Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 4 July 2005

G8 vs Live 8 to “make poverty history”

Blurb:    This will be a crucial week in the fight against global poverty.  The G8 Summit begins Wednesday, with uncertain prospects for making progress on poverty and climate change.  But the real events this week are the public marches and concerts to “Make Poverty History.”


This week will see a mass mobilization and articulation of the world public, and public opinion, to prevail on the leaders of the richest and most powerful countries to “make poverty history.”

The Group of 8 leaders will arrive this Wednesday for their Summit in Gleneagles in Scotland.  Usually G8 summits are bland official affairs, discussing the state of the world economy, punctuated by thousands of protestors outside the gates.

This year, the host, British premier Tony Blair, wants to put Africa, poverty and climate change at the top of the agenda.   A lot of wrangling over commitments by the rich countries has been going on at the level of officials, and is expected to continue all the way to the Summit.

But the G8 meeting is being overshadowed by the public events involving hundreds of thousands of people in many countries. 

These kicked off with the “Live 8” concerts over the last weekend, the highlight being the massive concert in Hyde Park, London, and with concerts in nine other countries, beamed to billions of people via TV.

Rallies, street marches, demonstrations and alternative workshops are taking place, especially in Edinburgh and Gleneagles itself. They are part of the “Make Poverty History” campaign that has galvanized young people.

The campaign’s main message is that poverty in developing countries is unnecessary and immoral, and the rich countries have a responsibility to end it.  The campaign’s three demands to the G8 leaders are debt cancellation, more aid, and “trade justice” (fairer terms and rules in trade).

In the past, such demands were seen as unrealistic due to lack of political will among the developed countries’ elites.  They were more engrossed with advancing the commercial interests of their big corporations than worrying about poverty and development.

But the mobilization of public opinion by development and religious groups and by celebrities like Bob Geldolf over the past few years has meant that politicians in the North can no longer afford to ignore the public clamour to put development and poverty on the political agenda. 

There are grounds to be cynical.  Some wonder whether the campaign will turn out to be just another passing fad, and whether the plight of developing countries and their poor can be solved or even significantly reduced by aid and debt relief.

The global inequities that generate a lot of the developing world’s economic problems are largely rooted in structures and institutions, such as the big corporations, the international financial system and its institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and unfair trade rules and the World Trade Organisation.

The global cards are stacked against the developing countries, as the South Summit in Doha affirmed last month.

Can the G8, which represent the vested interests of the rich world, really turn around to tackle the poor world’s problems?

It is most unlikely.  In particular, the United States is expected at this week’s summit to resist the final attempts by Tony Blair to get the G8 countries commit to much higher aid levels, or debt relief for more countries.

Most difficult of all will be to get the G8 to agree to better terms of trade for the South, or the rebalancing of unfair trade rules in the WTO and bilateral trade agreements that are biased towards the rich countries.

Indeed, we may see several of the G8 leaders agreeing to commit more aid and debt relief, which they can easily afford without inconvenience. But any benefits to developing countries from these will be more than wiped out by the unfair trade terms that maintain their export commodity prices at low levels while the prices of their imports continue shooting up.

Worse, the US, European Union and Japan are piling up the pressure in the present WTO talks to open up the markets of developing countries, whilst they themselves find ways to continue protecting their uncompetitive products (especially in agriculture and textiles) or their labour markets through high subsidies and tariffs and by keeping their countries shut to foreign workers.

If the developing countries are pressured to cut their tariffs, then the cheaper imports will flood their markets, and many local farmers and industries would lose their markets and business, worsening unemployment and poverty.

Meanwhile, export earnings from many developing countries are hindered by low commodity prices, and by agricultural subsidies in the rich countries that prevent imports from competing.       

On climate change, it is most unlikely that United States President, George Bush, will allow the G8 to make any real headway as a group.   Will the other leaders decide to move ahead with more ambitious goals to cut emissions on their own, without the US?

In the build up to this week’s Summit, scientists and politicians have publicized the dire effects if drastic action is not taken to cut emissions immediately by the rich countries.

The national science academies of the G8 countries, Brazil, China and India signed a
joint statement last month that there is "strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring" and that it has "already led to changes in the Earth's climate." As a result, they believe it is "vital" for the world's nations to take "prompt action."

However, the US is reported to be reluctant to even admit that there is a climate crisis, or that climate change is caused by human behaviour.

Thus the G8 Summit is likely to have a disappointing result, both on the anti-poverty and the environmental aspects.

But the fight for development and the environment is a long and complex one.  And this week (starting actually with the concerts and marches last Saturday) will be a landmark in that battle, with so many people voicing their concerns and putting pressure on the G8 political leaders.

It is heartening and impressive that so many thousands of people in Europe and other developed countries are coming together.  If lack of political will in the North was the main block to enabling development in the South, then the mass mobilization in the rich countries can build up that political will.

The protestors have their slogans right: debt cancellation, more aid and trade justice.  The challenge for them and their organizations is to translate these general slogans into more detailed and concrete demands, so that they can really influence their governments,  so that their trade and finance officials do not keep to policies and negotiating positions that continue to generate more poverty in the developing world.