I WISH I’d been in Trafalgar Square on Thursday last week to hear Nelson Mandela tell tens of thousand of people that no one can rest while world poverty persists. In just a few weeks, the coalition Make Poverty History has captured the imagination of millions by launching its campaign to pressure the Group of Eight summit in July to take action to remedy the plight of the global poor.
No doubt the solidarity evoked by the Boxing Day tsunami helped to focus public awareness on the plight of the global South. Still, all credit to Make Poverty History for how it has seized the initiative. In lots of ways more important than the high-profile celebrity events are the local meetings taking place around the country to prepare the mobilisation for Gleneagles. Of course, this has happened before.
At the last G8 summit in Britain in 1998, church and student groups brought tens of thousands to Birmingham to demand the cancellation of Third World debt. This was one of the first signs of the emerging movement against capitalist globalisation.
Unfortunately, the socialist left and the trade union movement largely stayed away from Birmingham. This was a big mistake, and one that we can’t afford to repeat.
Socialists and trade unionists right across Britain should now be joining together locally with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), churches, mosques, and anyone else who’s interested, to start organising for Gleneagles.
At the same time, we need to get involved in the debate that is developing over the G8 and world poverty. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown started the year competing over which of them was the real saviour of Africa.
But it’s become clear that this is simply one facet of a much more ambitious operation by the global leaders of the Third Way — left-of-centre parties that in office have implemented neo-liberal economic policies—to reinvent themselves as campaigners against world poverty.
The most spectacular example of this to date was the Brazilian president, Lula, who spoke at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and then flew off to take part in the World Economic Forum, the billionaires’ junket in Davos. Some of the mainstream NGOs involved in Make Poverty History have identified themselves with this agenda, particularly as it is expressed by Gordon Brown. They see this as the most effective way of pushing the G8 to act.
A danger with this strategy is that it could reduce the campaign for Gleneagles to merely an adjunct of official diplomacy. The Group of Seven finance ministers’ meeting in London last weekend offered a good example of the pitfalls involved.
The Treasury spin doctors persuaded the more gullible newspapers to carry headlines such as “Brown Wins Debt Promise” and “Debt Write-Off Deal Close Says G7”—both from the Guardian, whose economics editor, Larry Elliott, has been working hard on Brown’s behalf.
Compare, however, the more sceptical Financial Times: “G7 Nations Still Split on Debt Relief for Africa.” The meeting merely committed itself to “a case-by-case analysis” of the highly indebted poor countries and expressed a “willingness” to cut “as much as 100 percent” of these countries’ debts to international institutions, which could, of course, end up as a lot less.
The Financial Times also critically examined Brown’s entire programme, which embraces not just debt relief but also the further liberalisation of world trade and a short-term increase in aid through the proposed “International Finance Facility”:
“This combination would, in itself, be insufficient to deliver the Millennium Development Goals of halving the numbers in extreme poverty, putting every child in school and eliminating all avoidable deaths, all by 2015.”
The philosopher Thomas Pogge estimates that the plight of the global poor is now so acute that a mere one percent of global national income would be enough to abolish extreme poverty worldwide. That’s about $324 billion — considerably less than the US defence budget of around $400 billion.
The moral of this is very simple. Everyone concerned about world poverty should be working to bring as many people as possible to Scotland in July. But we should be going there to demand the transfer of resources from rich to poor that is needed to really begin to make poverty history.
Alex Callinicos is a leading member of the SWP. His books include An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and The New Mandarins of American Power