Socialist Worker

Whatever happened to Make Poverty History?

Alex Callinicos shows how the poverty continues despite last year's promises

Issue No. 2005

A year ago many of us were gearing up for the protests at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland. We were doing so in a climate of great optimism that the summit would achieve real improvements for the poor of the world, especially in Africa.

These expectations were raised partly by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But they were also encouraged by Make Poverty History (MPH), the coalition of anti-poverty NGOs fronted by Bob Geldof and Bono.

Barely had the summit ended when this alliance began to break up. Oxfam, the most powerful and normally the most conservative of the NGOs in MPH, was roundly denounced by Geldof for complaining about how paltry the promises to emerge from the summit were.

Moreover, within weeks of the summit the major powers had started backtracking even on these limited commitments.

Now Oxfam itself has confirmed this critique. A briefing note published last week looking at “Gleneagles G8 One Year On” is careful to praise the programme of cancelling the debt of the poorest countries that the G8 agreed to implement last July.

But Oxfam goes on to point out, “much more debt cancellation is needed; massively indebted countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya remained excluded. The Jubilee Debt Campaign calculates that over 60 countries will fail to reach the Millennium Development Goals unless their debts are fully cancelled. Even when the 2005 deal is fully implemented it will only stretch to 40 countries.”

Moreover, Oxfam argues that the debt cancellation is being used artificially to boost the official figures for development aid to the Global South. “Aid from the G8 has increased massively, by $21 billion, or 37 percent over its 2004 levels.

“However, the overwhelming majority of the increase (80 percent) is made up of one-off debt cancellation deals for Iraq and Nigeria – it is not actually new money in the fight against poverty. Together these two deals add up to $17 billion of the $21 billion increase.”


This double-counting is very important. The G8 promised at Gleneagles to boost development aid by $50 billion annually by 2010. According to Oxfam, “this is only half of what the UN calculates is required by 2010 to reach the Millennium Development Goals”, which aim to halve extreme poverty, introduce universal primary education, and so on by 2015.

Now we discover that the G8 is seeking to meet this already inadequate commitment by including the Third World debt it is writing off. It’s pretending that ceasing to take money from poor countries in the form of debt repayments is the same as giving them more aid.

This is particularly ridiculous in the case of Iraq. Cancelling its debt has nothing to do with reducing the desperate poverty there. It’s about propping up the US client regime.

Oxfam points out that including the debt cancellations will massively boost the G8 aid budget in the next couple of years, but any benefits the poor countries get will be spread over a much longer period. It calculates that, “once the Nigeria and Iraq deals are deducted, overall aid from the G8 rose by 9 percent in 2005.”

Once debt cancellation is excluded, British development aid actually fell by 2 percent in 2005. This is a particularly damning given how Brown has been parading around Africa proclaiming the virtues of his policies for the world’s poor.

Brown is a notorious massager of figures. So it’s not surprising that the Guardian reported last week that the circulation of a draft version of the Oxfam report provoked a row in Whitehall.

Under pressure from the treasury and the Department for International Development, Oxfam dropped a plan to “name and shame” Britain, France and Germany, whose aid fell in 2005, and added a footnote explaining away the cut in British aid.

None of this alters the fact that the little that was promised the world’s poor at Gleneagles is gradually being withdrawn. It seems more inexplicable than ever that Oxfam and its partners should have disbanded Make Poverty History.

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Alex Callinicos
Sat 17 Jun 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2005
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