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Making Poverty History: the three keys

Sarah Hiddleston

`Make Poverty History' is not a campaign to raise emergency funds. It is about mobilising people to create the political will to drive lasting policy change.

"OVERCOMING POVERTY is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life... I say to all those leaders: do not look the other way; do not hesitate. Recognise that the world is hungry for action, not words. Act with courage and vision." — Nelson Mandela

In a few days, the United Kingdom hosts the heads of the world's wealthiest eight nations in Gleneagles, Scotland for a summit that has tackling poverty, especially in Africa, at the top of its agenda. In September, G-8 leaders join others in New York for a United Nations General Assembly Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, which include a commitment to halve the proportion of the world's population living in poverty by 2015. In December, the top most decision making council of the World Trade Organisation will meet in Hong Kong to discuss a "development agenda" for world trade.

As Asian governments, development agencies, and citizen sector organisations grapple with the realities of poverty at the heart of tsunami relief and recovery, in Africa disease, starvation, and a lack of clean water have ensured that life expectancy in some countries has shrunk to a level last seen in AD 500. Just five years after the promise was made to halve poverty by 2015, the world is running 135 years behind schedule. The year 2005 has seen the launch of a campaign aiming to consign poverty to the past. Building on the strengths of civil society movements, it aims to make the most of the political opportunities for change this year. Unlike Live Aid or tsunami relief, this is not a campaign to raise funds for food drops. The `Make Poverty History' campaign is about mobilising people to create the political will to drive lasting policy change. It is engaging a new generation in holding their governments accountable for their actions on the world stage.

What is `Make Poverty History'?

Comprising more than 450 development agencies, campaigns, faith groups, trade unions, and other organisations, `Make Poverty History' is the largest campaign coalition ever assembled in the U.K. Taking a white band as their symbol of commitment, the campaigners have sent tens of thousands of emails to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. In the run-up to Gleneagles, at least 200,000, dressed in white, will have converged on Edinburgh for a show of solidarity with the victims of poverty. They will be joined by two million people campaigning locally across the U.K. The campaign has brought in an impressive range of public figures and celebrities, among them actors Brad Pitt, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth, screenwriter Richard Curtis, models Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer, and musicians Bono, Lemar, Cold Play, Kylie Minogue, and Paul McCartney. Bob Geldof's Live 8 concerts, being staged in five continents, are a huge global boost to the campaign.

In the U.K., a movement of this kind is particularly significant. The country holds the presidency not only of the G-8 group, but from July also of the European Union. Moreover, both Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown have an expressed interest in global poverty, and in particular, African development. The British Prime Minister chaired a 17-member international "Commission for Africa," which came out with a visionary set of recommendations in March 2005. Over the past eight years, Mr. Brown has been working to persuade the world's wealthiest nations to write off £140 billion debt owed by the African continent. Unveiling his "modern Marshall Plan," he called for global action to "reverse the fortunes" of Africa and change the lives of millions in the developing world.

There are those who fear that the "positive outcomes" contained in a communiqué will amount to nothing more than hot air. Corruption, political weaknesses, rampant HIV infection, and civil war present major challenges. However, humankind has never been richer, or better armed with the medical knowledge, technological prowess, and intellectual firepower needed to beat poverty. While finding ways to get badly governed countries to raise their game is hard and hugely controversial for outsiders to do, this should not be a barrier to action on the critical issues.

The `Make Poverty History' campaign addresses three key policy areas — more and better aid for the world's poorest countries; debt cancellation; and trade justice.

1. "Donors must now deliver at least $50 billion more in aid and set a binding timetable for spending 0.7% of national income on aid. Aid must also be made to work more effectively for poor people."

Back in 1970 donor countries promised to give 0.7 per cent of their national income in aid to the developing world. While personal incomes in rich countries have increased by 200 per cent since 1960, wealthy nations spend collectively half the amount on aid they did in the early 1960s as a proportion of national income. Of the 22 major bilateral donors, only five have met the 0.7 per cent target. Significantly, not one of them is a G-8 member.

The `Make Poverty History' movement is campaigning not just for more aid but also for better aid. International aid tends to be volatile. More than a quarter of it arrives more than six months late. About 70 per cent is committed for three years or less — to guarantee primary education for a whole generation, a commitment of six years is necessary. Even in circumstances where aid has been shown to work, sudden policy changes in donor countries tend to undermine worthy efforts. Furthermore, there are many examples of aid with strings attached. These ensure that most of the benefits go to firms in the donor country in the form of goods and services; or that the assistance is tied to specific policies that have a counter-productive effect because they are not a part of national government or civil society consultation.

The Brown-Blair response to this situation has given campaigners cause for some hope. The Africa Commission called for international aid to be increased by $25 billion by 2010, and then by a further $25 billion by 2015. Mr. Brown's International Finance Facility (IFF) is a means through which this aid can doubled. This scheme will let donors increase their total aid by borrowing against future aid budgets, and allow it to be spent in a more predictable way. Part of the argument is that if the right investment in heath and education is made now, the developed world will not need to spend so much in poverty alleviation in the future. The hope is that G-8 leaders will make some significant announcements on aid.

2. "The unpayable debts of the world's poorest countries should be cancelled in full, by fair and transparent means."

Nearly 90 per cent of the debt of 52 of the poorest and most indebted countries has yet to be cancelled. In the post-colonial era, many countries were lent money that was squandered on arms used for the benefit of a tiny minority in power. As interest rates have risen, many countries still owe more than the original loan after years of repayment. This prevents critical investment in health and education infrastructure. For example, Malawi spends more on servicing its debt than on health although nearly one in five Malawians is HIV positive.

It is in debt cancellation that the `Make Poverty History' campaign looks set to be most successful. The Africa Commission called for 100 per cent cancellation of debt stocks. Mr. Brown's "modern Marshall Plan" asks other countries to follow the lead of the U. K. in paying its share of the debt owed to the World Bank by countries that have agreed to use the savings to fight poverty. It also proposes that the debt owed to the IMF be written off and the loss recouped by selling bonds on the world market. There seems to be growing support for the principle of debt relief and G-8 leaders are certain to increase their commitments on this. Campaigners, however, will want to read the small print.

3. "Fight for rules that ensure governments, particularly in poor countries, can choose the best solutions to end poverty and protect the environment. These will not always be free trade policies. End export subsidies that damage the livelihoods of poor rural communities around the world. Make laws that stop big business profiting at the expense of people and the environment."

No amount of direct aid will help poor countries if they do not develop the capacity to generate wealth for themselves. World trade robs poor countries of £1.3 billion a day — 14 times what they get in aid. The economic systems put in place by colonial rule and reinforced by decolonisation are such that southern countries have come to be extremely dependent on a narrow range of commodity exports in which they find they have to export increasing amounts to earn the same amount of money. Moreover, wealthy countries maintain their dominance through a system of trade rules rigged in their favour, protecting domestic economies by paying farmers huge subsidies and setting import tariffs. At the same time, they force free trade policies on poor countries, often as conditions of loans and aid, making them lower their tariffs and end subsidies.

The World Bank and the IMF have made lending to Ghana conditional on its opening up agricultural markets. In 2003, its government was pressured into reversing a decision to protect its poultry and rice farmers. Ghana's domestic rice production has now collapsed and the U.S. provides 40 per cent of the country's rice imports. Deregulation and privatisation have led to exploitation of workers, and allowed services such as basic water provision to be run at increased costs as profit for multinational companies.

Of the three policy areas, action on trade is definitely the thorniest, not least because G-8 governments may not be prepared to accept the electoral consequences of eliminating trade subsidies for western farmers. Is there the political will to make poverty history? This is what the campaign is about. It hopes to create a powerful momentum for change.

(The writer is Campaigns & Network Coordinator, Students Partnership Worldwide, London. Website: www.spw.org.)

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