The world's poor need solidarity

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 8:12

After their own fashion, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do have a “third way”. Their friend Peter Mandelson, now European Union trade commissioner, explained it in the Independent on 4 July.

“Aid-for-trade... is the key to the trading strength needed to sustain development in Africa.... To argue that free trade has failed these countries is simplistic and ignores the huge structural obstacles in the path of even the most determined modern African entrepreneurialism”.

Blair, Brown, and Mandelson want to make the capitalist market work better. They oppose socialism, or even “old Labour” schemes aiming severely to curtail and offset market imperatives.

But they also believe in the need for state action, judiciously targeted by themselves and their like, to get the capitalist market working well.

Thus the splurge of task forces, quangos, targets, league tables, and so on in Britain. Thus the Blair government's preference for “targeted” welfare like the Working Families Tax Credit rather than universal benefits. Thus their obsession with “choice” and contracting-out in public services.

Thus Blair’s claims, to the European Parliament on 1 July, that he can offer an alternative both to the crude end-of-welfare US model and what he sees as the excessively market-clogging model of France and Germany.

And thus Blair’s and Brown’s pitch to be the champions of the world’s poor — by targeted debt relief, aid, and trade liberalisation which (they reckon) will get the capitalist market working better for the poor.

But the capitalist market has an inbuilt drive to increase the gap between rich and poor. In Britain, inequality has increased since 1997. Blair-Brown measures like the Working Families Tax Credit, which do help some of the poor, do not counterbalance the inbuilt drives of capitalism. They are not even designed to. They aim to help the market work more smoothly, rather than be a countervailing force.

What does this approach mean for Africa? Look at the great “success story” of the Blair-Brown approach, Uganda.

Since General Yoweri Museveni’s military coup in 1986, Uganda has been a favourite for international aid and debt relief.

About half the government budget comes from international aid. Uganda was the first country to gain substantial debt relief under both the original and the enhanced “Heavily Indebted Poor Countries” (HIPC) initiatives. The World Bank and the IMF have praised its “strong economic reform effort in the areas of trade liberalisation and public enterprise reform”.

Uganda claims some successes, such as an increase in primary school enrolments from 2.9 million in 1997 to 6.5 million in 2002.

But, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “the emphasis on exports, both traditional and non-traditional cash crops [mostly coffee and flowers, respectively], has simultaneously meant a decline in the production of foodstuffs consumed locally, both in amounts and in variety”. Eighty per cent of Uganda’s population still live from agriculture.

Even the element of success is precarious. The drastic drop in world-market coffee prices after 1998 hit Uganda hard — no Common-Agricultural-Policy-type protection for Uganda’s farmers! Coffee prices have recovered a bit since 2002, but are still well below 1998’s levels.

And what about the workers who may get industrial jobs with companies attracted to the IMF’s star pupil? The International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers’ Federation has recently singled Uganda’s one-party state out as a prime example of government collusion in super-exploitation.

Federation secretary Neil Kearney said that workers at Tri-Star Apparel in Uganda earn US$23 a month; work in unbearable heat; have insufficient drinking water and bad food; often live in factory dormitories; often have to work compulsory extra hours, without overtime pay, to meet production targets; and are restricted in their use of toilets (only two out of a section of seventy workers can go at any one time, and a worker who takes more than five minutes can lose half a day’s pay).

According to the Federation, the Uganda Textile, Garments, Leather and Allied Workers’ Union has the support of the overwhelming majority of the workforce, but is still denied recognition. “The government of Uganda has colluded with this as it has in other cases where union recognition demands have been outstanding for more than ten years in spite of nearly 100% union membership”.

Tri-Star Apparel is a multinational, originating in Sri Lanka, which now exports heavily to the rich countries of Europe and North America.

Ugandan teachers struck and demonstrated in June against low pay. Another Ugandan union appealed for international support in June when the Ugandan government registrar of trade unions failed to recognise its new leadership elected at a conference that month.

Whatever the details of what the G8 summit promises on debt and aid, it will do nothing to help the workers and small farmers in Uganda. Blair and Brown are not even proposing that it do anything along those lines. The top celebrities in the Make Poverty History campaign are not asking for anything like that: instead, they have put together a petition from more than a hundred bankers and businessmen to the G8 backing their calls for more aid, debt relief, and trade liberalisation, measures which those capitalists reasonably hope will bring them more business and more profits.

What the workers and small farmers of Uganda and Africa need, above all, is solidarity from the labour movement in Britain — solidarity that we will be ten times more able to give if we can defeat in Britain the same policies that Blair and Brown want the G8 to carry through internationally.

We want more!

According to the Financial Times on 5 July, “the UK has become skilled at creating splashy announcements [of new aid initiatives] out of little or no new money”. The Blair-Brown government has taken this so far that, the FT says, “even NGOs with strong links to the UK Treasury and Downing Street, like Oxfam, have been increasingly willing to criticise”.

“There is an incentive on the part of Number 10 Downing Street and even Bob Geldof to portray these announcements [of supposedly increased aid, in the run-up to the G8 summit] as a huge deal,” said Oxfam. “We would be very concerned if people came away with the impression that this was the case”.

The G8 summit will announce more debt relief, but of a very limited sort, and without reversing the privatisations and social spending cuts pushed on poorer countries as part of the debt-relief business. Given the European Union’s impasse over the Common Agricultural Policy, it is very unlikely to announce any large changes in trade rules advantageous to poor countries.

And it will not announce any serious measures on climate change.

Many of the demonstrators in Edinburgh on 2 July plainly knew that. Bianca Jagger got huge applause when she warned us against becoming “political tools, co-opted and used by the governments of the richest countries in the world... If Blair really cared about the issues as much as he claims, he would not be forcing trade liberalisation and privatisation of services on already vulnerable countries”.

She called for the “end of the global economic system that makes poverty inevitable”. She did not define the system clearly (it is capitalism) nor identify the social force that can replace it with a more equal society (the working class) — but it is down to the organised left to do that.

Tax the rich!

In sub-Saharan Africa, 320 million people live on less than $1 a day. Worldwide, 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

Meanwhile, the world’s 691 billionaires (according to Forbes magazine) have a total wealth of $2,200 billion That’s $800 — more than two years’ income, and certainly enough to improve their conditions hugely — for each of those 2.7 billion people.

Some of the celebrities who put themselves forward on Live8 could make a real difference to sub-Saharan Africa’s 320 million desperately poor people just by digging in their own individual pockets.

Bill Gates’s wealth is about $46.5 billion, and Richard Branson’s about $3.2 billion. Share that out among sub-Saharan Africa’s 320 million very poor people, and they get $150 each, half a year’s income.

Bob Geldof and Paul McCartney are estimated to have wealth of £30 million and £725 million, respectively — $1300 million between them, or enough to double the living standard of three million people in Africa.

Madonna is reckoned to have had an income of $50 million last year, as much for one individual as 140,000 poor people in sub-Saharan Africa get between them.

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