Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Can World Poverty Really Be Wiped Out?

The Advertiser -- "MAKE poverty history," urges the slogan and campaign

It is already the hot, feel-good, global-warming type topic of 2005 at the forefront of the international political agenda.

It will dominate the latest summit of the G8 group of wealthy nations at Gleneagles in Scotland next month.

With Sir Bob Geldof's Live8 rock extravaganza coinciding, it could be the biggest media circus since the Michael Jackson trial.

Already, British Prime Minister Tony Blair – with his colleague and leadership rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown – is trying his hardest to make it chic and earn him his place in the history books.

In advance of Gleneagles, he has been to Washington to persuade a not particularly enthused President George W. Bush to channel more money to Africa.

But why Africa? Given the scale of the Christmas tsunami catastrophe as a reminder of the globe-girdling reach of the scourges of poverty, ignorance and disease, it is a fair question.

So is the stark statistical answer. Some 300 million people – almost half the total population in Africa south of the Sahara – try to live on 75c a day or less.

The number is projected to rise to 400 million by 2015. It is the continent of 34 of the world's poorest 40 countries.

It is being devastated by AIDS. Every day, 6300 people die and another 8500 are smitten by HIV. An entire generation of orphans is growing up.

Sub-Saharan Africa spends $40 billion a year on repaying debt that might otherwise go to health and education, often in the most basic forms of clean water and primary schooling.

Help is at hand – under the latest deal agreed by the G8 finance ministers, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Fund will write off all money owed by 18 nations – more than $50 billion. Others will qualify if they can meet standards of honest government.

Yet Africa, humanity's cradle, where our distant forebears first stood up, is rich.

The home of one-tenth of the world's population is a treasure house of oil and minerals.

Rice, coffee, chocolate and peanuts are just some of the crops that can grow in luxuriant abundance.

But Africa is also the continent of some of the most ghastly governments in history.

Rwanda and Sudan are synonyms for primitive genocides.

Most familiar to Australia is the hideous example of Zimbabwe, turned by President Robert Mugabe from the jewel of Africa into terrorised, starving pauperism in a single generation.

Yet even Zimbabwe seems not too bad when compared with the Democratic Republic of Congo – roadless, lawless and looted back to the Stone Age.

This is why the current clamour for action has included proposals to freeze or seize the overseas accounts of corrupt rulers who have stuffed them with aid funds.

This reads well, but ignores the fact that the most thuggish and stupid are still exceptionally well briefed on other offshore havens.

Echoing the title of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Bob Geldof calls his concert the beginning of "a long walk to justice".

But critics maintain that however well-intentioned and useful debt forgiveness may be, and however essential the eradication of thieving rulers may be, this misses the point.

It is the view put by London magazine The Economist: "There is one step that rich countries could take that would help Africans in both well-governed and poorly governed states – curbing the agricultural subsidies and health and safety regulations that keep African products out of rich-country markets."

This, say the critics, is the true and enduring poverty trap. Nor, as long as American and European farmers have votes and subsidies, is it going to be easily changed.

In all of this excitement, Australia's silence seems quite deafening. Yet, witness the tsunami and earlier disaster responses – Australians and their governments are always exceptionally generous.

The official line, and it has validity, is that Australian overseas aid is focused on regional nations which would otherwise be neglected. In addition to the ongoing private efforts, the Federal Government budgeted $2.133 billion last year, rising to $2.5 billion in 05/06, to aid projects, some 0.25 per cent of gross national income.

In more understandable terms, this translates as $1.70 a week for each of us, about the price of a loaf of bread. Africa was allocated a seemingly derisory $77 million of this, the Asia-Pacific argument kicking in. But the Africa issue has had its impact here, too.

Treasurer Peter Costello told Parliament this week that Australia had committed $112 million to World Bank and IMF write-offs.

"Australia has been a very strong supporter for debt forgiveness through the IMF and the World Bank for heavily indebted poor countries," he said.

"In fact, in 2000 the Government pledged 100 per cent bilateral debt forgiveness for countries that qualified for that program. Australia has forgiven 100 per cent of the bilateral debt of Ethiopia and Nicaragua, which were the two countries known as HIPCs that owed money to Australia."

He also joined the trade liberalisation chorus – which, incidentally, could be a boon to Australian farmers.

The melancholy truth behind all these uproars and posturings is that warm hearts and smart, chic spinning are not enough.

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