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Monday, July 18, 2005

They Came, They Talked, They Left

It is time for Bob Geldof to fuck off. Yes, he did organise Live 8. Yes, this has helped raise global awareness of the impoverishment of Africa. Job done. Thumbs up. Fuck off. He said he wouldn’t mind going to the House of Lords, so send him; shove him next to Birt and Thatcher, where his brown-nosing of new Labour will be lost in the sea of vicious ermine. I don’t care how he goes: put him in the Big Brother house; fire him at a passing meteor to see what is inside it; just go. We might even consider buying old Boomtown Rats records by the bucket-load, forcing him to tour with them for ever: painful but worth it.

Come the final press conference at Gleneagles, the lives Geldof saved were the immediate political lives of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Geldof’s tactics were to align his cause closely to the “Lennon and McCartney” of politics. So close was his proximity to Brown that he was in danger of breaking Blunkett’s no-sex- in-a-public-place law. Inevitably at that press conference, which was the moment where the campaigners judged what the G8 had done, Geldof opted to support Brown and Blair.

New Labour desperately wanted to spin the G8 as a triumph. John Hilary of War on Want witnessed the arm-twisting and intimidation of individuals working for NGOs, which nearly turned into physical violence backstage at the press conference, as the pressure to get a successful public announcement began to tell on Blair’s special adviser Justin Forsyth. Who could save new Labour from a tide of campaigners’ disdain? Bob could.

Kumi Naidoo, from the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, spoke before Geldof at the press conference. “This week, the world has roared and the G8 has responded with a whisper,” he said. A South African, Naidoo had consulted many of the groups that form the coalition he represents. Geldof branded his comments a “disgrace”. “Perspective, please,” said Bob, the man who urged anyone with a dinghy to sail across the Channel and pick up French strangers who have no idea of how to use a train. Obviously Bob is as much aware of perspective as he is of irony.

So how did the G8 do? Well, new Labour juggles figures and double-accounts in a style that would have Robert Maxwell’s ghost applauding from the pits of hell. Aid to Africa was to increase by $48bn, according to G8 statements, but $28bn is old money already pledged. Make Poverty History calculates that the new aid money is perhaps $20bn; other NGOs think it is even less. Campaigners were asking for aid to be increased to 0.7 per cent of national income. The G8 countries came up with about one-fifth of the money needed to get them to that level. Yet Bob awarded the government ten out of ten and would brook no dissent.

On debt, the G8 added nothing new to the existing pledge to grant 100 per cent debt relief to 18 nations. It is great news that the principle of 100 per cent debt relief has been established; there is, however, a downside. While 18 countries are going to get it now, there are still 42 other countries that need it. And cancellation comes with a price: “conditionality”, the opening up of markets and privatisation, probably of water and healthcare. How can African states decide their future if the economic terms are dictated to them? Yet the numerically challenged Bob gave them eight out of ten on debt.

On trade, the G8 couldn’t even decide a date to start abolishing their subsidies for sugar or beef, which undermine African farmers and leading to dumping on African markets. Once again, trade liberalisation was the order of the day and once again the G8 flunked the Africa test.

For some, fighting corruption in Africa is as important as aid. However, all the G8 served up was a few platitudes that African leaders must stop being corrupt. Which is fair enough: when it comes to corrupt leaders, Africa has boasted some of the most flamboyant and outstanding examples in the world. But it might help if the G8 nations, the IMF and the World Bank actually pursued and punished the multinationals that do the bribing, instead of giving them financial support.

On the arms trade, not even a crumb of comfort. The proposed International Arms Trade Treaty died quietly in the corner.

We were, however, supposed to take hope because George W Bush has said human activity is part of the cause of climate change? Who else did he think was responsible? The plants?

The G8 didn’t deliver a fraction of what was called for. So it is no wonder, when Geldof uttered his infamous “ten out of ten” verdict, that a journalist present was heard to utter: “Blimey, have they got his kids locked in a cellar or something?”

Monday, July 04, 2005

Sealing my jam jars with attitude

I recently discovered that my Make Poverty History wristband is an ideal size for keeping the greaseproof paper on jars of home-made jam. Guests to our house can now choose from an array of politically conscious preserves. We have jams opposed to bullying, anti-racist jams, choose-life jams and a quirky anarchist conserve to Make Property History. All I need now is the Qaeda jihadist wristband Make Yourself History and new Labour's Make Politics History, and I will have the set.

So put aside the wristbands, put aside the "at least Live 8 is raising consciousness" arguments, as it has been scientifically proven that Coldplay leads to unconsciousness. The issue should be: are the institutions that created the African debt crisis able and willing to reform? One of the main offenders has a history that says it is not: step forward the International Monetary Fund. The IMF, considered by dyslexics to be a byword for cheap and durable carpets, is in fact a rather nasty little cult, though dyslexics may find that word offensive.

Like the World Bank, the IMF was set up at the end of the Second World War and was an attempt to eradicate the economic conditions that had led to fascism in Europe. To this end, it was to provide funds for countries in economic crisis to spend their way out of trouble. It is now the polar opposite. The IMF is institutionally incapable of aiding Africa because its very ideology runs counter to the continent's needs.

Worshipping at the shrine of Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, the IMF barely keeps its cultist employees from running round the street banging cymbals and chanting "market forces" to the tune of "Hare Krishna". Its monetarist logic runs thus: governments cut their public spending, which reduces inflation, and the free market takes over to work its wonders. However, it is public spending that Africa so desperately needs: more money on nurses, doctors and teachers. How else is it going to get children into education and combat HIV/Aids?

For more than 20 years, IMF loans have come with a Structural Adjustment Programme to cut inflation. Any state that does not comply simply does not get the money. The effects of the SAP dogma of privatisation are devastating. In the 1990s, Zimbabwe cut public spending and introduced school fees for children. The result was that children as young as 12 began turning to prostitution in Harare to pay for their education. To my knowledge, not one Zimbabwean ever thought, "My daughter has turned to prostitution, contracted HIV . . . but the retail price index is in marvellous shape." Surely a little inflation is a small price to stop children turning tricks to learn their ABC.

Gordon Brown, in this New Statesman, speaks about the end of the "Washington consensus", of monetarism being given the heave-ho, but shows little evidence for this. Brown mentions the huge increase in the numbers of children attending school in Uganda and Kenya, knowing that this was achieved by abolishing school fees. They now face an even harder job of finding the money and political space to pay for teachers. Look at Zambia, which also abolished school fees and now has a ratio of one teacher per hundred children. That is essentially stadium education: teachers must start lessons by placing one foot on an amp and screaming, "How you doing, Lusaka!" Is this because of lack of money? Not exactly. Zambia's ministry of finance not only banned an increase in teachers' wages; it also banned the hiring of new teachers, just so Zambia could keep public sector wages down, in line with IMF demands.

So great is the IMF's doctrinal reach that when, two years ago, Uganda was offered $52m in aid to fight TB, Aids and malaria, the country turned the money down. Uganda's finance ministry, following the monetarist mantra and fearful of upsetting the IMF, refused to use the money as it would cause an increase in public spending.

Countries have good cause to be fearful of the IMF. Honduras received money under Education For All, the World Bank's Fast Track Initiative, and rather naively spent it on teachers' wages, forcing public sector pay through the 9.1 per cent ceiling imposed by the IMF. For this crime, Honduras was suspended from Heavily Indebted Poor Countries status, which cost it $194m in interim debt relief.

Rick Rowden, policy officer at ActionAid USA, is one of the authors of a report on IMF policies called Blocking Progress. "The IMF," says Rowden, "has very little empirical research to base its policies on." And he is right - IMF economic predictions have turned out to be little more than horoscopes with statistics. The organisation's staff are dogmatists.

Twenty years of monetarism in Africa have been a disaster. Africa must be left to spend its way out of trouble, otherwise this G8 summit will be just another episode in the history of poverty.