Political Economy of Making Poverty History
by 17.01.2008 17:14-
In June 2007, the G8 met in Heiligendamm, near Rostock on Germany's Baltic Coast. The following article was written before June 2007 - both a retrospective on the role played by Make Poverty History and Live8 around the Gleneagles Summit, and an attempt to make sense of the Africa discourse emerging around this year's event - was published in German in the magazine 'G8: Die Deutung der Welt: Kritik, Protest, Widerstand', co-operatively produced by a number of different publishing projects connected to the Interventionist Left (IL) (www.g8-2007.de).
In Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, 300,000 people demonstrated against the G8 and the world order for which it stands. Only four years later, at Gleneagles in Scotland, a similar number demonstrated ostensibly in support of the Summit. Under the banner of Make Poverty History, thousands of people formed a white human chain through Edinburgh's city centre, whilst some of the planet's most prominent celebrities took part in Bono and Bob Geldof's Live 8 concerts. July 2, 2005, will be remembered as the day on which 'global civil society' came together, alongside the world of celebrity, to ask the G8 to make the world a better place. Whilst Genoa was an important moment of delegitimation for the G8 and the order it represents, Gleneagles was in many ways its opposite. But how did this come to be? And more importantly, what can be learned from this for the mobilisations to Heiligendamm and beyond?
In many ways, the Make Poverty History (MPH) demonstration and Live 8 concerts were only the latest manifestation of a process set in motion in Britain in the mid-1980s. In response to the images of the Ethiopian famine broadcast around the world in 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure - the lead-singers of the Boomtown Rats and Ultravox respectively - founded Band Aid and produced the incredibly successful charity record 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' A year later, Geldof, Ure and others joined forces again to organise Live Aid, two simultaneous mega-concerts in London and Philadelphia. Again, the stated aim was to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. At around the same time, TV comedy writer Richard Curtis was founding the charity Comic Relief with a similar goal.
It was on the back of these events that a close cooperation began between key development NGOs, charities and prominent celebrities. By 1997, Bono had been adopted as one of the spokespeople for the drop-the-debt campaign, Jubilee 2000. In 2002, he founded the NGO DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) with funds from the Bill & Mellinda Gates Foundation and George Soros.
DATA, along with Oxfam International and Action Aid have gone on to play key roles within the Global Call to Action against Poverty (G-CAP), the coalition of NGOs, church groups, trade unions and campaigning organisations from over 100 countries, within which MPH are the UK wing and Deine Stimme Gegen Armut the German. MPH itself is constituted of around 450 UK-based organisations, most influential of which are Oxfam, Comic Relief and CAFOD. The initial focus of MPH's campaign was the 2005 G8 Summit.
Tensions in the Coalition
As is to be expected with any coalition as broad as MPH, the relationship between its constituent groups was often fractious. Tensions rose in particular around the roles played by Oxfam and Comic Relief. They were accused of being too hasty in their praise for the EU's pledge to increase aid, playing into the G8's hands by detracting from what many saw as the more important issues of debt and trade.
Disgruntlement was exacerbated by a number of exposés which attributed the cosy relationship between Oxfam and the UK government not only to the organisation's dependence on funding (they receive over 60 million Euros a year from the government and other public funds), but also the overlap of and exchange in personnel between the organisation and the Labour Party (See Katharine Quarmby, 'Why Oxfam is failing Africa' in New Statesman, May 2005 and Stuart Hodkinson, 'Make the G8 History' in Red Pepper, July 2005.). For example, Frank Judd, a former Oxfam director became a Labour peer and spoke for the Party on international development issues in the House of Lords in the 1990s. Shriti Vadera, an advisor to Gordon Brown on development is an Oxfam trustee. Justin Forsyth was a director of campaigns and policy at Oxfam, before joining the Downing Street Policy Unit as an advisor to Blair. John Clark first left Oxfam for the World Bank in 1992, before taking on a role as advisor to Blair in 2000 on his 'Africa Partnership Initiative'. Comic Relief - who, via Curtis, played an important role not only in raising funds for MPH, but also in gaining access to the world of celebrity - were accused of taking an "apolitical" approach to Africa. Red Pepper claimed many saw the organisation as portraying Africa as "a continent-come-country ravaged by natural disaster and warring tribes" ( 'Make the G8 History', July 2005).
Tensions within MPH and between the coalition and Live 8 reached their peak, however, in July 2005 as Bono and Geldof gave their approval to the G8's closing Communiqué. Geldof announced, "On aid, 10 out of 10. On debt, 8 out of 10. On trade… it is quite clear that this Summit, uniquely, decided that enforced liberalisation must no longer take place... This is a serious, excellent result on trade." (Quoted in Stuart Hodkinson, 'Do Stars Really Aid the Cause?' in The Independent, 26 October 2005).
Anyone who took the time to look a little closer at the deal, however, soon realised that this was at best ill-informed. The aid promised, for example, was largely not new money at all, but an amalgam of the figures announced for debt relief and old pledges. The debt deal, meanwhile, was reported as being 100% multilateral debt cancellation for 18 countries (14 African), soon to be followed by a further 20. In reality, however, the G7 (the G8 minus Russia) had only pledged to absorb the debt repayments owed to 3 out of 19 creditors. Significant debts would still be owed to the remaining 16. To top it off, Geldof's claim that the Summit had decided "enforced liberalisation must no longer take place" was an outright lie. Many of the 18 countries selected for relief had recently completed 9 years of neoliberal structural adjustment via the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) scheme, a programme through which the further 20 countries would also have to pass ('Make the G8 History', July 2005).
The Poverty of Poverty Alleviation
With the German government's belated announcement that 'Africa' will be on this year's Summit agenda, Geldof and Bono's lobbying work well underway (with tentative cooperation from Herbert Grönemeyer), and the opening of a DATA office in Berlin, now is the time to revisit the important question: How can we make sense of the events in the UK in 2005; of the deployment of a (reasonably) common discourse around poverty alleviation by such a broad constellation of actors - from parts of MPH, to Live 8 and members of the British government?
An easy explanation would be that, for the G8, it was never anything more than talk: a way of buying-off and incorporating the most 'moderate' elements of the globalisation movement, whilst continuing to demonise and criminalise those who refused dialogue. There is almost certainly an element of truth in this. But is it the whole story?
George Caffentzis has attempted to offer a more sophisticated explanation as to the function of this unlikely alliance within the global political economy. (George Caffentzis, 'Dr. Sachs, Live 8 and Neoliberalism's 'Plan B'', in Harvie et al. (Eds.) (2005) Shut Them Down: The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the Movement of Movements (Autonomedia) p.51-60.) He has been amongst those who have identified a crisis in neoliberalism: starting with the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the Seattle protests of 1999 (which drew the world's attention to the anti-neoliberal movements that had been developing for years), and the fall out from 9/11 (with the threat of an open-ended global war demolishing "globalisation's promise of a closer, more inter-dependent world"). ('Dr. Sachs, Live 8 and Neoliberalism's 'Plan B'' (2005), p.52.) Neoliberalism, Caffentzis argues, needed a 'Plan B', and Jeffrey Sachs, a former adviser to the IMF, World Bank and OECD, was to be one of its authors.
Sachs believes that neoliberal globalisation, if correctly managed, is the only route out of poverty for billions of people - and the only option for the survival of capitalism. In the run up to the Gleneagles Summit, he authored The End of Poverty (with a Preface by Bono) to set out what this 'correct management' could look like.
The crux of Sachs's proposal lies, Caffentzis argues, in the two definitions that he provides of "extreme poverty": (i) households which are not able to meet their basic needs; and (ii) an income of less than US$1 a day per person (measured at purchasing power parity). Definition (ii) here obviously implies definition (i), as a person who lives from the equivalent of the goods and services that one can buy in the US for a dollar a day is clearly an "extremely poor" person indeed. Moreover - and according to the rules of the capitalist system - they ought, in fact, to be dead. Yet, according to Sachs's own figures, there are over 1.1 billion people who fit this second definition. The solution to the conundrum is obviously that the "extremely poor" in this definition include those that reproduce themselves, at least in part, outside of capitalist social relations - for example, through the cultivation of land held in common.
Sachs takes on the role of a 21st century Keynes, seeking to circumnavigate crises through short term 'political' interventions into 'the economy', whilst refusing to get drawn into debate about the 'justice' of capitalism. He proposes investment in free education, nutrition programmes and sanitation as a means of lifting over a billion people out of poverty (and - importantly - into the labour market!) by 2025. In true Keynesian fashion, full employment and the expansion of the labour market are seen as the key to growth and stability. Sachs' policy proposals unlike those of Keynes, are aimed not at the national, but the global level.
Whilst Sachs's 'Plan B' remains contested by many of his colleagues and fellow councils to power, his argument is noteworthy not simply because of its more 'sensible' approach to managing the global political economy - when compared, for example, to the naivety of doctrinaire neoliberals who believe those consigned to death by the world market will simply disappear; or their neoconservative counterparts who think those who rebel can be isolated and bombed out of existence - but because of the networks within which Sachs is embedded (something within which he both exerts influence and has been shaped by). These span from nation states (and at the British Foreign Office in particular), to international organisations (like the UN) and, importantly, significant actors within 'global civil society'. The so-called 'Plan B' remains, however, only one tendential development; whether or not it will become dominant is possible, but not given.
The 2005 G8 Summit, then, saw the deployment of a poverty alleviation discourse by heads of state, civil society actors, and the G8 itself. The root cause of poverty - capitalist social relations - remained, of course, obscured. Whilst some saw this as nothing other than a smokescreen enabling the G8 leaders to push on with a programme of neoliberalisation; others, such as Caffentzis, have argued that it represented a turn towards a short term global Keynesianism, for ultimately neoliberal ends. The interests of the G8-MPH-Live 8 complex are by no means homogenous, and there were almost certainly forces pushing in both these directions and more. Nonetheless, the job of those of us who believe the slogan that Another World Is Possible, is to keep a close eye on the way in which these trends and tendencies develop, whilst experimenting with forms of political practice capable of confronting current and emergent forms of exploitation and control. The deepening, strengthening and broadening of both local and global networks of resistance, through a clear delegitimation of the G8 Summit at Heiligendamm may well be able to move us closer towards achieving this goal.
Emma Dowling is a PhD candidate in the Politics Department at the University of London (Birkbeck College). She is active with No Borders London. She recently co-edited (with Rodrigo Nunes and Ben Trott) a special issue of ephemera: theory and politics in organisation (#7.1, April 2007) entitled 'Immaterial and Affective Labour: Explored' ( http://www.ephemeraweb.org).
Ben Trott lives in Berlin where he is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universitaet and active in the group FelS. He is an editor of the journal Turbulence: Ideas for movement ( http://www.turbulence.org.uk), and co-edited (with David Harvie, Kier Milburn and David Watts) Shut Them Down! The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the Movement of Movements (Autonomedia, 2005).
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