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G8 protest: workers of the world unite

Hundreds of thousands of people are marching through the streets of Edinburgh in July. In their desire for world change they will be joined by billions world-wide – those who are condemned to live on less than a dollar a day and those who are dismayed by the prevalence of such poverty. SARAH SACHS-ELDRIDGE reports on the debt/aid scandal, and outlines a socialist alternative.

WE DON’T NEED record sales of wristbands to tell us that ordinary people are angered by the poverty and inequality that blights our world. Millions responded internationally to appeals for the tsunami victims. On the other side, governments and corporations were put to shame. Bush initially pledged only $15 million but was forced to raise that to $350 million just to keep up. Vodafone bosses announced a £1 million donation. Their profits in 2004 were £10 billion. Yet it is the governments of Bush, Blair and co that the Make Poverty History campaign organisers are asking to ease some of the burden of extreme privation.

Make Poverty History is organised by a coalition of nearly 400 UK-based charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It makes three demands on the G8: drop the debt; give more and better aid; and trade justice. Socialists would dearly love to see these demands adopted when the G8 meet in Gleneagles but the G8 leaders have neither the will nor the ability to make poverty history. In fact, since the launch of Make Poverty History numerous newspaper articles have exposed the record of the G8 in actually making poverty: their token pledges; and the worldwide structures and processes which not only maintain, but are based on, the poverty of billions. But more is needed than arguments against the G8. We must argue for a socialist alternative to the capitalist system and propose a strategy for achieving it to the billions on this planet who want real change.

The Observer launched its countdown to the G8 with what Britain’s chancellor, Gordon Brown, hoped would be an enduring image of him, struggling to control his emotion, clasping the hand of a man dying of Aids in Africa, where more than 17 million have died from Aids and another 25 million are infected with HIV. "We are all brothers", he said somewhat ambiguously.

The G8 are the leaders of the eight richest countries. Similar forums have met annually since 1975 to discuss how they would like the world to run, making many pledges on aid. In 1975, they promised to raise aid donated to 0.7% of national income. Today, Britain gives 0.34% and, in total, high income countries pay only 0.25% in aid.

Brown’s hopes of beatification are undermined by his record in the treasury. He and Blair pledged to make child poverty history in Britain by 2005, but over three million children still live in poverty in what is the fourth-richest country in the world. These failings on the domestic front are repeated in foreign policy. Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), for example, gives more money to the Adam Smith Institute than to Somalia, ranked among the poorest 163 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. The Institute is hired by the DFID as a consultancy, telling countries like South Africa to privatise services, which has already led to millions of water and electricity disconnections, with over two million people evicted from their homes for non-payment of bills.

Crowd control

THE G8 GOVERNMENTS represent and do the bidding of the bosses of the big corporations who dominate the world. They include George W Bush, prosecutor of an imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq, who this year will spend almost half-a-trillion dollars on the military and only $19 billion on aid. Dining with him at the Gleneagles Hotel will be Gerhard Schröder, the German premier who, despite trying to strike a radical pose by standing against the Iraq war, has presided over a growth in unemployment to an official figure of 11%. They will be joined by others who all agree with the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and cuts in services, and aim to implement anti-working class policies across the board.

The G8 cynically pose as concerned philanthropists for a number of reasons. They have seen not just the out-pouring of solidarity expressed through donations, but the anger expressed on the streets at every meeting of the institutions of world capitalism, from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa and Prague. They have seen us on the 15 February 2003 anti-war demonstrations, the largest world-wide demonstration ever. They know that anger has not gone away. Through masquerading as supporters of Make Poverty History they hope to defuse that anger. For insurance, they will attempt to demonise protestors and intimidate people out of further action by utilising all the force of the state. Included in the £100 million to be spent on G8 security is the money for four ‘crowd control’ water cannons from Belgium – the most powerful in the world.

Blair came back from his trip to Washington in May smug because he had a commitment from Bush to write off £30 billion of debt to 18 of the world’s poorest countries. This is a drop in the ocean of debt that is owed by the world’s most heavily indebted countries. Nigeria, which is not included in those 18 countries, has debts of £36 billion.

That £36 billion is made up of £2.82 billion owed to multilateral organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and £31 billion owed to private finance institutions. When Brown and his dinner guests talk of debt forgiveness they mean only that debt owed to the IMF, World Bank, etc. The World Bank estimated that in 2003 two thirds of the debt of the poorest countries was owed to private companies. This type of debt is not up for discussion at all.

The reason that they discuss debt is because they fear the growth of social revolt in developing countries. They see places like Bolivia and Ecuador where mass movements have forced out corrupt puppet regimes. The G8 fear that such uprisings could produce a debt rebellion, with one country refusing to pay followed by others crippled by the debt burden. So public debt, effectively unrecoverable anyway, is sacrificed to ensure that payments to private lenders are protected.

Making poverty

THE MAKE POVERTY History manifesto says we need a fair and transparent international process to make sure that human needs take priority over debt repayments. That is impossible under capitalism. The only fair and transparent system is one where the wealth and resources are democratically owned and controlled by the working class internationally and all elected leaders are democratically accountable to those they represent.

Bob Geldof, Bono and co are trying to respond to the crisis of poverty in Africa. Who does not try to think about how to change a situation where ten million children – more than the whole of London’s population – die each year from hunger and preventable diseases? Most of the people who work and volunteer with charities and NGOs do so in the hope of easing the suffering of the poor, the aged and infirm. To a limited extent they succeed. But reducing pain for a few while millions perish for the lack of basics like food and water is not going to end the problem. Many charities provide valuable research into the world’s problems but do not provide an analysis of why these problems exist and what we can do to finally make them history.

What the charities do not articulate is that the capitalist system is incapable of translating all the wealth of the planet into a decent standard of living for the majority of its inhabitants. Capitalism historically has developed new methods of production, communication and transport. For the majority in the rich West it has been able to provide the basics of health systems, education and what we think of as basic human rights. But even in these countries this is becoming less and less the case – the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest parts of Britain has surpassed the Victorian level. In the US, there are 40 million people without health insurance. In the neo-colonial world life has become a living nightmare for the majority. Malaria, TB, hunger and unemployment – all of which are treatable – kill and maim hundreds of thousands every day. In the meantime, the billionaire’s club is growing. There were a record 313 billionaires in the USA last year, up from 262 in the previous year (Forbes magazine, September 2004).

The media use terms like ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries. What they are getting at is the fact that, in places like Britain, capitalism and a stable capitalist class capable of developing the productive forces, were only able to develop on the basis of colonialism and slavery. Slave trading generated huge amounts of wealth, that was then invested in the industrial revolution in Europe, resulting in the emergence of a bosses’ class. The other way they accrued such huge amounts of wealth was through imperialist exploitation of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. ‘Free trade’ agreements were imposed that hugely favoured the European manufacturers and crushed indigenous industries.

Karl Marx wrote, in The Poverty of Philosophy, that "all the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market". This can be seen to the present day when we look at how ‘free trade’ rules continue to ravage Africa’s ability to develop its own industry and manufacturing. According to the US department of energy, Africa, with about 13% of the world population, accounts for about 2% of world economic output. Even the G8 know that aid cannot change this. If the poor countries increased their share of world exports by 5%, developing countries would earn an extra $350 billion a year, more than the amount spent by the World Bank on Africa since the 1950s.

African people are poor but their continent has an abundance of minerals and raw materials. A report published last year by the US right-wing think-tank, the Council of Foreign Relations, lists the huge wealth of Africa: "Central and West Africa will account for one in four new barrels of oil to come on the global market in the next five years". Zaire and Zambia have 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves, and Zimbabwe and South Africa 98% of the world’s chrome reserves. South Africa also has 90% of reserves of platinum. Africa is the main provider of many minerals used in industry. Add to that the production of tobacco, coffee, food, flowers, etc, and we have a taste of just how wealthy Africa is in raw materials.

Voracious appetite

THE GUARDIAN DID a feature on eight women in Africa and what they would say to the G8. Abiba Gyarko, a tomato grower, explained how free trade has affected millions of Ghanaians: "In the market place our fresh tomatoes have to compete with very cheap tinned tomatoes from Europe, and we are losing… When we began farming eight years ago, the price of fertiliser and chemicals was low because there were some government subsidies. But that is all gone now and the prices keep rising. European governments subsidise their farmers to produce all these cheap tinned tomatoes; it is not fair competition". In the 1990s, as a condition of loans and aid from the World Bank and IMF, Ghana was forced to open its markets to imported tomatoes. Since then, two of Ghana’s three tomato processing plants have closed, pushing many of the three million Ghanaians who rely on tomatoes for a living into poverty.

It is unsurprising that the Make Poverty History demand for trade justice gets an echo given this situation. US cotton farmers receive $3.9 billion in annual subsidies from the Bush administration, three times what the US gives in aid to Africa. British people spent £140 million on the fair trade label last year in the hope that they could help workers in Africa. Again the nature of this capitalist system means such attempts at stepping outside of the system are limited. Lucy Siegle, who writes The Observer’s ethical shopping column, bewailed the fact that the "pioneering chocolate company, Green & Black’s – which proved that organic and fair-trade values could be synonymous with delicious caramel squares – was itself gobbled up by corporate behemoth Cadbury Schweppes". She points out: "Since Seeds of Change was snaffled up by the Mars Corporation in 1997, one cherished, innovative ethical brand after another has been hoovered up by a transnational: anti-globalisation, maverick ice-cream company Ben & Jerry’s was devoured by Unilever, Pepsi snapped up healthy juice company PJ Smoothies, and McDonald’s took over a 33% share in previously socially aware sandwich group Prêt à Manger". Multinationals like Unilever, Shell, etc, exist only to make a profit and will crush everything that stands in their way.

Make Poverty History invites us to implore the World Bank and IMF to stop forcing poor countries to open their markets to trade with rich countries, which has proved so disastrous. The manifesto says the EU must drop its demand that former European colonies open their markets and give more rights to big companies and that we need to regulate companies – making them accountable for their social and environmental impacts. But the G8 will not bring this about. Capitalism means that international trade laws are malleable in the hands of the likes of ExxonMobil and Shell. They regulate governments – not the other way around. The only way we can end the rule of profit is by taking control of the world’s production out of the hands of the profiteers and planning what we produce on the basis of what we need.

The demand for more and better aid reflects an understanding by those who give aid that it is not always doing what it is promised to do. Months after millions were raised for the victims of the tsunami, the majority of those for whom the aid was intended have not received a penny despite the fact that their desperate circumstances have not been alleviated. The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Sri Lanka, the United Socialist Party (USP), received wide support for its demand for democratic control of the aid by locally elected and accountable committees. We would argue for this in every situation where aid is provided.

The Make Poverty History organisers say that "aid should no longer be conditional on recipients promising economic change like privatising or deregulating their services, cutting health and education spending, or opening up their markets: these are unfair practices that have never been proven to reduce poverty. And aid needs to be made predictable, so that poor countries can plan effectively and take control of their own budgets in the fight against poverty". They are correct, but to raise these demands without putting forward an alternative to capitalism is purely wishful thinking.

Bush says that he would like some of the money the US donates to go to Aids programmes in Africa. His right-wing administration has committed $15 billion – compared to over $200 billion spent on the Iraq war – to Aids in Africa. The US is also pursuing a religious neo-conservative agenda which gives priority to faith-based organisations promoting sexual abstinence over condom use. The World Bank has confirmed the existence of the phenomenon known as ‘phantom aid’ whereby consultants cream off 40% of global aid budgets ($20bn profit in 2004). In the US, 86 cents of every dollar of aid is tied to buying American goods and services.

Beyond the G8 remit

THE BUILD UP to the G8 has provided an opportunity to expose the lies behind the promises made by the G8 and debate the limitations of the demands made by Make Poverty History. It is now essential to pose an alternative to the capitalist system which keeps billions of humans enslaved by poverty. There is an alternative to going on bended knee with a list of demands we know the G8 can’t and won’t keep.

Latin America, where neo-liberalism found its first sacrificial altar to offer up services, industry and resources to privatisation, is in convulsions of struggle as the working class and poor peasants counterattack. In Bolivia, national strikes, road blockades and demonstrations have not only forced the president to resign but have forced a French water company to back off from its privatisation plans. As their confidence has developed through the struggle, the Bolivian working class has developed its demands to include nationalisation of the gas industry under democratic control.

Struggles such as these are taking place all around the world. They show that when we fight we can win concessions. They also show that these are only skirmishes that we can win against the background of a never-ending battle for control of the world’s resources. While they remain in the hands of the multinationals (500 own 76% of world production) we will never be able to make poverty history.

We have to link these struggles to the need for more permanent change in society. We have to be realistic about how that change can be made. The international working class, when it is organised, is the only force in society that can carry through the struggle for what we need successfully.

The Financial Times is more pragmatic than many of the other papers, but pragmatic for the bosses. David White, its Africa editor, makes the point that "the negative side of charity is to cast Africa in the role of the perpetual victim, a continent waiting helplessly for aid… Change will not be delivered from the top down. It is Africans themselves who must bring it about". He means that the development of an African capitalist class is necessary. But it will be the African workers and poor peasants organising together to carry through the democratic and socialist revolution in conjunction with the working class internationally who will make change. We fight for socialism. That means the working class taking the enormous wealth that exists in the world into democratic public ownership, planning how we use it and what we do with those resources on the basis of what is needed by the majority.

Why is there unemployment when there is so much work to be done to improve global living standards? Why are there deaths from treatable diseases? Why is there poverty when there is so much wealth? Why is more money spent on arms than aid? Why are there children without education? Why is nothing being done to stop the destruction of the environment? Why are there wars when most people want a decent, peaceful life?

Until we take the argument beyond the remit allowed us by the G8 and the charities we will not be able to answer these and many other questions on the minds of the marchers in July. The answer is that the people who want to make poverty history do not own the wealth. When we do it will be the working class that makes poverty history by replacing it with socialism.


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