Login   Sign Up 


G8 Summit: themountain is in labour again

by James Graham 

Posted: 26 June 2005
Word Count: 1222

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced

Sorry, but I have to take a very hard line on the G8 summit. I say sorry because normally I don’t like to be a hardliner. When Blair adopted Africa, and Brown pulled off his debt cancellation coup - which will presumably be endorsed at the summit - you couldn’t help softening up just a little. At last, after all that loss of trust over Iraq, Labour leaders seemed to be turning their hands to the kind of task that best justifies their salaries - and our respect.

Wonderful news. They even seemed to be giving a new international meaning to the century-old, once respected party name. They had become once again the party of labour - of the women, for example, labouring in chilli pepper warehouses in Andra Pradesh, and as they do so developing a lung disease uncommonly like miners’ silicosis; of the field labourers in every continent, mass-producing chillies, coffee, or carnations at rock-bottom prices; of the coltan miners labouring in the eastern Congo, mining the carcinogenic stuff that mobile phones need. At last the leaders of a major power would begin to turn the global banking system into a tool for getting people - in Ted Honderich’s phrase - out of bad lives.

But alas, it’s not as simple as that. Brown’s deal, in particular, really doesn’t do what it says on the label.

We can get an idea of the size of the package by noting that its cost to the G8 countries will be no more than $2 billion a year, compared with their current annual expenditure of $350 billion on farming subsidies and $700 billion on the military.

The amount of debt actually written off will be a very small percentage of the total debt of the poor world to the rich; only 5% of the total population of the developing world will benefit. And the debt written off is public debt only; it leaves poor countries still massively indebted to unregulated private lenders: for example, 35% of Ivory Coast’s external debt is to private lenders.

Then we must read the small print - as no doubt many in the poor world already have. Neo-liberal conditions are attached, including further privatisation of essential public services. Consequences of this ‘restructuring’ frequently include the imposition of school fees, steep increases in water charges, and new charges for health services which had formerly been free. So-called ‘structural adjustments’ of this kind have already been imposed, and their effects felt, as part of earlier debt relief initiatives. For example, school attendance in Uganda fell catastrophically in the 90s, until the Uganda government was forced to defy structural adjustment policies and make schooling free again. But the corporate lobby lets very little stand in its way. The relentless expansion of the unfettered market is an imperative that no politician can resist, not even Gordon Brown.

Sorry, but the good news begins to pall. It begins to look more spin than substance.

Some commentators on the left see the whole thing as gesture politics. Blair and Brown are playing along; they want to turn the Edinburgh protest into a spectacle; they want it to seem, if not quite a demonstration of popular support, then at least a protest that has had the wind taken out of its sails. Here’s the World Development Movement calling for debt relief. But we’re doing debt relief! We’re all on the same side! Here’s Friends of the Earth calling for action on climate change. We’re doing that too!

This is over-simplified. Not wholly untrue, but simplistic. Of course it’s not simply a matter of the men in power saying this protest movement is getting a bit above itself, let’s pull a couple of rabbits out of the hat. They’re not that preoccupied with out-manoeuvring the popular opposition. Clearly they wouldn’t be sorry to see the grass-roots protest movement wither away. But their first concern is to manage to world economy, largely to the advantage of the G8 countries, but not necessarily excluding the developing world - which the developed world needs.

There’s a good deal in the assertion that it’s gesture politics; but we’re not talking so much about gestures towards a few - or even a million - protesters. The more urgent gestures that the G8 countries need to make are towards the developing world, to forestall a new and potentially very powerful idea, which for a long time has been strenuously advocated by Jubilee South, and is starting to catch on with South governments. An idea that strikes, if not quite terror, then unease at the very least, into the hearts of rich-world leaders. What is proposed is the formation of a Debtors’ Alliance, probably led by the more influential South countries such as Brazil, India and Nigeria, together with as many of the smaller heavily indebted countries as possible. As soon as formed, the Alliance would inform the G8 and world banking institutions that all member countries would cease debt repayments unilaterally, unless the rich world met certain conditions. Unilateral debt repudiation by South countries looms quite large; anyone with Gordon Brown’s undoubted foresight knows it would be wise to forestall it now.

Whether it’s the global justice movement they’re dealing with, or a potential alliance of heavily indebted countries, Blair, Brown and most other rich-world leaders well understand that there is a defusing job to be done. If a gesture is all it takes, so much the better.

Maybe that’s the way politics always works. Those in power see a ‘democratic threat’, that is a threat to their power from those who have less power or no power at all. So the powers that be make a gesture. If one gesture isn’t enough, there’s more pressure, the needle goes into the red, and another gesture has to be made. That’s pretty much how the universal franchise was established. Through a dialectic of protest, civil disobedience, even riot on the one hand and concessions by government on the other, at long last, at very long last, these sporadic, reactive gestures made by power elites start to add up to something. In the long term they may even amount to real social change.

After all this hard-lining, we still have to say in all fairness that if Blair and Brown - and their successors perhaps for the next few decades - continue along the road they now appear to have chosen, it’s unlikely it will prove to have been a wrong turning. Their motives may include a wish to neutralise the grass-roots movement that began in Seattle, and nip co-ordinated debt repudiation in the bud. What they do may be done more in the interests of power than in the interests of the poor. But even if motives are mixed, the outcome will be somewhat more positive than negative. Perhaps a tiny minority of ‘bad lives’ will become a little more viable.

Even so, when you see the conditions in which so many people have to live, when you consider the urgency of people’s need for clean water, generic medicines, and rewards for their labour that are somewhere above rock-bottom, it all seems piddling stuff. The mountain is in labour yet again; by early July, another little mouse will have come into the world. Our leaders can do a great deal better than this.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

Al T at 18:33 on 26 June 2005  Report this post
Hi James, you've certainly got your finger on the topical pulse and I found your article well-written. However, the central problem to me seems to be something that you don't focus on: trust. Given the track record of African governments of stealing from their own people, many in the West, including me, are loathe to give them more money without first ensuring that it won't end up in a despot's Swiss bank account. I caught a bit of a programme this lunchtime in which Simon Jenkins said by all means give free medicine (although that may still be stolen and resold), just don't give cash. At least not yet.

Did you watch Richard Curtis's film The Girl in the Cafe last night? Despite being a big Bill Nighy fan, I was hugely disappointed by that (not least by the Hugh Grant style wittering at the beginning), but also by the underlying assertion that no one in power ever thinks about the poor and needy. Give me a break. At least you don't seem to be saying that.

Finally, did you see any of the features on the BBC 10 o'clock news last week contrasting the economic fortunes of Ghana and Malaysia, which both gained independence in the same year, when their GDP was at similar levels. GDP in Malaysia is nine times higher now than that in Ghana. I found that very interesting.


Al T at 18:58 on 26 June 2005  Report this post
A little story for you in return. I was in rural Rajasthan a couple of years ago, walking through a small village with my local guide. On the other side of a wall a saw a skein of orange silk, glittering in the sunshine. "How beautiful", I said. "What's it for?" He said it was used in a textile operation. I asked if I could look around. No problem.

Inside this house was an old fashioned loom where a man was making the kind of ribbon you might use for a present: gold on one side and orange on the other. I asked if I could buy a roll and how much it was. They asked me how much I wanted to pay. I had no idea what it should cost so offered the equivalent of about 50p. They were thrilled.

I left realising that unfettered globalisation might put these people out of business, although labour costs in a family business like that are zero. If they were forced out of business, I think that would both terrible and unnecessary. I still have the ribbon as a reminder.


Cornelia at 19:01 on 26 June 2005  Report this post
An interesting well-argued piece but it seems to me you have a good deal too much trust in Blair and Brown.


sue n at 21:11 on 26 June 2005  Report this post
Good piece James,
A bit of me wants to believe that Blair is sincere and not driven by a desire to 'leave his mark' on a grateful third world, that Brown is clever enough to realise that it is in all our interests to eradicate poverty -- but surely these two are the mice.
Lets face it - it's not G8, it's G1. Until the big bad rat that is the neo-Conservative US wakes up to global warming and the time bomb that is Africa, we are all spitting in the wind.
America's blind, god-driven certainty that the whole world revolves around their economy and security scares me rigid.

joolsk at 16:20 on 27 June 2005  Report this post
Having lived in Africa all my life, I can honestly say that the most depressing thing is that even if G8 did give $700 billion, most of it would end up in the pockets of politicians and very little would filter down to the people who are out there dying of AIDS, of starvation, of poverty.

James Graham at 20:48 on 29 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks everyone for interesting comments. Adele and joolsk, you quite rightly bring up the problem of corruption. There's some mention of tackling corruption in the conditions attached to the latest round of debt relief. But until now corruption has never been a major consideration in dealings with Third World governments. The US and other Western governments supported - with money, arms and political backing - some of the most corrupt regimes of the 20th century, such as that of Suharto in Indonesia, Mobuto in the Congo (a regular private flight used to shuttle between Kinshasa and Zurich with additions to Mobuto's personal fortune), and of course, let's not forget Saddam Hussein. For decades the adjective 'corrupt' has been reserved mainly for regimes that were seen to be acting against Western interests. Saddam suddenly became 'corrupt' when he invaded Kuwait - though by objective standards he had been corrupt for a long time, including all the years he was receiving American and British arms and aid. We've yet to see evidence that the main criterion in Western dealings with Third World governments - whether or not they do as they're told - has changed.

But if there is to be a change, the G8 could demonstrate this to the world by coming down harder on corruption. Instead of the key conditions for debt relief being such things as drastic reductions in public spending, the introduction of education and health care fees, or privatisation of water, they could insist first and foremost on Third World governments taking real steps to root out corruption. When they are seen to be dealing with corruption, the debt will be written off.

Mind you, the Bush administration especially would come in for more charges of hypocrisy - as they already do when they try to tell other countries to respect human rights. Morally they would be obliged to look at levels of corruption in Washington, especially in all dealings involving Iraq. But that kind of even-handedness is too much to expect from that quarter.

Sheila - I was trying to give some benefit of doubt to Blair and Brown, but bending over backwards is a bit of a strain. I don't think I'm really saying much more than that Blair and Brown possibly have the sense to see that, in their own interests, they should take some steps - well, one or two - to alleviate world poverty. Maybe even that's too optimistic.

Sue - I think Brown is clever enough to realise that concessions have to be made. In that respect he's like 19th and early 20th century politicians, liberals such as Gladstone and Lloyd George who realised concessions had to be made to the movement to extend the right to vote, and to demands for some kind of welfare to at least save people from destitution.

Again, thanks all. If anyone wants to keep this going at least until after the Gleneagles bash, I'm up for it.


To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .