You may not have noticed it, but poverty has become history. Or so one has to presume, since at the end of last month the campaigning coalition Make Poverty History (MPH) decided to wind itself up.
The same impression – that we have turned a corner in the struggle to eradicate global poverty – is conveyed by a book published last November called You’re History! In it a collection of notables headed by Bob Geldof explain how individuals can change the world.
Adding to this chorus, the Guardian last week carried a supplement devoted to what it called “the verdict” on last year’s G8 summit in Gleneagles. Its conclusion? “A steady first step forward.” The G8 is given 7 out of 10 for its decisions on aid and debt, 6 out of 10 for health, and only in the area of trade is it marked 2 out of 10.
Oddly enough, one has to go to the MPH website to find a dissonant voice in this general hubbub of self congratulation. Under “latest news”, we read a report from the World Trade Organisation summit in Hong Kong headlined “No End to Poverty as Rich Nations Refuse to Deliver Trade Justice”.
And it’s not only in trade that has little been offered the poor. As George Monbiot pointed out back in September, no sooner was the summit over than the G8 started to backtrack.
Germany and Italy almost immediately announced that they might not be able to fulfil their commitments because of “budgetary constraints”. Less than two weeks after the summit Gordon Brown admitted that, contrary to previous promises, the $20 billion increase in aid included the debt relief the G8 had agreed to give to 18 of the poorest countries.
From a broader point of view, even if the G8 had kept their word, they were offering the Global South chickenfeed. It’s been estimated that economic inequalities are now so great that 1 percent of global national income would be sufficient to eliminate extreme poverty. It’s this extreme poverty that kills 18 million people a year.
On the latest figures available from the World Bank, for 2003, that 1 percent would amount to $346 billion. That sounds like a lot – until one notices that last week George Bush asked the US Congress to vote the Pentagon $439 billion for the next financial year, plus an additional $70 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.
No wonder that even the Guardian’s Larry Elliott, who is close to Gordon Brown, is reduced to mumbling that the Gleneagles deal was “oversold” and that “the promises will mean little unless they are put into practice”.
So why, given this failure, did MPH decide to disband itself? Even the most moderate of its constituent organisations, such as Oxfam, denounced the summit’s feeble promises at the time – earning themselves some media slaps from Geldof for their trouble.
The MPH website offers no explanation, simply listing campaigns that supporters might want to get involved in. According to the Guardian’s report of the assembly that decided to wind MPH up, “comparisons were made with Live Aid, which, it was said, was effective because it only occurred once every 20 years”. This is a puzzling argument. Live Aid was so “effective” that 20 years later Africa was even worse off than it had been in 1985.
I suspect that the disbanding of MPH has a lot to do with the interests of the big NGOs that dominated it. A permanent coalition would have got in the way of their own fundraising and recruitment activities. Off the back of MPH, Oxfam has launched a campaign for a million pledges to “help end poverty once and for all”.
I hope people do sign up to Oxfam’s campaign. But it’s a pity Oxfam doesn’t have the democratic internal procedures that would give its supporters a say in major policy decisions such as this one.
For the truth is that scrapping MPH was an utterly shameful decision. It can only promote the belief that those who currently dominate the world are benevolent figures who will, with a few pushes from below, continue to take “small steady steps forwards”. But this is a lie that helps to kill millions every year.