Who will make poverty history?

Submitted by Anon on 22 March, 2005 - 12:58

Two hundred charities, trade unions, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], and religious groups have formed an alliance called “Make Poverty History”, and are organising for a big demonstration in Edinburgh on 2 July. The Scottish police predict 200,000 people will be there.

The protest has been prompted by the fact that the G8 — leaders from the world’s seven richest countries plus Russia — have their annual meeting in Gleneagles in rural Scotland on 6–8 July.

The G8 states take turns to hold the “presidency” of the gathering as well as to host it, so Tony Blair is the president of the G8 this year. He has promised to focus on two key issues: climate change and poverty in Africa. Make Poverty History is a campaign to put pressure on him to deliver.

It makes three demands: trade justice, Third World debt relief, and better aid for the less-developed world.

Previous G8 summits, when held anywhere at all accessible, have also attracted big demonstrations, like Genoa 2001 and Evian 2003. Those were mostly demonstrations against the G8 as such, rather than mobilisations to demand that the G8 carry out particular measures.

Some protesters this July will have the same approach. One, from the Dissent network, wrote in The Scotsman: “As much as I want to see an end to poverty and a massive reduction in carbon emissions, asking ‘world leaders’ and the market to solve the problems they have created is akin to employing Herod as a nursery nurse because he has prior experience of working with children.”

An international meeting organised by the Dissent network on 26–27 February decided on a list of actions, number one being a blockade of the G8 summit site in Gleneagles. The government is drafting in 10,000 police to stop them.

Pressure on rich capitalist governments to take measures to relieve poverty is worthwhile. It will be good if the rich countries’ governments ease the subsidies and restrictions that hinder poor countries exporting to them, or give more aid which is, as Make Poverty History demands, “no longer conditional on recipients promising economic change like privatising or deregulating their services, cutting health and education spending, or opening up their markets”.

But all that goes only so far. The demands of Make Poverty History are vague and general enough that the G8 could make quite bland promises and still plausibly pretend that it is responding positively. Make Poverty History has been endorsed by Gordon Brown, name-checked by Blair himself, and approved by 412 out of Westminster’s 659 MPs. It is, after all, an election year.

What reason is there to suppose that politicians who insist on keeping British pensioners in poverty will deliver on vague promises to relieve poverty in poorer countries? They will deliver nothing unless forced to do so by a vigilant, organised movement which presses them with precise, hard-edged demands.

And the G8, as an international body, is more insulated from the impact of movements in any particular country than individual governments are. To get anything out of the G8 requires an even more vigilant, even more hard-edged movement, organised internationally.

The problem of capitalist politicians who give lip-service to fighting poverty but in fact remain tied to profit and privilege is not restricted to Britain. Or to rich countries.

Egypt, for example, has long received massive aid from the USA, more aid than any other country in the world except Israel. Yet most of the aid goes to the military and a wealthy few. 41.5% of Egypt’s population still live in poverty, according to the World Bank’s figures. Only 23% have a wage or income of their own. Across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, over the 1990s the proportion living below $2 per day increased, from 25 to 30 percent of the population, and that was because of increases in Egypt, Morocco and Yemen.

Without the removal of corrupt and undemocratic governments in Africa and Asia, debt relief and more advantageous trade rules will mainly benefit relatively small layers of already well-off people in the so-called Third World. Charity will do nothing to change the underlying inequalities in the less-developed states.

The Dissent network are right to say that climate change and poverty “are issues produced by a system from which the G8 was born and which it attempts to manage”, and that we must resist the whole system.

They also say: “Our aim is not merely to oppose the Summit, but to contribute to the daily struggle to create new worlds”; and they identify, as part of that “daily struggle”, the fight against “increasingly flexible working conditions being imposed in the UK and around the world”.

They emphasise, however, “constructing self-managed, ecologically sustainable convergence spaces”. Even if activists can blockade Gleneagles massively enough to force the G8 leaders to meet somewhere more remote, or to resort to talking to each other over the phone rather than meeting face to face, how will that relieve world poverty? The G8 governments would be just as rapacious and capitalist if their leaders met each other less often. And alternative resource centres in the rich countries’ cities are good, but they won’t end world poverty.

The G8 governments will not end world poverty. So who will? The people with the power to revolutionise relations inside Asia and Africa are the workers, allied with the unemployed and the poor peasants. The crucial “daily struggle” is the class struggle between workers and bosses. The ongoing, organised movement with the potential to become a global force, to press hard-edged demands on the capitalist leaders, and to move to overthrowing them and building a self-managed, ecologically sustainable world, is the labour movement.

The key demand is for workers’ right to organise — the demand for the right of the workers to define their own paths out of poverty for themselves and their unemployed or peasant brothers and sisters, and to win the strategic power that will enable them to take the world down that path.

It is a demand to be pressed on the multinationals based in rich countries, who often make their profits by exploiting labour denied union rights in Asia or Africa. It is also a demand to be pressed on the governments of the rich countries themselves. Tony Blair keeps the Tories’ anti-union laws on the books, making it unlawful for British workers to organise strikes on “political” issues like world poverty or state pensions. The USA has refused to ratify a whole series of the “conventions” formulated by the International Labour Office to summarise basic labour rights, and it keeps Saddam Hussein’s labour law (banning trade unionism in the public sector) on the books in Iraq.

March in Edinburgh, march for international workers’ solidarity!

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