Saturday, December 03, 2005

John Roughan: Let's save poor from rock stars

Where is Bob Geldof now that he could really do some good? Six months ago the self-appointed pop star for Africa was saturating the news with his mission to put poverty at the top of the agenda for a meeting in Britain of the G8.

The G8 (the world's seven richest nations and Russia) is one of those regular and fairly inconsequential forums where governments discuss common issues and try to agree on resolutions but have no machinery to make them act.

It is quite unlike the World Trade Organisation. The WTO has rules and dispute procedures that have the potential to punish those who put up devious barriers to trade.

Governments think twice about joining the WTO, and the organisation looks long and hard at their economic habits before admitting them.

Every 10 years or so the WTO tries to reduce all remaining trade impediments by the unanimous agreement of member countries. Each time it takes years of arcane bargaining and a series of summit conferences to agree on even glacial progress.

And always there is the fear that failure could leave all countries to look out for themselves by doing deals where they can and devil take the hindmost.

I'm sorry this is boring - too boring for Bob Geldof, probably - but it is important.

Poor countries have been flocking to join the WTO over the past 10 years and they have made their presence felt for the first time in this "Doha round" of bargaining that has been struggling now for four years.

It is coming to its crunch conference in Hong Kong the week after next and it could easily fail. Already it appears to have sidelined the interests of poorer members, and the rock culture's champion of Africa doesn't seem to care.

Trade may not be cool, but Geldof and co have proved, if nothing else, that it is possible to turn the power of popular music to a tedious cause.

Debt relief, the aim of his Live 8 production for the already forgotten G8, is not only tedious, it is also of dubious lasting value to the people he wants to help.

Debt cancellation is warm and comforting until the next time the under-capitalised country needs money. Then the write-off turns out to have been even less helpful than the last injection of aid, which is exactly what debts become when they are not repaid.

Nobody liked to put this very strongly to Geldof when he was on British television day after day through May and June, conviction in his eye, a challenge in his voice.

When he railed against debt he was not asked if poor countries, once relieved, should be denied another dose of it. Neither was he reminded that 20 years after Live Aid the condition of Ethiopia is no better.

But it was gently put to him once or twice that trade was really the answer, wasn't it? And he agreed. Not passionately, not with the same conviction, but he agreed. He wanted the G8 to push for progress in the Doha round, too.

Yet over the past few weeks, as the round comes to its moment of truth in Hong Kong, it could have done with some conscience-raising music.

"Live Trade" might lack sex appeal but if Geldof seriously meant to make poverty history he should have saved his promotional power for this moment.

In July he was wasting a great deal of energy, his own and many others'. He drew 200,000 people to Edinburgh when the G8 were about to meet at Gleneagles nearby. The same day he staged free concerts in nine countries.

At the end, the G8 leaders said they would double their collective aid to Africa by 2010 and write off the debts of 18 countries, 14 of them African.

Geldof called it "the most important summit there has ever been for Africa". A musical colleague in the cause, Bono, added, "The world spoke and politicians listened."

Not long ago the Independent in London published a re-assessment of the G8. It reported that even as the rock stars were congratulating themselves, the serious humanitarian groups in the Make Poverty History campaign were reading the fine print.

More than half the promised increase in aid by 2010 wasn't new money but a restatement of previous pledges, future aid budgets and some debt relief.

The debt relief package would apply to debts held by only three of the world's 19 multilateral creditors, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank.

Well, that's show business.

Okay, you might say, but what harm is done by the aid-show business if it raises public awareness? Considerable harm, possibly, if showtime is chosen for the sake of a production in the northern summer rather than when it could be most effective.

The Independent report said: "Geldof and Bono's endorsement of the G8 deal came as a blow to many within the Make Poverty History coalition, ensuring that the issues of Africa, poverty and development disappeared from the spotlight within days of the summit's end."

The word from international trade conferences such as Apec last month is that Doha will survive Hong Kong without the high hopes that it would spread the benefits of trade to those countries that have not yet caught the modern wave.

Only Africa is now largely missing out on the prosperity generated by open markets, trans-national investment, new telecommunications and (since Don McKinnon asked) democracy.

Restrained government and allegiance to law are proving necessary to strong economies.

If Doha fails, the cost will be borne most heavily by those Geldof wants to help. Agriculture, which provides 80 per cent of Africans with their livelihood, will continue to face high tariffs and subsidised prices in the best markets.

The World Bank calculates that trade liberalisation would be worth $196 billion to developing countries, more than they receive annually in aid and much more than they stand to gain from debt relief.

Perhaps it is time to save the poor from show business.


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