From the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Can Live 8 and the host of attendant charities campaigning this month really make a difference to world poverty?
“Make Poverty History” is an imaginative slogan. Who could disagree with the idea of a society in which all people enjoy good health and material security, with all the miseries of world poverty consigned to the past? Sir Bob Geldof is one who believes in such a world and, as a rock performer with credibility, is trying to mobilise millions of like-minded people in great demonstrations aimed at bringing pressure on the G8 governments to assist the desperately poor in the undeveloped countries. If his plans succeed a million people will go to Edinburgh, and added to these will be many more attending concerts in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Philadelphia, all to celebrate their solidarity and to make the point that the people of the richest countries should spend more money to end hunger. The aim is also to persuade world leaders to drop third world debt, reform trade laws and double aid to the undeveloped regions.
It is not for socialists to spoil a good party. On the contrary, we can take some heart from these popular demonstrations of care and concern. It would be even more depressing if millions of people were dying every year from easily preventable causes while those better off never gave it a thought. However, this is not the case, so at least there is something reassuring about the willingness and enthusiasm of many people to join together to focus attention on the tragedies of needless death in a world that could so easily provide the good things of life for all.
However, we are bound to ask some critical questions. The staging of pop concerts aimed at making poverty history is beginning to acquire a history of its own. It is twenty years since the first Live Aid Concert was staged at Wembley in 1985 and was thought to be a great success. The aim was to make a difference but what difference did it make?
Reality behind the hype
No doubt in a very minor way the money raised following concerts and channelled through organisations like OXFAM has done a bit of good. But this should be seen against the scale of the problem and whether the actions led by Live Aid, or as it is now called Live 8, in any way address its causes. Over the years, agencies of the United Nations such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation have posted the numbers suffering poverty. For example, in 1975, 435 million people were seriously undernourished. By the year 2000 this had almost doubled to 820 million. UNICEF states that approximately 40,000 children under five die every day from preventable causes. These figures indicate that since the first Live Aid concert in 1985 the numbers dying from poverty have been increasing horrendously, which leaves little doubt that pop concerts and the charities have made no significant impact on the problem. The grim facts are that the present methods of the “Make Poverty History” campaign stand no chance of ending deaths from hunger. If we are to be serious about stopping this perpetual holocaust, the many thousands of people who support this campaign should have a serious re-think about how best to go about it.
We don’t see much by way of analysis, but judged by its methods the “Make Poverty History” campaign appears to think that the fault lies with the developed countries in not cancelling third world debt, not opening up more free trade, and not being more generous in sending money aid to the undeveloped countries, particularly in Africa. However, there is not a shred of evidence that any cancellation of debt will result in improved conditions for workers in Africa. It is claimed that the aim of loans to African states is to improve services such as health and education and build up infrastructures such as communications, port facilities, roads and bridges, etc. In theory these would assist the development of trade with a prospect of raising living standards throughout the continent. A more realistic view is that loans enable Western governments, banks and global corporations to maintain an economic stranglehold on the economies of countries that are rich in resources such as oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds, iron ore, titanium ore, bauxite, timber, rubber, copper and other vital materials.
One example is Nigeria with a population of 135 million, GDP per capita of $275 per annum, an external debt of $1.1 billion and producing 750 million barrels of oil per year under the control of global oil companies such as Shell (Anglo Dutch), Exxon Mobil (US), Sasol (South Africa), AGIP International (Italy), Chevron (US), Total (France), BP (UK), Statoil (Norway).
Angola financed its civil war from profits from the sales of oil and diamonds and also relies on oil-backed loans which now burden the economy with an external debt of $10.45 billion. Average life expectancy in Angola is 36 years. Its GDP per capita income is $632 per year. Whilst most of its population suffers the most severe poverty its political rulers benefit from corruption. “The IMF found that between 1997 and 2002 some $4.22 billion went missing equivalent to some 12 percent of GDP. Angola’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, who often use government positions for massive personal enrichment” (Guardian, 1 June).
The small country of Equatorial Guinea was recently subject to an escapade involving Sir Mark Thatcher who was accused of being part of an intended takeover. It is immensely rich in resources with oil and gas production expected to reach 150 million barrels a year. It carries an external debt of $248 million. Some international companies reaping high profits include Marathon Oil (US), Exxon Mobile (US), Energy Africa (South Africa), Chevron (US), British Gas (UK).
Marathon Oil operates in Equatorial Guinea on very good terms which may be associated with the benefits its politicians enjoy. “Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the country’s president, and his wife and son, were apparently treating themselves to planes, big houses and shopping sprees. Millions of dollars in cash were being lugged around Washington in suitcases” (Guardian, 2 June).
Taking the continent of Africa as a whole the (British) Prime Minister’s Commission for Africa “estimated that the amount stolen and now held in foreign banks is equivalent to more then half the continent’s external debt of $300 billion” (Guardian, 3 June).
There can be little doubt that the world we are now describing is one motivated by greed and pursued through a ruthless exploitation of natural and human resources. The main players are governments, multinational corporations and corrupt local politicians running gangster regimes. It may well be that the governments of the G8 will make a gesture that partially cancels third world debt but the write-off of these dollars will only be a means of continuing their grip on African countries whilst dressing their actions with the phoney rhetoric of care and concern.
There will be no outcome that will solve the problems of the desperately poor of Africa, and however well meaning may be their slogans, workers in the developed countries should not become involved in the machinations of interest groups whose basic concern is profit and the economic strategies of ruling elites.
Weakness of mere protest
Whilst the G8 protests may demonstrate great strength of feeling they will also demonstrate a great weakness; this is the lack of control of those who take part and their dependence on the decisions and actions of present power structures. Because of this, protesters can become victims of a seductive but deadly process. The capitalist system constantly throws up issues that demand action amongst those who are concerned and by many people who think of themselves as socialists. As a result, protest tends to become a demand for an “improved” kind of capitalism which leaves the long-term reasons for protest intact. This has been the history of protest.
In this sense, protest tends to set a stage for further protest and further demonstrations. Though the issues may vary the message stays the same: “We demand that governments do this, that or the other!” The spectacle of thousands demanding that governments act on their behalf is a most reassuring signal to those in power that their positions of control are secure. In this way, repeated demonstrations do little more than confirm the continuity of the system. The point is to change society, not to appeal to the doubtful better nature of its power structures.
With Sir Bob as its high priest, we could also think of the Live 8 concerts as homage to the god of money and the illusion that it has powers of action on its own. But the opposite is true. Money is part of a system that prevents us from using our real powers of production for the benefit of all people. Geldof never stops going on about giving more money and this feeds the illusion that without money we have no way to provide for the things we need. This leaves us separated from our powers of action. It ignores the fact that productive resources are not money but labour, land, industry, manufacture, transport and communications. The problems of world poverty require that these should be liberated from the economic constraints of money and the profit system.
Given that the number of people suffering and dying from the effects of world poverty have doubled over the past 25 years and on any realistic forecast will continue to increase, it should be obvious that we must go far beyond mere protests, organise to abolish the profit system and replace it with a world of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs. Such a socialist world would be able to stop people dying from hunger immediately and rapidly increase world food production to reach a point where every person on the planet would have free access to sufficient good quality food to maintain good health.