Speaking to a recent campaigners’ conference, the director of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals recalled how German chancellor Gerhard Schröder once dismissed a group of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with the comment, “You are not exactly a mass movement.” Why should small NGOs be of any concern to an elected chancellor in the comfort zone between elections?
Schröder’s verdict may have been harsh, but it undeniably flags up a real weakness in 21st century capitalist democracies.
With parliamentary majorities that derive largely from the non-participation of most of their citizens in elections, governments increasingly depend on the non-activism of that same disaffected majority in order to maintain the stability of the status quo. The only thing the leaders have to fear is the awakening of that majority into political activism through mass movements for social and economic justice.
They have nothing to fear from people disengaging from politics and everything to fear from them re-engaging with the political process. It is just such a mass re-engagement with the politics of global poverty that could and should emerge next year around the Make Poverty History campaign.
The year 2005 presents a series of decision making moments when the fate of billions of poor people will hang in the balance. The leaders of the richest nations on earth will gather at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in early July, just as the British government takes over the presidency of the European Union.
Earlier in the year, in April, the Commission on Africa will deliver its report on future prospects for the continent to the government.
In September, the UN meets in special session to consider progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. In December, the World Trade Organisation ministerial council meets in Hong Kong to conclude what are claimed as pro-poor negotiations begun at Doha five years ago.
All of these are moments when the most powerful politicians on Earth will turn their attention to the problems afflicting billions of the poorest people on the planet. The decisions they arrive at could have earth-shaking significance.
How will they stack the rules of international trade? Will poor countries be protected from the profiteering impulse of global big business? Will they be empowered to find their own solutions to poverty and environmental degradation?
Or will the rules be rigged in favour of the rich so that Europe and the US can go on dumping their subsidised agricultural surpluses onto developing countries’ markets with ruinous effect?
Will aid and debt relief be made conditional on liberalisation and the opening up of markets to deregulation, privatisation and the repatriation of private profit to the richest countries?
Or will aid be massively increased by honouring the UN commitment to give 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI), and by directing that aid exclusively to pro-poor improvements under the democratic control of poor countries themselves?
These are big questions and we cannot allow them to be answered by the politicians alone. In 2000 the world’s politicians welcomed the eminently achievable Millennium Development Goals with some of their finest speeches.
Five years on those speeches have already disappeared into thin air and the goals—due to be delivered by 2015—are already widely off target. They are off target because politicians around the world have failed to live up to their rhetoric.
The big question for development activists is how to hold the politicians to their fine words. The UN director mentioned above went on to explain that all politics are local and that the politicians meeting in summits from Gleneagles to New York and Hong Kong must ultimately face the electorates in their own countries.
It is therefore our responsibility to build a mass movement for pro-poor change on a global basis by organising ourselves country by country. The Make Poverty History coalition is the British arm of the Global Call for Action Against Poverty.
If in 2005 we find ourselves dismissed by any political leader as “not exactly a mass movement”, then we will only have ourselves to blame. We will have failed to apply the only pressure today’s politicians recognise and fear.
We have to ask why Britain’s aid commitment of 0.7 percent of GNI has been deferred to at least two parliaments from now, when it could have been met this year from the money already spent on the invasion of Iraq.
Why does Britain still promote liberalisation and privatisation on a global scale in the teeth of resistance from poor countries? Why does Britain continue to collude with a system that sees poor countries paying $100 million every day to rich creditors?
These questions must be asked and must be answered. We also need to have in excess of 100,000 protestors on the streets of Edinburgh on 2 July. Either we begin to deliver a mass movement of protest for pro-poor change here in our own country or that pro-poor change will not happen.
John McAllion is a former MP and MSP for Dundee