This year’s G8 Gleneagles summit became an unusually high-publicity event for Britons. One obvious reason is that it was held in Britain, but another is that it convinced celebrated pop-musicians Bono of U2 and Sir Bob Geldof of the need to address the world’s leaders on issues of the cancellation of debt, poverty, and development – by organizing the grand ‘Live8’ concerts across the globe. As has increasingly been the case since the WTO’s Seattle meeting in 1999, the event drew thousands of ‘anti-globalization’ protesters; Gordon Brown, the UK’s finance minister further added to the excitement surrounding the summit by vowing last year to start seriously fighting poverty and third-world debt. Even though media coverage was overshadowed by the London bombings on the second day of the summit, both the summit itself and the surrounding protests remain significant events, highlighting the increasing importance of the concerns of the developing world and environmental issues.
And it is evident that there has already been some success. So far, 18 countries have had their debt written off, and combined aid donations from the G8 countries have been doubled. The Make Poverty History campaign, an umbrella group of charities, can undoubtedly claim some of this success as its own, having included most of Britain’s charity organizations and enjoying the support of the Live8 concerts. The overall picture has tended towards one of triumphant optimism: now, it seems, we are finally serious about making poverty history – not a modest claim – with politicians and pop-stars joining in the popular call for doing justice to Africa.
However, the decisions of the G8 and the momentum of the Make Poverty History campaign have already been met with serious criticism from the ‘anti-globalization’ or ‘global justice’ camp. In the eyes of that movement the protests around this year’s G8 meeting have to do with concerns wider than that of Africa’s debt relief or the reception of aid. This is phrased succinctly by George Monbiot, one of the leading pundits of the movement, in his Guardian column of July 5: “debt, unfair terms of trade and poverty are not causes of Africa’s problems but symptoms. The cause is power: the ability of the G8 nations and their corporations to run other people’s lives.”
Monbiot’s words should remind us of the fact that the G8 is emphatically not a charity organization – it is an institution set up specifically to protect the interests of its eight major, industrialized member states. Its birth in 1975 was triggered by the oil crises of the early seventies and the ensuing challenges to the economic hegemony of the West. Since then, the G8 has served as a platform for the governments of the West to discuss their shared interests and strategies in a setting that has no pretension of being ‘democratic’, in the sense of, say, the UN’s General Assembly. This is not to say that the G8 is as secretive and blatantly elitist as the Bilderberg conference, but its very existence says a lot about the imbalance of power in our current global economic and political system.
The international bodies that most profoundly affect the relations of the West to developing countries – the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, and the WTO (World Trade Organization) – do sometimes present themselves as mildly democratic or at least ‘representational’ in the sense that votes are distributed among participating states in relation to their input of money. However, both the IMF and World Bank require an 85% majority for any motion to be passed, and the United States alone holds more than 15%, meaning that the US can thwart any decision commonly agreed on by all the other member states. Furthermore, any decisions made at the meetings of the WTO – which works on a ‘one country-one vote’ basis – have usually been discussed beforehand and agreed on among the world’s most powerful states in what has been labelled ‘Green Room’ talks. The G8’s role is comparable to the Green Room: it is a platform for the select few to make decisions affecting the rest of the world regardless of any democratic principles or legitimate institutional frameworks.
If the G8’s policies are primarily intended to serve the interests of its member states, how do we explain this year’s gracious vows of debt relief and increased aid? It is commonplace to think of donations from the developed countries to the Third World as categorically philanthropic and benign. Understandably so. What gets little mention, however, are the conditions forced upon the countries targeted for debt relief or World Bank-sponsored loans or aid. These conditions, it will be argued by the global justice movement, are precisely what maintain and reinforce the current state of power imbalance in the world, for they usually dictate the implementation of a certain right-wing or ‘neo-liberal’ economic agenda that puts the interests of the market over the interest of developing countries and their people. Underdeveloped countries are forced to adopt a policy of privatization in exchange for aid or debt relief, in many cases doing tremendous to harm these countries’ infrastructure, and preventing money from being responsibly directed to where the need lies.
Repeated upheavals for the last two years in Bolivia have been rooted in popular opposition to such policies forced on the country in exchange for aid. In the case of Bolivia, these policies – referred to by the Word Bank and the IMF as ‘structural adjustments’ — consisted of a privatization of not only all water resources but, bizarrely, of water as such. This is, of course, not to mention restrictions that individual developed countries can enforce when aid is distributed on a country-to-country basis. Such restrictions may require a certain percentage of the aid money to be spent on buying arms from the donor country – something that provides an argument against the popular belief that Third World governments are the only ones to blame for aid money being spent on non-developmental projects.
These concerns, along with opposition to Western warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and global environmental decay are the motivation for ordinary citizens gathering at events like G8 summits to make their voice heard. Since Seattle in 1999, increasing efforts have been put into organizing so-called counter-conferences along with protest marches. The counter-conferences tend to draw leading critics from around the world and representatives of various global justice research and activist groups. The Brazilian-founded World Social Forum and consequent local Social Forums have served as a model and inspiration for these conferences. Over the years a strong sense of community has been achieved among the participants of the global justice movement. Speakers at the “G8-Alternatives” counter-conference this year included English and Scottish representatives of Socialist and Green parties, environmentalist George Monbiot, and critics like Walden Bello, head of the Bangkok-based research organization Focus on the Global South.
As the media tend to focus almost exclusively on confrontations between particular, mostly anarchist, branches of protestors and the police, the prevailing, peaceful and constructive aspects of the protests are ignored. Moreover, police overreaction is frequently a cause of unrest, rather than any seriously provocative behaviour on behalf of protestors. As described by an Icelander who participated in a peaceful march on the 4th of July in central Edinburgh, “one anarchist throwing a sock at police seems enough to justify draconian measures like calling in the riot-police, closing streets and detaining people for hours.” To this picture we also need to add the fact that for each tiny group of black-clothed anarchists there seems to be an army of journalists and photographers – while nobody is covering the counter-conference taking place one block away.
This is not to deny that most protesters do agree with the tactics of so-called ‘non-violent direct action’ – a tactic developed on the basis of Gandhi’s peaceful protests against British rule in India. These may involve blockades, sit-ins, and damaging property or equipment that is considered likely to cause mass-death or large-scale destruction. An example of this is the group ‘Trident Ploughshares’ that has orchestrated blockades and break-ins of the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland. This year the group, in co-ordination with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, timed its blockade to coincide with the presence of thousands of G8-protesters in Scotland. The result was a day-long blockade that managed to close the Faslane base for a whole day without police intervention. The blockade itself was peaceful from beginning to end, disturbances only taking the form of music, dancing clowns, and a soup kitchen.
On the whole, the global justice movement is characterized by openness, gaiety and a multiplicity of voices perhaps best symbolized by the rainbow-coloured peace flag widely seen at protests. This is both the movement’s weakness and its strength. It means that it is not limited to any single or over-arching solution of the global population’s variety of concerns, and that campaigns that may not be entirely coherent with one another can still benefit from combined strength and open dialogue. The downside, however, is that the Make Poverty History campaign – a campaign that is not only uncritical of or blind to the imbalance of power inherent to our world system but also alarmingly self-congratulatory – can, in the words of George Monbiot, “wear our colours, speak our language, and claim to support our aims.” This is not to belittle the honesty and good intentions behind entertaining events such as the ‘Live8’ concerts or the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh. But it should warn us against thinking that every breadcrumb thrown off the dining tables of the rich amounts to making poverty history.