Life Before Debt

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It wasn't long ago that the world's leaders could meet for conferences in glorious isolation. The anti-capitalist protests of the last few years have changed all that. Now the scandal of global poverty mobilises an immense, angry movement.

The organisers of the $275 million G8 summit at the luxury Gleneagles Hotel have used the usual scare tactics to try to minimise the protests. On the other hand the G8 leaders - and Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in particular - have tried to associate themselves with the public desire for real action on debt relief, aid and trade. The Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign has struck a chord with millions.

But the much lauded IMF and World Bank debt write-off announced by Blair and Brown in June is cosmetic and inadequate. Their 'special relationship' with George Bush has not even persuaded him to find additional resources: US debt relief is to be transferred from its already meagre aid budget. Even if the deal's promises are met, the 18 qualifying countries would still be indebted to some bilateral creditors (including some G8 countries), and some multilateral and private creditors.

Tied to these promises are the ubiquitous 'conditionalities'. To qualify for debt relief countries must 'boost private sector development' and eliminate 'impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign'. It is a travesty of the truth to say that slashing public spending on health and education, which has played a devastating role in the spread of HIV/Aids in Africa, is a means of tackling corruption. For instance, Uganda's World Bank dictated sell-off of state owned companies garnered just $2 million for its exchequer - about 0.4 percent of their estimated worth. Government officials pocketed the difference.

The G8 is not a benign institution to be gently persuaded - it is central to the neo-liberal agenda which causes world poverty. When right wingers attack MPH they invariably talk about the effect of arms and corruption on Africa. They never find time to attack the western corporations paying bribes, looting natural resources and trampling on the rights of local people. None of the G8 countries have signed the UN Convention Against Corruption, precisely because of the extent of such activities. And G8 countries are responsible for more than 90 percent of arms transfers and sales to developing countries.

This is the crux of the matter - profits are systematically prioritised over human lives by governments and the corporations they represent, whatever warm words they offer or concessions are forced from them. The June debt deal - worth an estimated $2 billion - pales by comparison to the more than $1,000 billion spent on the military last year. The US alone spends $2 billion every two weeks just in occupying Iraq.

That's why the Stop the War Coalition is right to raise the slogan to 'Fight Poverty, Not War'. And that's why campaigners are right to view huge and growing inequality, and the gathering environmental hazards facing our planet, in this context. But hope exists. It is visible in the rejection of the EU constitution in France; on the streets of Edinburgh and Gleneagles; and in the brave struggle of Bolivian workers and peasants to free themselves from the tyranny of corporate globalisation.