Dani Garavelli: When poverty made history

Ten years ago, surrounded by a carnival of activists and celebrities, the G8 met in Scotland to solve Africa’s debt crisis. But did they really change the world, asks Dani Garavelli

Ten years ago, surrounded by a carnival of activists and celebrities, the G8 met in Scotland to solve Africa’s debt crisis. But did they really change the world, asks Dani Garavelli

AT EXACTLY 3.59pm on 6 July, 2005, 1,000 protesters broke away from the agreed route of a march through Auchterarder and tried to breach the security fence around Gleneagles where the world’s most powerful leaders were assembling for the G8.

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US president George W Bush had arrived at the hotel just 15 minutes earlier with his wife Laura; Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was en route and Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to touch down at Prestwick Airport. They would soon be joining Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, Paul Martin, Junichiro Koizumi and Tony Blair to talk about how to lift Africa out of poverty.

As Bob Geldof, Bono and Richard Curtis – the public figures behind the Live 8 concerts – staged a press conference inside, riot police pushed the protesters off the adjacent wheat field and back into the town. By the time the leaders sat down to a banquet of smoked salmon and langoustines followed by fillet of lamb, order had been restored.

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, was on the march in Auchterarder; he remembers a carnival atmosphere, with stilt-walkers and “insurgent clowns”. Then a campaigner with War on Want, he didn’t join the breakaway protesters, but understands their motivation. “We rejected the idea that 50 years after the last remnants of empire disappeared, the eight leaders of the richest countries in the world could continue to dictate how the global economy should be run, so, while we wanted them to change their policies, it was acceptable to us that people wanted to shut the summit down,” he says. “In a way, that would have been a bigger success because it would have meant the decisions being taken in a more democratic international forum.”

Of course, the 31st G8 summit carried on regardless; over the course of the next couple of days, the world leaders agreed to cancel the debt of 18 of the continent’s poorest countries and to double their aid to $50bn (£32bn) a year by 2010, though, thanks to the US’s aversion to emission targets, there was little movement on climate change. In PR terms, the G8 was a triumph: the most ambitious ever held. The Make Poverty History (MPH) movement – which brought together trade unions, faith groups, anti-globalisation organisations and A-list celebrities – brought 200,000 out on to the streets and focused attention on Third World need.

The trouble in Auchterarder exposed tensions between those who saw aid as a panacea and those who were pushing for structural changes to the way the global economy works. There were those who sneered at Geldof et al, as they cosied up to the establishment, and who judged the Live 8 concert a self-serving jamboree. There were those, too, who felt uncomfortable with the ubiquitous MPH wristbands, which were as subversive as a Che Guevara T-shirt bought on Amazon, and with the self-congratulatory back-slapping of politicians and pop stars alike.

Still, anyone who processed through Edinburgh city centre on one of the hottest days of the year will recall the mood of optimism. “This is the most important summit there has ever been for Africa,” Geldof concluded; and few people publicly demurred.

That was a different, more simplistic era. Back then, the British economy was riding high; the collapse of Lehman Brothers was three years off, the birth of popular movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut, unimaginable. Back then, unsustainable debt was a blight suffered by other, less fortunate countries; and we could afford to be generous.

Ten years on, the world is transformed. The West has its own economic turmoil and ordinary people have a more nuanced grasp of how banks behave and the global economy works. So how is the Gleneagles summit perceived now? Did the cancellation of debt and the focus on aid improve the lives of ordinary Africans, or was Kumi Naidoo, chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty closer to the mark when he said, “the people have roared, but the G8 has whispered”?

It would be misleading to suggest the G8 at Gleneagles achieved nothing. According to an Oxfam report published in 2013, the debt relief deal freed up resources which were injected into poverty-reducing programmes. As a result, Zambia was able to make health care free for all. It also gave millions of children – especially girls – the chance to learn to read and write, with Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia using debt cancellation to abolish fees for primary schools.

While it didn’t double, total aid increased by 35% between 2004 and 2010; the extra funding supported targeted campaigns against diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria. The summit saw the UK renew its commitment to spend 0.7% of national income a year on aid – a target it met and has now enshrined in law. It also encouraged governments to rally behind the UN Millennium Development Goals, an international framework for tackling poverty, hunger and disease.

None the less, what was agreed at the G8 fell short of what those behind the Make Poverty History Movement wanted (the issue of trade was passed over to the World Trade Organisation, for example) and some of what was agreed did not pan out as hoped.

In order to secure 100% debt relief from the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Fund, the countries involved had to complete the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative, which meant reforming their economic policies. Many of the demands involved liberalising, deregulating or privatising industries – moves which fitted with prevailing western ideology but which were not necessarily in the interest of the countries themselves. This was despite the fact that campaigners insisted the original loans – often paid out by banks to corrupt regimes – were illegitimate.

By the time of the next G8 summit in Italy in 2009, it was clear most of the countries would fall short of their pledges. Moreover, because there was no shift towards responsible lending, some of the countries that had their debt cancelled quickly accrued it again.

According to the Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland (NIDOS) one in nine people are still hungry, more than a billion live on less than $1.25 a day and the richest 80 individuals in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (3.5 billion people).

Although the UK has honoured its aid pledges, there is a growing debate about the way aid money is spent. For example, NIDOS is concerned about a blurring between aid and defence (given that the armed forces are often responsible for delivering emergency aid). Global Justice Now is also concerned that aid is still being used as a cover to impose western values on developing countries. It is campaigning against the New Alliance of Food Security and Nutrition, a G8 project run in partnership with multinationals. On its website, the alliance says its function is to “address key constraints to inclusive, agriculture-led growth in Africa”, but campaigners say it involves the use of aid to twist the arms of the governments of developing countries to change the law so it is easier for those corporate companies to move in. “Multinationals are benefiting directly from that aid,” Dearden says. “What they are involved in, in some cases, is land-grabbing and using intellectual property law so that farmers have to buy seeds from them season after season instead of sharing or swapping. It’s extending capitalism into parts of the world where it doesn’t operate at the moment.”

Global Justice Now is also concerned about the way Adam Smith International has been given funds to help Nigeria privatise its energy sector. Adam Smith International says Nigeria – with its 170 million population – produces less than one tenth of South Africa’s grid electricity, and that this is stifling investment. It says, the Department for International Development’s project, which it is implementing, has seen output rise from less than 20,000GWh in 2008 to approximately 30,000GWh in 2013; but Global Justice Now insists the project has led to price hikes and job losses, without increased access.

Many campaign groups now believe MPH placed too great an emphasis on aid over change. “I think the agencies focused far too much on extreme poverty,” says Dearden. “The message that came across was about charity, not justice; it was never seen as, ‘We need to redistribute wealth in the world because it’s unfairly allocated.’ Perhaps it would have been better if we had called the movement ‘Make Charity History’.”

The global recession has made some people less supportive of foreign aid. But it has also given ordinary people a more complex, less accepting insight into the way the world works; our lived experience (for example with the banking system) and greater access to information has made us less trusting and more willing to challenge the orthodoxy. To demonstrate this, you need only look at the contrast between the way in which the original Live Aid single and the one released to support the fight against Ebola last year were received. The first was greeted with almost universal approval (though it included the line: “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you.”) The second was criticised as clumsy and patronising. Dearden says some agencies have learned lessons from the 2005 G8, with Oxfam far more willing to talk about inequality and taxation, but that others have not. “I am distressed some agencies feel it is still OK to put out pictures of starving children because they know it will raise money while doing nothing to change perceptions of Africa.”

At NIDOS, the emphasis is on moving beyond charity: the organisation is focusing on fair trade (because there is no point in giving aid, then restricting trade), climate change, procurement and the global financial system, with the ultimate aim of making developing countries self-sufficient. One of the key areas of discussion is how to stop corporate tax evasion which has a much greater impact on low-income countries than it does on the UK.

Chief executive Gillian Wilson says much is staked on the Sustainable Development Goals, which replace the Millennium Development Goals and will be launched at the UN General Assembly in September. These goals are universal (as opposed to applying only to low-income countries) and address some of the criticisms of the MDGs: that they didn’t tackle structural issues in terms of peace, environmental concerns, sustainability and corporate activity.

“The SDGs provide a much more radical framework if they are delivered in the way that has been agreed. They say: ‘we are not just cutting poverty, we are trying to eradicate it, we are trying to substantially tackle climate change, we are looking at marine and terrestrial resources, while ensuring the focus is on people’,” says Wilson.

Matthew Crighton is an environmentalist and chair of the World Justice Festival in Edinburgh – an annual event set up to keep the spirit of the Make Poverty History movement of 2005 going. For him, one of the biggest changes of the past 10 years has been the almost universal acceptance that climate change and poverty are inextricably linked. He says the festival (which is held in October) has allowed campaigners to continue to come together and understand each other’s issues .

Perhaps the Gleneagles G8 didn’t live up to expectation. Paternalistic and limited in its ambitions, it didn’t make poverty history; it merely gave some countries temporary relief and salved a few consciences. Even the mass movement was flawed. Overwhelmingly white, it was seen as “a mobilisation of the north for the south”. But it pushed international development up the agenda and it kept it there. Most of all, it encouraged debate and demonstrated that, en masse, ordinary people can effect change. “The lessons have to be learned that the basic foundation of a peaceful and sustainable world is people organising to call for it and organising action around it,” says Crighton. “What we saw [in 2005] was that politicians were responsive to mobilisation, but they weren’t responsive enough, so we have to keep going.”