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Issue 230
May/June 2005
Inspired Designs

Feature Articles

SILENT TSUNAMIS
by
61% of Angola's urban population lives below the poverty line Photograph: Sebasti

61% of Angola's urban population lives below the poverty line Photograph: Sebasti

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SILENT TSUNAMIS

We have the vision and resources to eradicate AIDS and extreme poverty. It is time to act.

THERE ARE RARE moments when big changes become possible. A confluence of political circumstances, demographics, a bit of zeitgeist and the rarest things of all - strong, proactive popular movements pushing for progress from political leaders. It is just possible that 2005 is one of those moments. If we are to take advantage of this then there is a lot of work to do in a short space of time.

The change on the cards is immense and structural. At the Millennium Summit in 2000 world leaders - all of them - signed up for a collection of goals known as the Millennium Development Goals. This clunky moniker hosts seven goals which non-industrialised countries are supposed to achieve by the year 2015. Goal Eight is the industrialised world's goal - to offer the poorest non-industrialised nations sufficient debt cancellation, increased and improved aid and trade reform, such that no country truly committed to halving poverty by 2015 should lack the resources or opportunities to do so. That goal, halving poverty, is itself just a milestone on the way to the true vision - a world without extreme poverty, in our generation. It's just about the biggest vision possible.

Should Homo sapiens last long enough, some time in the next century our era will be remembered as a patchwork of great progress and terrible moral myopia. At the same time as we fought back polio and beat smallpox we let AIDS wreak havoc on the world's poorest populations. At the same time as responding with such generosity to the latest televised disaster we largely ignored the ongoing silent tsunamis, the grinding poverty which kills 30,000 children a day. Our job this year is to make serious progress in ironing out the wrinkles in the quilt of our consciousness that allow us to ignore the mass dying, in our time, of our fellow humans.

Malthusians may say "I told you so", and some environmental determinists may acknowledge these death rates simply as Gaia's steady hand managing what they see as the rampant cancer of humanity. But it's the poor who die. And it's the wealthy who have the leisure time to read Utopian literature. We clearly have a dual task and should accept no trade-off. On the one hand, a more just world in which no woman, man or child dies for want of basic needs; on the other, a more sustainable humanity.

UNDER PRESSURE FROM a strong domestic civil society movement, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown have made development, and specifically tackling the structural cause of poverty in Africa, the key item on the G8 agenda for the summit in Gleneagles in early July. Blair has also made climate change a key item on the G8 agenda. Then in September 2005 there will be the five-year review of the UN Millennium Summit, at which donors and development partners will be held accountable for delivering their aid commitments since 2000. Finally there will be the December meeting of the World Trade Organization, which must deliver a better trade deal for the poorest regions.

To many it may seem that really big structural change is anathema to the dirty deal-making of politics at such a high level. In part that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was fortunate enough to play a role in the global Jubilee movement in the build-up to the millennium, and have seen at first hand the ability of movements to shape and deepen high-level political agendas. Building on Jubilee, the anti-apartheid movement and the social justice traditions going back to abolitionism, universal suffrage and the civil rights movement, there is a rebirth of popular action around the idea of ours being the generation to beat extreme poverty. It is an onerous and inspiring thought. Ours is the first generation that has the resources, the technology and sufficient experience of past follies to actually achieve this extraordinarily lofty goal. Because we can, therefore we must. In many ways what is being described is simply the next step in the journey of equality, part of our collective growing-up. In the UK this has become known as the Make Poverty History campaign, and in the US it is known as the ONE Campaign, and globally, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. The agenda is decisive:

Drop the debt

We did not deliver a debt jubilee for the poorest nations in the year 2000. The programme cobbled together at the time has delivered some good results, and shows that debt cancellation can work, but not enough was cancelled. Still too many countries pay too much to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in particular, and these debts need to be dropped, in part through replenishments from donor nations, in part through the use of IMF gold reserves - which can take place without impacting global gold prices.

Double effective aid

Much aid has been wasted over the last fifty years and nobody should pretend otherwise. But the waste was in part due to donors' own faulty designs and intentions. Whether by propping up our Cold War corrupt allies or by trying to prove the latest development fad, we have squandered billions. But finally we have learned how to help get it right. The key is accountable governance and transparency, in part enforced by an enhanced role for civil society in the decision-making processes. Using these more effective means and for a tiny fraction of the wealth of the richest nations, a mere half a pence in a pound or 0.5% of our collective wealth, citizens in the wealthier nations can put every child in primary school, provide clean water to one billion people, beat AIDS, TB and malaria and halve global hunger, all in ten years! At the moment on average we give about 0.25% of our wealth in aid, and much of that is poorly directed for geopolitical purposes and unrelated to humanitarian or development needs. And indeed all OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations promised over three decades ago to increase aid levels to 0.7% of national wealth. Only a handful have achieved that goal, with only three more promising to do so under clear timetables over the next few years (Ireland, UK, France).

Trade justice

The challenge here is to enable the poorest regions to benefit from international trade where appropriate and yet allow them the special and differential treatment necessary so that they can develop strategic sectors of their own - so that they are not solely dependent upon producing primary products such as basic foodstuffs.

That said, the great insanities in the current system are such things as the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill through which agro-industrial overproduction is heavily subsidised, and then these artificially low-priced products dumped on non-industrialised countries, thereby undermining local producers. The fixes here must also deal with environmental concerns. By de-linking subsidies from producing items which undermine rural producers in developing countries and instead linking subsidies to better environmental stewardship, a win-win situation is possible.

Stop AIDS

We have made a start, with British, American and Canadian governments making AIDS a relative priority, but much more needs to be done to beat back this plague, especially in Africa, and to stop it from escalating in many parts of Asia. Now, over 700,000 people are on lifesaving anti-AIDS anti-retroviral drugs, a 200,000 increase from last summer. This is a big improvement, but a modest step when you consider that over 6,000 people die of AIDS each day in Africa alone and nearly six million people worldwide are in need of anti-retrovirals right now. Especially in Africa, achieving the other Millennium Goals depends in part on ensuring that we beat AIDS, as it is wiping out the farmers, teachers, nurses and entrepreneurs in whom all hope for the future resides.

IN EACH NATION, indigenous movements are taking shape to pressure their political leaders. It is particularly important they do so initially in the G8 - the wealthiest nations who sadly still make the key decisions affecting the global economy and polity. Indeed every individual's action counts. Please start by joining the campaign yourself and by taking actions such as writing to the members of the G8. You can find out how to do this by going to

makepovertyhistory.org in the UK, or ONEcampaign.org in the US, and from there link to other nations' campaigns around the world.

For those for whom compassion, justice and environmental sustainability are not necessary or sufficient grounds for such systemic change, there are more chillingly persuasive arguments. It is the desperation of extreme poverty that also encourages environmentally unsustainable practices amongst the poorest communities. Above all it is the poorest nations that also become the weakest, and the most prone to state-failure. When this happens a nation-state loses control of its borders, and drug dealers, arms dealers and extremists take over. It is these arguments that appeal to the US State Department and National Security Council, and that are the newer factors encouraging big-picture proposals to restructure not only a better world, but also a more stable and safer world.

On 1st July 2005, a few days before the G8 Summit in Scotland, we hope all those in agreement with the campaign will wear a white armband - available online at the website addresses noted above. Thereafter what we achieve will depend upon the degree to which there is agreement that ours is the first generation that can actually beat AIDS and extreme poverty: because if we agree that we can, surely therefore we must. o

Jamie Drummond is Executive Directorof DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa). www.data.org

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