped by something more than the formal demands of the G-77. For the organizations it represented—the domestic-focused Child Poverty Action Group, Help the Aged, and Shelter, and the more internationally minded Oxfam, United Nations Association, and War on Want—the NIEO was merely one strand in a growing campaign for a more just global order. The woman in England who “surrenders her children to the social services because she just can’t cope” and the old man in Asia “who has gone without food for days [and] huddles in a gutter to die” belonged to the same narrative, they argued: “the price we pay for poverty.”Their solution was equally wide-ranging: “a re-distribution of wealth … on an international as well as a national scale.”3

GAP’s efforts ultimately fell short of its ambitious aims. Positive noises from Wilson dissipated as the group struggled to articulate a coherent vision for reform. Yet its yearning for something beyond charity marked a significant change. The rise of humanitarian and human rights norms in international discourse in the last quarter of the twentieth century—what Kathryn Sikkink later termed the “justice cascade”—was accompanied by the NGO community’s embrace of social and economic justice as an ever greater part of the global antipoverty campaign.The G-77 played an important role in that process. Away from the high-level diplomacy of the “North-South Dialogue,” the NIEO came to embody a spirit of global reform that proved highly attractive to those seeking a new model of non-governmental aid. Its language of interdependence opened up new ways of thinking about poverty and development. Most of all, this “NIEO imaginary” brought with it the alluring possibility of a more just world order.As Trócaire, the official aid agency of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, put it in 1976: “The NIEO is really a shorthand and not very elegant way of describing a new mood in international affairs … a realization that politics and economics are inextricably linked, and a growing awareness that international affairs are now of vital significance to every one of us.”6

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