Make Poverty History – Treat Humanity properly

Linked with our presentation of Jeremy Corbyn – England.

Article written by Jeremy Corbyn for the Morning Star, and published there on February 9, 2005 – Last week Nelson Mandela, frail and now elderly, came back to Trafalgar Square and climbed a platform in sight of South Africa House. His strength that sustained him for all those years on Robben Island, returned and he spoke. “Make Poverty History” was his call and he made it with eloquence and determination and then repeated it for the benefit of the G7 Finance Ministers; presumably they were too busy to pop along to Trafalgar Square to listen.

What the coalition of anti poverty and development groups were calling for was an end to the debt burden on the world’s poorest, and trade justice, so that the debt burden did not re-appear in future years.

The G7 were looking at plans being advanced by Gordon Brown for debt write off and a massive aid package to assist with education and HIV/Aids treatment. The G7 is the representation of the world’s richest nations and works out of self interest. Together with the world economic summit that meets in Davos it is hardly a statement of democratic virtue. More breast beating by the rich, with a slight tinge of social conscience.

However the latter proved too much for the USA, which for the first time failed to send their Treasury Secretary, John Snow. He was replaced by a hapless deputy, John Taylor, who was there to question the whole programme.

The fact that Debt write off is now so high on the agenda is a real credit to the anti poverty groups and the world’s social movements.

Debt comes from the borrowing of huge sums of money for western inspired, and planned development projects to develop post independence economies. In the case of Africa those plans were thrown off course by rapidly rising oil prices in the 1970s and falling commodity prices. They were also thrown off course by systematic trade barriers to the nascent manufacturing or processing economies.

The International Monetary Fund proscription is generally one of re-structuring by selling public assets, charging for services like education and insisting on meeting market rather than social targets. All restructuring has increased inequalities in developing countries and has usually led to the rapid increase in urban shanty towns as subsistence agriculture is forced to compete with European and North American Agri Business.

The very welcome Millennium Goals on development and anti poverty strategy simply cannot be met on current form. Brutal trade regimes, HIV/Aids and lack of investment in education make it impossible. However, in the euphoria of the weekend meeting, we should be cautious of the whole concept of another “Marshall Plan”, as is envisaged for Africa. The post WW2 Marshall Plan was about US loans and investment, but more importantly was about the political and economic structure that should exist. The motivation was to ensure there was seen to be a political and military alternative to the Soviet Union.

So when Tony Blair talks blithely about a Marshall Plan for Africa it should be received with some caution. The history of debt write off is fraught with contradictions where the real price is paid in privatisation and loss of economic control, to the very powers that most African colonies thought they had thrown off forty years ago.

However, credit where it is due. Gordon Brown has made the case for debt write off and made the point that without substantial investment in health, education and infrastructure not only will the Millennium Goals not be met, but the living standards and life expectancy of the poor will continue to fall. His plans were at first rebuffed by the USA, who rather ominously said they had their own way of doing things, but were challenged by the others present at the meeting.

The communiqué that emerged was well short of the pre meeting hype. Full debt write off had become “up to 100 per cent”. “Universal” for all the poorest countries had become “a case by case basis”. Payment (to those who lent the money in the first place) is also vague and includes selling of gold, or front loading future aid programmes or agreement on an aviation tax.

What will now happen is very unclear but will be set by a few months of unseemly horse trading. Not wanting to leave the warm glow of the moral limelight shone by Mandela, the objectors walked away to fight another day.

Meanwhile, back in the reality of poverty stricken sub Saharan Africa, the rampage of HIV/Aids and malnutrition continues. The war in Congo continues, having already taken three million lives. The only beneficiaries are the arms dealers and the mining companies. Off the coast of the Canary Islands the ultimate price was paid by the desperate, seeking to escape their desperation as they lost their lives in the vain hope of gaining asylum somewhere else.

In the UK, the political and media pendulum has swung again. Public demand for action to help the victims of the Tsunami to widespread reporting of Gordon Brown’s visit to Africa, has reverted to the more usual pre election debate.

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express have been running anti asylum stories for years, and now, as if a coincidence, they claim that asylum and immigration are a big issue. The Tories then propose to leave the 1951 Geneva Convention and cut all immigration and asylum. Charles Clarke then proposes a five year plan. This plan includes reducing numbers, deporting unsuccessful applicants and introducing immigration by skill demand.

As I listened to him on Monday in the House I found myself asking where humanity had gone, as I recall all the meetings I have had with desperately poor asylum seekers living on nothing, and frightened of deportation, to all the violence and brutality they had left behind. But we need doctors and teachers so will entice them away from the poorest and most needy societies rather than train enough ourselves.

Confronting ignorance could start at home.

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