Tackling global poverty is like protecting the environment: it's something for the good times. There's no reason why we should stop caring about poor people when times are tough, any more than we should stop caring about climate change or the destruction of rain forests, but that's the political reality. Rich-country governments are much more likely to focus on issues beyond their borders if there's a feelgood factor.
So, looking back, May 1998 was a perfect time for debt campaigners to descend on the G8 meeting in Birmingham, UK. The Wagnerian stock-market-driven boom of the 1990s was still more than a year away from its Gotterdammerung, and the buzz was of new paradigms and dotcom revolutions rather than of bubbles and crashes. In that year, the US economy grew by 4.3 percent and the EU by 2.9 percent, with only poor old Japan struggling.
Times have changed. Last year, in a post-bubble, post-Sept. 11 world, the US grew by 2.4 percent and the EU by 1 percent. Budgets took the strain as activity slowed, with the big surpluses built up by former US president Bill Clinton turned on their head and some of the bigger European countries falling foul of the 3 percent ceiling on budget deficits set by the stability and growth pact. Governments forced to think about spending cuts are not the easiest touch when it comes to calls for deeper debt relief, an increase in aid or concessions on trade.
Nor are the rotten economics the only handicap. The spotlight that was briefly on Africa at the end of the century has swung towards the Middle East. Terrorism has replaced poverty reduction at the top of the international political agenda and deep fissures have opened up between Europe and the US over Iraq. It also has to be accepted that skepticism remains about whether any financial assistance provided to poor countries will filter down to those who need it, and that in certain prominent cases -- Zimbabwe, particularly -- concerns about governance and corruption are well founded. That, like it or not, is where we are five years on from Birmingham in 1998.
That said, there are some reasons for optimism. The Jubilee 2000 campaign succeeded in opening the eyes of western leaders to what was happening in Africa and, having become engaged with sorting out the problem, they can never again fully disengage. Moreover, as the paper prepared by three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- Jubilee Research, CAFOD and Jubilee Debt Campaign -- pointed out last week, the signs are that debt relief has worked.
The problem is that there has not been enough of it, and that countries have had to swallow large dollops of counter-productive economic advice to get it. Only eight have so far received a substantial debt write-off under the initiative finally agreed by the G8 at its 1999 shindig in Cologne, but for the fortunate ones there have been mass immunization programs in Mozambique and free education in Tanzania.
Where do we go from here? An initial step would be to treat the UN development goals for poverty reduction, infant mortality and primary education as binding targets for 2015 rather than vague aspirations, and then work out what needs to be done in order to achieve them. This would mean yoking together deeper and speedier debt relief, and increase in aid and fairer trade policies as part of a unified strategy.