Make Poverty History

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A new protest movement has emerged which challenges the priorities of the G8, as Chris Nineham explains.

'Make Poverty History' is becoming a rallying cry for 2005. Following the London European Social Forum the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign promises to take the global justice movement to a new level.

MPH brings together all the developmental NGOs, most trade unions, many campaigning organisations and a range of celebrities. It is campaigning against the debt, for serious aid and for fair trade.

There is a range of approaches within the campaign. Fair trade can be interpreted in different ways. Oxfam stresses the dismantling of trade barriers and the abolition of subsidies in the First World. It calls for a level playing field in the world market. Others argue the key is national autonomy over the terms of trade for less developed countries. A visit to the websites of the World Development Movement or War on Want shows there is also plenty of controversy about the Brown/Blair anti-poverty initiatives. But everyone in the campaign agrees the big powers are presiding over a catastrophe for billions of poor people round the world, and that now is the time for change - 'If not our generation, then who?'

Blair and Brown are pitching to catch the same mood. 'It can't be morally right, in a world growing more prosperous by the year, that one in six African children still die before their fifth birthday.' So says Tony Blair and who would argue with him? No doubt Blair hopes a spotlight on Africa will distract from Iraq and give him some left credibility in the run-up to the general election.

Whatever the motives, the focus on Africa can only be welcomed. Sub-Saharan Africa has been devastated by the last 25 years of neoliberal globalisation. Last month Gordon Brown launched what he called a Marshall Plan for Africa. It has three elements: debt write-off, a doubling of aid and a levelling of the terms of trade between 'First' and 'Third World' countries. There is nothing wrong with the aspirations, but the plans themselves are problematic.

The first difficulty is that, judging by last month's Group of Seven finance ministers' meeting, the other big powers are not keen. At the meeting Germany insisted that debt relief should only be looked at 'on a case by case basis' and Japan and others opposed committing to 100 percent debt relief for anyone. Most damaging of all, the US disagreed with Brown's debt plans and flatly opposed his aid project, the International Finance Initiative.

This failure to agree leaves the initiatives in some disarray. But on close inspection the Brown plans look pretty threadbare anyway. The cancellation of Britain's share of the debts owed by 32 countries to the World Bank and the African Development Bank is welcome, if overdue. But there are catches. The cancellation is to be funded from the existing aid budget, which was increased with a big fanfare in July. So, in the words of one Jubilee Research document, 'Brown is asking us to cheer twice for this one'. To put things in context, Britain's aid spending stands at 0.34 percent of gross national income, below the UN target of 0.7 percent, and well below the OECD average of 0.41 percent. Overall, developed countries are making almost no progress towards the 0.7 percent level set for 2015 (a promise Britain first made 35 years ago). Last month's OECD report shows that almost all of the slight increase in 2003 was due to inflation and the weakening of the dollar.

There are also problems with implementation. Debt reduction is to be phased in over time and will be conditional on policy prescriptions from the IMF and the World Bank. Their rhetoric has changed from 'structural adjustment' to 'poverty reduction', but the suspicion is that the policies themselves are the same. The Treasury for instance insists on 'robust public expenditure management systems' and promises that debt reduction will continue only if 'savings are being used for poverty reduction'. And the cancellation only covers debts owed to the World Bank and African Development Bank. That means many of the poorest countries won't benefit as they borrow from other regional banks or increasingly they find that their debt has been privatised.

Brown calls his big aid proposal the International Finance Facility (IFF). The idea is the IFF would issue special bonds secured on future aid budgets as a way of 'frontloading' aid spending, hopefully doubling it by 2015. But as critics said when the scheme was first announced in 2003, the problem is once again that no new money is involved. The scheme is based on a financial sleight of hand that could endanger future aid as the bonds will have to be repaid. As the World Development Movement's Barry Coates said in 2003, 'There is no free lunch for rich governments. If Gordon Brown has come up with a scheme which convinces world leaders they can solve world poverty without sticking their hands into their pockets it will fail.' Even the World Bank assessment worries the IFF will be wasteful: 'Because of the added cost of establishing and running the IFF, of its market transactions, and interests paid on its bonds, flows diverted from aid budgets to pay IFF bonds could be substantial.'

Brown's assumption that a level trade playing field will help solve the problems for less developed countries is really worrying. Of course many existing trade arrangements are outrageous. The EU subsidises each cow to the tune of $2 a day while around the world 2.7 billion have to try to survive on the same amount. But scrapping subsidies won't automatically help the poor. Most of the very poorest countries are net importers of food and an end to subsidies would lead to devastating increases in food prices. Many poor countries already have bilateral deals with the EU and others guaranteeing them export quotas. As Oxfam has pointed out, Brown's proposals could threaten these deals and make things even worse for those at the bottom of the pile.

Lurking behind this initiative is the big neoliberal lie that market integration boosts development. British minister for trade investment and foreign affairs Douglas Alexander made this clear in the Guardian last month. 'Trade is the best engine of development,' he said, and 'if Africa could raise its share of world exports by just 1 percent it would be worth five times as much as the continent receives in aid and debt relief'. Bluntly this is New Labour trying to hijack the project of the global justice movement and turn it into its opposite - a plan for more capitalist globalisation.

Talk of level playing fields obscures the fact that poor countries are already disadvantaged by years of imperialism, debt and underdevelopment. The consequence of this history is that most are dependent on a narrow range of commodity exports. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) just three commodities account for the 75 percent of total exports in each of the 48 poorest countries. The price of these commodities is in long term decline and short term free-fall. Between 1997 and 2001 the combined commodity price index fell by 53 percent. Further trade liberalisation will only increase commodity dependence.

The reality is that the neoliberal years of bringing down barriers and cutting public spending have been a godsend for foreign investors and a few rich Africans, and a disaster for the great majority on the continent. By the end of the 1990s the returns on US direct investments in Africa were the highest of any region in the world. Stock markets have been established in 20 African countries and an Economic Intelligence Unit report notes that in some of them annual returns 'in excess of 100 percent' have been 'generated'.

Meanwhile the continent has 10 percent of the world's population and 1 percent of its gross domestic product. Since the early 1980s income per head relative to the industrialised world has fallen steadily. In the words of Nigerian economist Bade Onimode, 'Africa's crisis and the IMF and World Bank... have created a catastrophe of suffering for the rural and urban poor, women, children, workers, peasants and other vulnerable social groups.'

The G8 is a chance to broaden and deepen the movement across the country. Tens of thousands of people are already preparing to go to Scotland in July. We should be demanding immediate cancellation of debt to all poor countries and a massive increase in aid with no strings.

We also need to protest against the war at the G8. US spending on the war is set to reach $200 billion by the end of this year, three times the total world annual aid budget. Nothing could expose the demented agenda of modern capitalism more clearly.

It is obvious we can't rely on the politicians to do what needs to be done. We have to build a movement capable of putting irresistible pressure on our rulers. A good next step will be to bring together debt campaigners, trade unionists, environmentalists and the anti-war movement at the G8 in a protest Bush, Blair and the rest of them will never forget.

Globalise Resistance -
Make Poverty History

Imagine your youngest child is dying from a preventable illness because your government has to spend more on debt repayments than on healthcare.

Imagine you cannot sell the crops you farm at a profit because your prices are undercut by subsidised produce from the European Union and the US.

Millions of families around the world don't have to imagine, because that is their daily reality.

Those families could see that reality change for the better, however, as a result of decisions made in Scotland this summer. World leaders meet at Gleneagles in July, with Britain the host nation. It is a huge opportunity to change the economic policies which keep people in poverty. If the eight men who lead the G8 states have the political will, they can help 800 million people out of poverty. If they don't, the totally disgraceful situation which sees 30,000 children die from poverty every day will continue.

What do these leaders have to do to make a difference? They need to provide more and better aid, they need to drop the unfair debt owed by developing countries and they need to change the rules of international trade to allow poor farmers and workers a chance to help themselves out of poverty.

Will they do it? Well that's where you come in! Politicians will only change their policies if the public makes them. That's why everyone who wants to make poverty history needs to add their voice and their support to the campaign to ensure the leaders aren't let off the hook, not just people in Britain but around the world!

However, the fact that the G8 meeting takes place in Scotland gives people from Britain a unique chance to be at the forefront of this world movement to end poverty. Log on to to find out more and register your support, wear a white band, the campaign symbol that is available via the website and put 2 July in your diary now. That date will see a huge march take place in Edinburgh, one of the biggest peaceful protests Scotland has ever seen, to demand global change. Be part of it and help do your bit to Make Poverty History!

Malcolm Fleming, Oxfam