Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The politics of global inequality have finally come of age

There's fat chance that last year has made poverty history, yet the West is learning to question its own legitimacy

By Madeleine Bunting  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A year ago, we were told we had 12 months to make poverty history. So, in the bleary cold light of the new year, how does our achievement stack up? Did a year of unprecedented focus on Africa -- rock concerts, 250,000 demonstrating in Edinburgh and an extraordinary degree of political engagement at the highest levels -- succeed?

In recent weeks there has been no shortage of aid agencies and government advisers attempting to draw up the balance sheet. The year ended on a gloomy note. The failure in Hong Kong to achieve anything like a positive outcome for developing countries was a big blow, given that the huge costs of unfair trade dwarf the pocket-money deals on debt and aid. Even more depressing was the news from Africa.

It was not just the string of crises -- from Malawi and Zambia in famine-struck southern Africa to the fragility of the peace in Sudan and the ongoing conflict in Darfur -- but, more worryingly, the much-favored reform-minded governments of key countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia showed an ugly ruthlessness.

So the campaign fizzled out. It lost momentum in the public imagination after the London bombings in July. The politicians may have plowed on at the UN summit in New York in September, but they no longer did so under the glare of media attention.

But if you stand back from the past few months and assess the whole year, something more optimistic becomes clear: The politics of global inequality have come of age. It has become part of the mainstream in this country, in a way that was unthinkable a decade ago. In the past, third-world poverty did occasionally grab attention, but only when framed as an appeal to respond to a humanitarian crisis.

This year marked a step change in the popular understanding that global poverty is about more than dipping your hand in your pocket for the odd pound coin. The involvement of celebrities ensured slots on primetime TV and the attention of popular newspapers and reached an entirely new constituency. Issues such as trade justice, once regarded as the obscure obsessions of the hairy, the sandalled and the tattooed, are percolating through to your average supermarket shopper.

At the same time as the shift at a popular level gathered pace, last year saw the deepening of a cosy relationship between government and the aid agencies. In the 1990s, the debt campaigners labored away on the margins of the Labor party, and never dreamed of the kind of easy access to ministerial ears their successors regard as routine.

Government and aid agencies are now tied into a symbiotic -- and not unproblematic -- relationship as they bolster each other's credibility. During much of last year they were working hand-in-glove (the agencies' criticisms post-Gleneagles were a short-lived bid to scramble back some vestige of independence). They both have much at stake -- to show that campaigning can work and politicians can make a difference.

The final confirmation of this mainstreaming came when David Cameron picked development as one of his six key themes on becoming leader of Britain's opposition Conservative party, even if he did forget to deliver that bit of his memorized speech.

The point is that in British politics, having something to say about global poverty is now regarded as an essential to get the tone of your political pitch right. It hits two Cs: compassionate and contemporary.

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