Can we make poverty history?

Submitted by Janine on 14 May, 2005 - 8:55

The basic statement of the Make Poverty History campaign, and a response by No Sweat


Today, the gap between the world’s rich and poor is wider than ever. Global injustices such as poverty, AIDS, malnutrition, conflict and illiteracy remain rife.

Despite the promises of world leaders, at our present sluggish rate of progress the world will fail dismally to reach internationally agreed targets to halve global poverty by 2015.

World poverty is sustained not by chance or nature, but by a combination of factors: injustice in global trade; the huge burden of debt; insufficient and ineffective aid. Each of these is exacerbated by inappropriate economic policies imposed by rich countries.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Make Poverty History urges the government and international decision makers to rise to the challenge of 2005.

We are calling for urgent and meaningful policy change on three critical and inextricably linked areas: trade, debt and aid.

On trade justice with need to 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.

We need to end export subsidies that damage the livelihoods of poor rural communities around the world.

We should have laws that stop big business profiting at the expense of people and the environment.

The rules of international trade are stacked in favour of the most powerful countries and their businesses. On the one hand these rules allow rich countries to pay their farmers and companies subsidies to export food — destroying the livelihoods of poor farmers. On the other, poverty eradication, human rights and environmental protection come a poor second to the goal of “eliminating trade barriers”.

We need trade justice not free trade. This means the EU single-handedly putting an end to its damaging agricultural export subsidies now; it means ensuring poor countries can feed their people by protecting their own farmers and staple crops; it means ensuring governments can effectively regulate water companies by keeping water out of world trade rules; and it means ensuring trade rules do not undermine core labour standards.

We need to stop the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing poor countries to open their markets to trade with rich countries.

On debt, we say the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries should be cancelled in full, by fair and transparent means.

Despite grand statements from world leaders, the debt crisis is far from over. Rich countries have not delivered on the promise they made more than six years ago to cancel unpayable poor country debts. As a result, many countries still have to spend more on debt repayments than on meeting the needs of their people.


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.

Poverty will not be eradicated without an immediate and major increase in international aid. Rich countries have promised to provide the extra money needed to meet internationally agreed poverty reduction targets. This amounts to at least $50 billion per year, according to official estimates, and must be delivered now.

Rich countries have also promised to provide 0.7% of their national income in aid and they must now make good on their commitment by setting a binding timetable to reach this target.

However, without far-reaching changes in how aid is delivered, it won’t achieve maximum benefits. Two key areas of reform are needed.

First, aid needs to focus better on poor people’s needs. This means more aid being spent on areas such as basic healthcare and education. And the World Bank and the IMF must become fully democratic in order for poor people’s concerns to be heard.

Second, aid should support poor countries and communities’ own plans and paths out of poverty. Aid should therefore no longer be conditional on recipients promising economic change like privatising or deregulating their services, cutting health and education spending, or opening up their markets.


It is undoubtedly true that trade rules are rigged in favour of the major capitalist states. And it is true that “trade justice” — for example, more free access to rich-country markets for poor-country producers — will benefit some small producers in the less developed world. But the main beneficiaries will be a layer of local, “Third World” capitalists.

China has made vast advances in world trade since the 1980s. The result has been the creation of a new group of millionaires and, still, virtual slave conditions for the mass of China’s workers.

MPH wants to end trade injustice and assumes that, given the choice, governments in poor countries will “choose the best solutions to end poverty and protect the environment.” Unfortunately that is not true. And this is not just because many governments in poor countries are run by brutal, uncaring, corrupt regimes. Even the better, more democratic states in the less developed world are capitalist.

Just as in the advanced, industrialised West, where capitalism is making the world dirty and keeping millions in poverty – governments in poorer countries do so too.

Poorer countries are generally more unequal than rich ones, not less so. Every one of them, however poor its majority, has an upper class that lives not very differently from the upper class in Europe or the USA.
MPH focuses on the conflict between the West and the poorer, less-developed world. But another, more basic conflict exists, between workers and capitalists — a conflict which takes place in both the West and in the so-called “Third World”.

MPH demands trade rules which “do not undermine core labour standards.” The G8 governments have already signed up to many treaties and many of the ILO standards — which are then often ignored. The “undermining of core labour standards” continues.

Workers’ rights are best defended not by words in international trade agreements, but by grass roots union organisation on the ground. In the first instance we need to do whatever we can to help independent unions grow and flourish in the less developed world. Strong unions mean better-paid workers – they can lift people out of poverty.

In South Korea the rise of new trade unions after the 1980s brought a ten-fold increase in average wages.

MPH argues that laws should be made to “stop big business profiting at the expense of people and the environment”. That sounds nice, but what does it mean? No law can be passed to stop capitalism being capitalism. As long as “big business” continues to exist it will profit at the expense of workers, the poor and the environment.

No doubt specific reforms would be useful, but they should be named and campaigned for explicitly. The vagueness in MPH’s manifesto is intended to give MPH breadth, but it also allows politicians who are looking for a bit of good PR to make hypocritical noises of support.

MPH states that water companies should be “effectively regulated”. From Bolivia to South Africa, people facing price rises, cut-offs and environmental degradation are fighting not for “regulation”, but for democratic, public ownership of basic services like water provision.

No Sweat is in favour of the cancellation of foreign debts of poor states. But unless it is accompanied by radical democratic reform in those states, many of the potential benefits will disappear as cash is siphoned into the back pockets of parasitic elites.

If “trade justice” and “debt justice” are to bring benefits to the poorest people in the world they must be linked to a fight for democracy and democratic control (and so an end to corruption) inside the states of the less developed world.

MPH does advocate one fight for democracy — “the World Bank and the IMF must become fully democratic in order for the poor peoples’ concerns to be heard.” The problem is that these international institutions are surrounded by tier upon tier of bureaucracy and are well beyond the control of even most governments. How can they become democratic short of mass upheavals across the world and the creation of democratic world government?

We are for more and better aid to Africa and other poor regions. But we also want to help revolutionise relations within Africa and Asia. The people who are able to do this are the workers in alliance with the poor living on the land and the unemployed.

We need to build stronger direct links between labour movements in the west and working class African and Asian organisations.

This discussion is not just about what we demand, but who we think will act. The G8 leaders might implement a few reforms, but the G8 leaders will end not abolish poverty. The leaders have not ended poverty within the G8 states, and they are not going to end it in Africa.

We are for a world where solidarity is a guiding principle, not profit. We want to see the power of the transnational bosses and the bankers broken and replaced by political, social and economic democracy.

It is urban workers and rural labourers who have forced better wages in Korea, stopped privatisations in Bolivia, and fought rural poverty in India and Brazil. The organised working class, in alliance with the urban and rural poor, is the force that can end poverty.

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