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.
ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
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.
The case for revisiting debt relief is compelling. As the IMF said in its latest overview of the global economy, Africa has generally shown resilience during the slowdown but has been hobbled by the impact of HIV/AIDS on its prime-age workers and by the weather-induced famine that has afflicted 38 million people. There is no evidence that the debt relief until now has been siphoned off into military spending, and money saved on repayments to Western creditors would be better spent on drugs, hospitals, schools and teachers.
Is this likely? The simple answer is no, in part because creditors think they have "done" debt and all that remains is a bit of tidying up for those countries especially hard hit by falling commodity prices.
When finance ministers from the G7 countries met in Deauville at the weekend, the focus was less on debt relief and more on British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's plan for an international financing facility, under which rich countries would float bonds in the capital markets and use the proceeds to double aid flows from US$50 billion to US$100 billion a year, the figure the UN says is needed to meet the development goals. The disadvantage of Brown's plan is that it really amounts to live now, pay later; aid flows in 10 or 15 years' time will be used to pay back those who buy the bonds now.
In the current context of cash-strapped governments looking for a cut-price way of financing development it is, however, an idea that may have legs. Moreover, even if the Americans decide that they do not want to sign up for something that the French are supporting, it is possible for a group of European countries to adopt a less ambitious go-it-alone approach.
An independent European approach would be far less feasible through the alternative of a Tobin tax on foreign exchange transactions, although that is not to say the idea of a "speculators' tax" should be abandoned, because it too has strengths: a constant flow of resources, a simple concept, a strong element of redistribution. But at present a Tobin tax is a good idea in search of a political champion.
Finally, there is trade, a subject on which the US, the EU and Japan beat all comers for cant and hypocrisy. Subsidies to farmers in the industrialized world amount to US$1 billion a day, more than the annual income of the 900 million farmers in developing countries living below the poverty line.
According to Kevin Watkins of Oxfam, there is no fat cat like a fat cat slurping up agricultural subsidies. The five biggest EU agricultural producers get 50 percent of subsidies, while in the US 60 percent of farmers get nothing at all.
While the common agricultural policy has rightly been condemned by development agencies for its deleterious effects on farmers in poor countries, the fact is that the American system of disguised subsidies through income support and export credits is no better. In 2001, America's 25,000 cotton farmers sluiced up US$4 billion in subsidies, leading to colossal over-production that leaked out into global markets, forcing down prices.
Here, then, is the crux of the problem. Poor countries are undercut by the subsidies offered by rich countries, while simultaneously facing protectionist barriers if they seek to export into North America, Europe or Japan. The falling commodity prices that result drive them deeper into the debt, putting them at the mercy of their creditors.
The next three or four months will be crucial in showing whether this broken model of development can be fixed. French President Jacques Chirac will put a proposal to next month's G8 summit in Evian for a moratorium on dumping goods to Africa in return for a US agreement to stop using export credits to distort trade.
There seems not the remotest chance of US President George W. Bush doing anything that would allow Chirac to claim a summit triumph, but this is perhaps the time for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to call in some of the favors owed from the war in Iraq. Blair has his reasons for building bridges with Chirac, but two are even more compelling for Britain to back the French initiative. First, it is a good idea, as far as it goes.
Second, without a breakthrough on agricultural trade, the Doha "development" round of trade talks will be exposed as a cruel sham and end in abject failure.
Last week, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda Gates, said in a statement that they have decided to end their marriage. The news immediately caused a global sensation. When my daughter heard that I was going to write a newspaper op-ed to comment on the matter, she made sure to remind me not to focus on the divorce agreement or the handling of the world’s richest couple’s wealth. Instead of talking about how much money Melinda Gates would get from the divorce, my daughter wanted me to focus on the many sacrifices she has made, and on her many
Taiwan has finally become an ongoing public issue in Canada, due in part to its success in keeping out COVID-19, and the Chinese Communist Party’s successful efforts to offend just about everyone in Canada. Following the lead of right-wing US politicians, Canadian conservative pundits and Canadian Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Chong (莊文浩) of the Conservative Party, politicians are urging Canada to “recognize Taiwan.” There is a small problem here for Canada, which has a different history of relations with Taiwan than the US. For Canada to “recognize” Taiwan as things stand would be to re-recognize the Republic of China
Given China’s regional might, it is little surprise that the nation casts a long shadow across Asia — including in its media coverage. However, we are now seeing a disturbing trend of Western media casting a favorable light on China, right as it stands accused of suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, interning Uighurs and obscuring investigations into the origins of COVID-19. At the same time, important coverage of Asian democracies, such as Taiwan’s 20-place leap in the Democracy Index last year — in the midst of a pandemic that brought major constrictions of democratic rights in many places — gets
Would the US be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? US President Joe Biden laid out his vision clearly last month. He sees the rivalry between the PRC and the US as a global conflict between democracy and autocracy, and Taiwan is unquestionably one of Asia’s most successful democracies. In 1954, then-US president Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons after China shelled a rocky islet near Taiwan’s coast, when the country was still a military dictatorship. Things were different then. The US