Dead Men Left

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Nelson Mandela and "making poverty history"

Mandela's just been speaking down the road:

Nelson Mandela has urged world leaders not to "look the other way" from poverty during a mass rally in London.

He said the issue was as important as the fight against slavery - or his former task of fighting apartheid and leading South Africa to freedom.

The attention now being given to the cancellation of debts and fair trade are amongst the global justice movement's greatest achievements: to have pushed governments this far in acknowledging the problem shows exactly what can be achieved through campaigning.

The major risk now is the more insidious one of co-option. Not through bribery or corruption, or anything so crude, but through the sedulous use of the rhetoric of global justice by ministers across the globe. Gordon Brown is the past master of this style, but Blair is catching up fast.

The BBC report continues:

The Making Poverty History campaign wants developing countries' debts - which cost them £21bn a year - to be cancelled.

Fair access to trade markets and aid money are also on the list of demands.

It's the "fair access to trade markets" that should cause concern, as it is especially open to interpretation. Gordon Brown's preferred understanding is that this means simply removing barriers to trade: once grossly distortionary agricultural subsidies in the North are removed, for example, the South will have a chance to compete. It's a view that's starting to find favour amongst some NGOs as a plausible strategy for poverty reduction - something that is acceptable to both rich Northern governments and campaigners that will boost incomes of the very poorest.

But a level playing field is not good enough. It would be like pitching Manchester United against Kidderminster: the same rules would apply to everyone, but no-one would doubt who the winner will be. So to hear poverty campaigners start to suggest that the South should compete "fairly" with the North in agricultural products is just bizarre; quite apart from the explicit legal distortions like subsidies, the underlying terms of trade, combined with the monopsony powers the large agricultural buyers posses mean that Southern producers would continue to face a raw deal. The free market is fundamentally tilted against them.

More insidiously, removing barriers to trade on both the Northern and the Southern side - as Brown is pursuing - removes precisely the protection Southern economies have introduced against the biases of the global market. Removing subsidies on fuel, or protectionist measures on traded goods, would expose especially the smallest Southern producers to the whims of the market: and markets for primary agricultural produce are notoriously volatile.

The Asian tsunami and the extraordinary internationalism it provoked from ordinary punters have ensured that the linked issues of global justice and global warming have never been far from the headlines this year. In the months leading up to the G8 summit in Scotland, the arguments currently just visible are going to boil to the surface.