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Making poverty history or helping capitalists exploit Africa?

Who is the G8? In a nutshell, it is a clique of the 8 leading industrial States who have appointed themselves rulers of the world. The G8 leaders are actually the executive of the capitalist class of their respective countries and are the staunchest defenders of neoliberal corporate globalisation, the custodians of privilege and corporate power and the guardians of world capitalism. They help rule the world and maintain the playing field for profit-hungry western corporations. Together they have the power to dictate who eats and who starves, who lives and who dies, to declare war regardless of the wishes of the people who elected them. Their policies have resulted in global poverty and environmental destruction. They are meeting in Edinburgh this July to decide on which international strategies they can commonly pursue, allegedly in the interests of the people of the word and the natural environment.

Lined up against the G8 leaders this July in Edinburgh is the campaign group Make Poverty History, a loose coalition of  some 450 NGOs, unions and charitable organisations, united in the demand for fairer trading conditions for developing States, debt cancellation and increased and improved aid.

Oxfam’s role
By far the biggest development organisation within Make Poverty History is Oxfam, which has been widely accused of pandering to the whims of New Labour and propagating objectives which are identical to those of a Blair government frantic, in the face of the Iraq fiasco, to implement a foreign policy that campaign movements can stomach. Indeed, there are individuals and groups associated with Make Poverty History who identify with the objectives of Messrs Blair and Brown. The celebrity Bono, for instance, referred to the smiling duo at the last Labour Party conference as the “Lennon and McCartney” of poverty reduction.

Loud-mouthed celebrity Bob Geldof, a week after Bono’s remark, revealed he was backing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s attempts to deliver development to Africa because of their Christian values. Geldof can well support New Labour and obsessively promote the agenda of the MPH campaign, but you have to begin asking questions when even Blair has been spotted wearing a white Make Poverty History wristband.

The praise is of course reciprocal. On 3 June, Gordon Brown expressed his support for Sir Bob the Gob’s Live8 concerts and encouraged demonstrations at the G8 summit, as long as they take the form of a “peaceful march”. Any other government would have feared a march by one million demonstrators, but not New Labour. Blair and Brown are so happy with the convergence of their own overseas agenda and the demands of the Make Poverty History campaign that they rather see a million person march as being a rally in support of Labour Party policies.

Chancellor Gordon Brown is nowadays advised on international development by former Oxfam trustee and former director at the US bank UBS Warburg, Shriti Vandera, and Blair has the backing of Justin Forsyth – one time Director of Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam – on the Downing Street Policy Unit. Said the latter back in 2002: “When you speak to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they really understand [the] issues. They are easily some of the best leaders when it comes to talking about development and dismantling subsidy, and they are making the right arguments time and again.”

Of course there are some within Making Poverty History that see through the scam. War on Want is dismayed at the way New Labour’s overseas policies are winning widespread acceptance and undermining their own campaigning efforts. And neither is Christian Aid happy at Oxfam’s over-cosy, less critical relationship with the government. Friends of the Earth likewise believe there are disadvantages to the privileged position Oxfam enjoys with the government, believing the demands of campaign movements are becoming diluted and generalised.

They have a point. Blair sees himself as somewhat spearheading the MPH campaign at Gleneagles and queries why the MPH are heading for Edinburgh when he speaks their jargon. In Dundee, in March of this year, he commented: “It would be very odd if people came to protest against this G8, as we’re focusing on poverty in Africa and climate change. I don’t quite know what they’ll be protesting against.” 

Making Poverty History has been so linked to the government as to be rendered toothless. When the main players in the coalition demanded a meeting with the government, Whitehall couldn’t accede fast enough. So closely have Blair and Brown been identified with the objectives of the coalition that they have been criticised by other EU member states for softening their pro-liberalisation stance.

And who is it that rallied to the defence of the government to counter the claims of Blair’s cynics in Europe? None other that Oxfam who issued a statement criticising Blair’s detractors for trying to hamper Britain’s attempt to help the world’s poor. It is no secret that Oxfam has informed other developmental groups linked to Make Poverty History that it is important not to be perceived as being confrontational with the government now that Blair and Brown are singing from the same hymn sheet as them.

Opening up Africa
Meanwhile, John Hilary, Director of Campaigns and Policy at War on Want, says that the British contingent at the WTO told him to “get real. The development agenda does not go very far. We have to be pro-business and pro-trade” (New Statesman, 30 May).

Hilary appears to have been well-informed when one considers the agenda emerging from the much praised Commission for Africa Report. This report, which was published on 11 March is the showpiece of the Blair government’s strategy for the G8. responding to its launch, the BBC, (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/4337239.stm) listed eight areas necessitating action by the West, inclusive of doubling or trebling aid, cancelling debt, spending more on HIV/AIDS, financing African universities and the removal of trade barriers to African exports in the West. (The report can be downloaded in full or in sections at: http://www.commissionforafrica.org/english/report/introduction.html)

There is much in the report to whet the appetite of the anti-poverty campaigner. But, you need only read the prÄcis of the various chapters to suss out what is in fact the real schema.  In chapter 7, for instance, objectives for fiscal growth in Africa are alleged to be possible “only if the obstacles of+ a discouraging investment climate are overcome”. And it proposes the “public and private sector working together to identify the obstacles to a favourable investment climate”. How else can this be interpreted other than in suggesting more liberalisation and privatisation and more opportunities for western corporations to exploit African resources and labour?

The summary of Chapter 8 says: “Investments in infrastructure and the enabling climate for the private sector are at the top of the agenda.” Is this not the government spearheading neoliberal reform in Africa on behalf of big business?

Business Action for Africa has been in cahoots with the Commission for Africa. This coalition of 250 business representatives met with the Commission in February following formal dialogue between the Commission and the private sector on the continents of Africa, North America and Europe – a meeting arranged via the Business Contact Group, itself set up to provide private sector input to the Commission for Africa, and the result of a meeting co-chaired chaired by Gordon Brown and Reuter’s chairman, Niall Fitzgerald.

Referring to the Business Contact Group, Corporate Watch observed:

“Its 16 or so corporate members read like a roll call of the most exploitative and despised companies currently operating on the continent including Anglo American, Shell, De Beers, Rio Tinto and...Diageo, who also own the Gleneagles hotel where the G8 Summit will take place. Its programme was managed by Shell International’s Senior Business Development Advisor for Africa. Also managing the Contact Group is the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC). The Corporate Council on Africa and the Canadian Council on Africa also gave input, thus allowing oil corporations, ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, a say.” (http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=1535)

Dave Miller, writing for Znet in an article entitled Spinning the G8, commented:

“The corporations involved can barely contain their excitement. The ‘outlook’ of the business community is a ‘positive one’ says one of the CFA commissioners.  ‘It believes Africa is the next frontier for investment’. James Smith, the UK chair of Shell, which co-hosted the meeting, noted that progress ‘requires that the private sector has a bigger role’. The chair of the Commonwealth Business Council, the business lobby group co-hosting the meeting, read out the concluding statement. Dr Mohan Kaul affirmed that ‘getting the conditions right for doing business in Africa is the biggest single investment for the future well-being of its citizens’. A ‘vibrant and successful private sector+ is required’ he noted. (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7852)

EU states may well be critical of Britain’s new pro-Africa stance as being influenced by celebrities and NGOs, but the truth is that affiliates to Make Poverty History, in applauding Brown and Blair,  are the unwitting accomplices  of a government which forms the vanguard of the latest corporate drive to open up markets throughout the developing world.

World-wide reaction
Increasingly, in the last decade, there has been a worldwide reaction against neoliberal globalisation, corporate power and the injustices associated with modern-day capitalism. Everywhere where the world’s ruling elite have assembled to decide their next step they have been met with protests and demonstrations that have attracted hundreds of thousands. Demonstrations at Seattle, Gothenburg, Cologne, Evian, Birmingham, Prague, Genoa and Quebec, have stimulated debate on the nature of modern day capitalism. Thousands of articles have been written on the subject and hundreds of books have been published that explore the aims, objectives and the alternatives offered by the anti-globalisation movement.

What is now clear is that the anti-globalisation/pro-development movement, however well-meaning, does not seek to replace capitalism with any real alternative social system. At best it attracts a myriad of groups, all pursuing their own reformist agenda. Some call for greater corporate responsibility. Some demand the restructuring of international institutions like the IMF, World Bank and the WTO. Others call for the expansion of democracy and fairer trading conditions, debt cancellation and more aid. All, however, fail to address the root cause of the problems of capitalism and promote the damnable system they are critical of by applauding any meagre reform.

One thing is certain: no amount of high table reform is going to legislate poverty out of existence as the MHP coalition believes. Capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the world’s suffering billions, because reform does not address the basic contradiction between profit and need. Moreover, reform can be so packaged and camouflaged as to be acceptable to protestors whilst leaving their real grievances unaddressed. The world’s leaders simply cannot be depended upon to implement real change because they can only ever act as the executive of corporate capitalism.

The protesters at the G8 might think they are united in common cause, but in truth they are only united in supporting capitalism and in their mistaken belief that poverty can be legislated out of existence, They have no blueprint for change other than the three demands put forward by the Make Poverty History campaign – Fair trade, more aid and debt cancellation. – and this is about as radical as it gets. In mirroring in their objectives the overseas goals of Blair and Brown they are anything but the modern day revolutionaries they claim to be.

It is now no utopian fantasy – but a practical, revolutionary proposition – to suggest we can live in a world without waste or want or war, in which each person has free access to the benefits of civilisation. That much is assured. We certainly have the science, the technology and the know-how. All that is missing is the will – the global desire for change that can make that next great historical advance possible; a belief in ourselves as masters of our own destiny; a belief that it is possible to free production from the artificial constraints of profit and to fashion a world in our own interests. And how soon this happens depends upon us all – each and every one of us.
JOHN BISSETT