John Madeley

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Devil in the detail

Church Times, 21 January 2005

 

AT EPIPHANY, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer both highlighted the importance of what Mr Brown called “the most important issue of our generation — world poverty”.

 

Mr Blair spoke of trying to get “a proper defined plan for Africa agreed at the next G8” (the annual gathering of the world’s most powerful leaders, to be held in Scotland in July). Mr Brown spoke of a new “Marshall Plan” for the developing world News, 10 December, and followed this up by visiting Africa last week.

 

Some people might think that the anti-poverty campaigners have won, and that we can all celebrate a victory for a fairer world.

 

But closer examination of the politicians’ promises reveals that the Government’s position is still a long way from that of the campaigners. In some instances, it is what government ministers are not saying that is significant. While some of their plans are good, many aspects of these could intensify rather than lessen poverty.

 

The new campaign Make Poverty History, made up of more than 100 charities, campaigning groups and faith communities, believes that 2005 offers an “exceptional series of opportunities for the UK to lead the global fight against poverty”  News, 31 December.

 

This alliance, which includes the Church of England, Christian Aid, and CAFOD, cites the opportunities for real change offered by Mr Blair’s Commission for Africa, the G8 summit, and the UK’s presidency of the European Union.

 

In September, a special session of the UN will assess progress on the promises agreed at a Millennium summit in 2000 that world poverty would be halved by 2015.

 

With 30,000 children a day dying from poverty-related diseases — a silent tsunami every week — Make Poverty History is pressing for “urgent and meaningful policy change” in trade rules, Third World debt reduction, and development aid. Yet the British Government’s policies in each of these three areas leave much to be desired.

 

THE GOVERNMENT stresses trade liberalisation and the dropping of barriers. Government ministers are not telling us that trade liberalisation, especially in the past ten years, since the advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has been ruinous for many developing countries. It has obliged them to open their markets at a big cost to their farmers and industry.

 

“The relentless pursuit of trade liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation has continued in the face of mounting evidence that they entrench and do not overcome poverty. The impact on poor people has been disastrous,” says Andrew Pendleton of Christian Aid.

 

Surplus foods from the European Union and other rich countries have put farmers in developing countries out of business. In 2003, the Ghanaian government was forced into a U-turn within days of saying it would protect its poultry and rice farmers from subsidised imports.

 

The pressure placed on Ghana by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank made it reverse its decision and remove the safeguards that would have given local farmers a chance. Such pressure hardly makes for freedom or fairness. Ghana’s domestic rice production has now collapsed.

 

In contrast to such policy, the Make Poverty History alliance wants trade rules to be rewritten in favour of developing countries, so that they can build their own industries. It argues that rich countries used trade rules to protect themselves as they developed, and that developing countries should now have that right.

 

Make Poverty History is also pressing for laws that would stop big business profiting at the expense of local people. But control of transnational corporations (which account for two-thirds of world trade) is currently missing from the British Government’s agenda.

 

Campaigners would agree with Mr Brown that rich countries should “end the hypocrisy of developed- country protectionism”, and do more “to urgently tackle the scandal and waste of the Common Agricultural Policy”. Campaigners favour drastic reforms in the Policy, and even its abolition. The changes the Government has announced would not end the dumping of surpluses.

 

THE TSUNAMI disaster has put the debt issue back on the map. Over the past five years, the UK Government has shown leadership in cancelling the debt owed to it by some of the poorest countries. But progress overall is slow. At the beginning of 2005, only $46 billion of the $375 billion of debt owed by poor countries had been cancelled — less than 12 per cent.

 

Furthermore, most of the funding for debt relief has come from aid budgets. “Since debt relief began in 1996, aid overall has decreased by approximately the same as debt relief has gone up,” says Ashok Sinha of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

 

Under a policy supported by the UK Government, countries that receive debt cancellation are subjected to stringent directives from creditors, such as instructions to privatise and liberalise. This is “a fundamental infringement of the right of elected governments to decide domestic policies”, says Make Poverty History.

 

Debt relief works, the campaigners argue, and it should come without such directives. In Benin, 54 per cent of the money saved through debt relief has been spent on health programmes, including those against HIV/AIDS.

 

In Uganda, the number of children at primary school has risen from 2.5 million to 6.5 million, and fewer Ugandans now live in poverty — down from 56 to 38 per cent of the population.

 

On aid, Mr Brown has proposed an International Finance Facility, which would borrow money on the international capital markets, on the basis of aid that donors have already committed. This could double aid from $55 billion to $110 billion a year. The Chancellor speaks of spending $10-20 billion more to tackle TB, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.

 

Campaigners welcome additional aid, but say that it must come without strings. Aid for some countries has already been made conditional on the privatisation of public services, even water.

 

SIGNIFICANT changes in trade rules, and debt and aid levels are needed if poverty is to be made history. Yet the Government’s approach tends to be theoretical rather than dealing with the real issues. It is also beholden to the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO rather than to the poor.

 

Mr Blair told the women clergy who marched to Downing Street last week with the actress Dawn French that he would listen to the Make Poverty History campaign. He could show leadership now by changing policy to tackle poverty more effectively.

 

For further information, see www.makepovertyhistory.org


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