G8 – Africa nil

Four months on and with the 'historic G8 deal for Africa' already in tatters, the Make Poverty History coalition is as silent as it was once ubiquitous. Ahead of December's World Trade Organisation summit in Hong Kong, Stuart Hodkinson investigates

November 1, 2005
12 min read

Remember Make Poverty History, anyone? It seems a long time ago that some 200,000 people flocked to Edinburgh on 2 July to rally G8 leaders as part of an unprecedented global justice campaign. That same day, Bob Geldof organised free music concerts in nine countries worldwide under the Live 8 banner. The demands were straightforward and reasonable: rich countries should boost overseas aid in line with 35-year-old unmet promises; cancel completely the debts of the 62 poorest countries; set binding dates for the abolition of subsidies and other protectionist support to Northern farmers; and stop forcing liberalisation and privatisation on poor countries, whether in international trade negotiations or as conditions of aid and debt deals.

Six days later, in the shadow of the 7 July bombs that ripped through central London, the Gleneagles summit ended to a chorus of rock star cheers. ‘This has been the most important summit there ever has been for Africa,’ Bob Geldof confidently stated at the post-summit press conference. ‘There are no equivocations. Africa and the poor of that continent have got more from the last three days than they have ever got at any previous summit … On aid, ten out of ten. On debt, eight out of ten. On trade … it is quite clear that this summit, uniquely, decided that enforced liberalisation must no longer take place,” he said, before finishing with a flourish. ‘That is a serious, excellent result on trade.’ Bono, voice cracking with emotion, concurred: ‘We are talking about $25 billion of new money … The world spoke and the politicians listened.’

Assembled journalists and campaigners broke into spontaneous applause; the next day’s media coverage led with Geldof’s ‘mission accomplished’ verdict. But as the millions who signed up to Make Poverty History and Live 8 no doubt rejoiced, inside the upper echelons of MPH all hell was breaking loose. ‘They’ve shafted us,’ a press officer from a UK development NGO screamed down the phone. Indeed they had. Moments earlier, Kumi Naidoo, the veteran South African anti-apartheid campaigner and current chair of MPH’s international umbrella, the Global Call to Action against Poverty (G-CAP), had delivered the coalition’s official response: ‘The people have roared but the G8 has whispered. The promise to deliver [more aid] by 2010 is like waiting five years before responding to the tsunami.’

Having pored over leaked drafts of the G8 communiqué into the early hours, MPH officials knew that the G8’s announcements on aid, trade and debt were not only grossly inadequate to help poor countries reach the UN’s millennium development goals by 2015. They were also completely bogus – and they had briefed the rock stars to that effect. More than half of the promised $50 billion in aid – which wouldn’t kick in until 2010 – wasn’t really new money at all, but a dishonest amalgam of old pledges, future aid budgets and debt relief. And despite agreeing that ‘poor countries should be free to determine their own economic policies’, only Britain had announced it would no longer tie overseas aid to free market reforms – a promise it would instantly break in the G8 debt deal. The US, in contrast, had made it immediately clear at Gleneagles that aid increases would require ‘reciprocal liberalisation’ by developing countries. Worse, as Yifat Susskind, associate director of the US-based women’s human rights organisation, Madre, explains, Bush’s ‘millennium challenge account’, specifically praised by Bono and Geldof, ‘explicitly ties aid to cooperation in the US’s “war on terror”‘.

The much lauded June G7 (G8 minus Russia) finance ministers’ ‘$55 billion’ debt deal, in which 18 countries – 14 of them African – would receive ‘100 per cent multilateral debt cancellation’, with 20 more countries soon to follow, was a similar pop star-veiled deception. In reality, the G7 had only agreed to take over the debt repayments of those countries to just three of world’s 19 multilateral creditors – the IMF, World Bank and the African Development Bank (ADB) – meaning they would continue to be saddled with crippling debts owed to the other 16.

What’s more, the $55 billion figure would in reality be worth little more than $1billion a year – the amount paid out in annual interest payments to the World Bank, IMF and ADB by the 18 countries as a whole. To put this in context, African countries alone have a staggering $295 billion official debt stock, having already paid back $550 billion in interest on a total of $540 billion in loans between 1970 and 2002. In 2003, developing countries paid out a crippling $23.6 billion in debt servicing.

Despite the G8’s promise that debt relief would be ‘unconditional’, the 18 countries selected had just completed nine years of neoliberal structural adjustment under the IMF/World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) scheme, which has typically increased poverty and inequality at the same time as privatising and liberalising large swathes of their economies. The 20 countries additionally earmarked for debt cancellation must now also submit to the HIPC process. Incredibly, for every dollar received in debt relief, poor countries will receive an equivalent dollar reduction in aid.

As Eric Toussaint, of the Belgium-based Committee for the Abolition of the Third World Debt (CADTM), argues: ‘This precious funding will only be returned if countries meet “specific policy criteria” – more long years of privatisation and liberalisation that increases school fees, health-care costs and VAT, removes subsidies for basic products and creates unfair competition between local producers and transnational corporations, all of which hurts the poor. For Geldof to stand there and say that conditionality is over was a complete lie.’

The same is true of trade. Contrary to Geldof, the G8 did not decide that from now on rich countries would no longer force through neoliberal trade policies in developing countries ahead of 6 December’s World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Hong Kong. According to Martin Khor, of Third World Network, the influential international research and advocacy body based in Malaysia: ‘The G8 summit did not indicate any change of heart from the aggressive campaign their negotiators are pursuing in talks to rapidly open up the developing countries’ agricultural, industrial and services sectors.’

All in all, despite nearly a year of intense lobbying and campaigning for G8 countries to change course in order to meet the UN’s millenium development goals, Gleneagles, in the words of Christian Aid’s Claire Melamed, was a ‘grave disappointment’. Senegalese economist Demba Moussa Dembele, of the African Forum on Alternatives, puts it more forcefully: ‘People must not be fooled by the celebrities: Africa got nothing.’

Given this assessment, Geldof and Bono’s misrepresentation of the G8 deal at the post-summit press conference came as a severe blow to many within MPH. Helped by four British Muslim suicide bombers in London, the rock stars ensured that the issues of Africa, poverty and development disappeared from the media spotlight within days of the summit’s end. Four months on, and despite the disaster of the G8 for worldwide efforts to eradicate poverty, the silence of MPH is deafening.

Contrary to appearances, however, the coalition has not disbanded. In fact, it has decided to carry on as a campaigning movement after the Hong Kong WTO ministerial meeting in December. Inside the coalition, moreover, there is anything but silence. In the depressing aftermath of Gleneagles, the political disagreements that gripped MPH during the spring and summer months (revealed in July’s Red Pepper) between the powerful grouping of government-friendly aid agencies and charities effectively running MPH, led by Oxfam and including CAFOD, Save the Children Fund and Comic Relief, and the more progressive yet smaller NGOs like War on Want and the World Development Movement, have escalated. But this time, the unhappiness at how MPH has been manoeuvred so closely to New Labour by leading charities and celebrities stretches way beyond the coalition’s radical fringe.

‘The campaign has been too superficial,’ argues Christian Aid’s head of policy, Charles Abugre. ‘Numbers have been more important than politics and we have placed too much emphasis on celebrities with strong connections to those in power. Consequently, a serious occasion was turned into a celebration of celebrities.’

In July, Red Pepper reported how critical policy positions and stances agreed within the coalition were being lost in the ‘public messaging’ thanks to the efforts of Oxfam and film-maker Richard Curtis. Instead of criticising Blair and Brown, MPH spin doctors and their cast of celebrities were going out of their way to praise them. The news that MPH was organising a massive demonstration in Edinburgh on the eve of the G8 was quickly corrected by MPH spin doctors as a ‘walk … to welcome the G8 leaders to Scotland … The emphasis is on fun in the sun.’

Since then, Red Pepper has learned that right up until the early hours of 8 July, members of MPH’s coordinating team were having to face down a desperate last-ditch effort from within to secure a positive civil society reaction to the G8 communiqué. According to one insider, this came after weeks of internal pressure on some NGOs to ‘clear delicate stories with the Treasury’, and attempts by Justin Forsyth, Oxfam’s former policy chief turned Downing St special advisor, to pressure leading NGO officials ‘to refrain from criticising the government’ as it became increasingly obvious that the Gleneagles outcome would not be ‘historic’. Following Forsyth’s anger at Kumi Naidoo’s negative assessment of the G8 at the post-summit press conference, the pair had to be ‘physically separated’ backstage.

The debate is most intense over the organisation of Live 8, which to many has come to symbolise the damaging behaviour of Geldof, Bono and Richard Curtis. ‘There were millions of people watching the concerts, but what was the analysis? What was the message?’ asks Charles Abugre, who believes Make Poverty History’s methodology set the tone for the Live 8 whitewash. ‘It was one of handouts and charity, not one of liberation defined by Africans themselves or the reality that we are actually resisting neo-colonialism and neoliberalism ourselves.’

While much has been written in the mainstream press about how Live 8 came to happen, there has been little coverage of how bitterly most MPH members still feel about the concerts, which were secretly organised behind their backs by Geldof and Curtis with the full knowledge of Oxfam, Comic Relief and the Treasury. This is not just because they completely overshadowed MPH’s own rally in Edinburgh on 2 July. Campaigners feel that Live 8 and Geldof hijacked the MPH campaign for a very different cause. Their focus was not on global poverty, but Africa. And their demands were not those of MPH, but of the Commission for Africa, a government-sponsored think-tank whose members, hand-picked by Blair and Brown, were described by Professor Paul Cammack, writing in these pages, as a ‘web of bankers, industrialists and political leaders with connections to the IMF and the World Bank, all committed to spreading the gospel of free market capitalism’.

The coalition’s anger at the Live 8 organisers has intensified over revelations about their paternalistic treatment of African campaigners and their relationship to corporations operating in Africa. Firoze Manji, the co-director of Fahamu, an African social justice network and member of G-CAP, recounts how the African coalition had already planned a concert in Johannesburg in early July to be held in one of the townships to encourage maximum participation of the people who suffer the greatest effects of globalisation and neoliberal policies. However, according to Manji, a private meeting in London of Oxfam GB, Curtis, Geldof and Kumi Naidoo, G-CAP chair and director of Civicus, the South African-based global alliance for citizen participation, unilaterally cancelled the original concert in favour of the Live 8 event, throwing the African coalition into disarray. The concert, which cost some $500,000 to stage, was attended by just 4,000 people.

Back in Britain, having excluded African artists from the main London concert, saying Live 8 was ‘not a cultural event’ and only musicians with more than four million record sales could play, lest people would ‘switch off’, Geldof eventually gave his blessing to ‘Africa Calling’. This was a hastily arranged, low-key Live 8 concert in Cornwall featuring African artists that was attended by just 5,000 people. Scandalously, the corporate sponsors assembled by the organisers included: Nestlé, accused of exploiting the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa to sell more milk substitute products to infected mothers; Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining corporation, widely condemned for its longstanding record of human rights and environmental abuses across the global South; and Britain’s biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, whose export-led agenda, according Mike Lewis of the UK’s Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), is ‘fuelling conflicts across Africa, with catastrophic impacts on development, and diverting spending away from health and education’.

There is now growing pressure coming from inside the coalition to distance itself from the celebrity set. This has particularly angered Oxfam, and insiders believe that the aid agency will now lead a break away split from MPH, taking Comic Relief and Bono’s charity, Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa (DATA), with it. Given Oxfam’s avowedly free trade solutions to third world poverty, and, along with Comic Relief’s Richard Curtis, Bono and Geldof, its leadership’s uncomfortably close relationship to New Labour, this scenario could be an encouraging development for efforts to realign MPH in the direction of the global justice movement.

But it will not be enough. The failure of MPH to achieve its political demands cannot be laid at the door of Oxfam, Geldof and company alone. By being too dependent on corridor-lobbying, celebrities and the media, by failing to give voice and ownership of the campaign to Southern social movements, by watering down the radical demands agreed upon by hundreds of grassroots movements, from both the South and North, at the World Social Forum, and by politically legitimising the G8 summit, the campaign was doomed from the start.

Ten out of ten on aid, eight out of ten on debt? More like G8 – Africa nil.

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