The Independent View: Poverty can and must be made history

Ten million people bought Make Poverty History campaign armbands in 2005. Some would hold that voters give development issues a low priority. But those armbands showed that a lot of voters care.

More and better aid, debt relief and trade justice were the demands of campaigners. Five years later, how is the government doing? Brilliantly if you fall for Labour’s spin. Mediocre if you analyse the facts.

An OECD report says that Britain is expected to devote 0.56% of national income to development aid this year. That hides a few things. The government arrives at this figure by including money for debt relief. Yet those of us who campaigned for debt cancellation expected that it would be additional to aid spending, not part of it. Taking from the poor to give to the poor is not aid. Subtract debt relief and the figure for aid is just under 0.5%, about the same as in the late 1970s – hardly much advance. (The Tories’ record on aid from 1979 to 1997 was abysmal).

To hear Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 2005 you might have thought that the debt burdens of developing countries were on their way to being wiped out. But five years later, only about 20 per cent of developing country debt has been cancelled.

On trade, the government continues to push “free” trade, despite mounting evidence that it keeps millions in poverty. But on trade justice, the opposite of “free” trade, the three main parties lack conviction.

Trade justice involves changing the rules of international trade to benefit the poor. That includes curbing the power of the traders, the Transnational Corporations. TNC power is evident around all us. Action Aid has detailed, for example, how TNCs abuse their market power in agriculture to the detriment of the poor.

The UK’s 2006 Companies Act does not provide for effective regulation. The Act is so full of holes as to be almost useless. What is needed is international corporate regulation with teeth. And this is barely on the political agenda. There is a huge gap waiting to the filled.

As Nelson Mandala reminded us in the 2005 campaign: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Overcoming poverty is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom”.

Poverty can and must be made history.

* John Madeley is a journalist and author on development issues. His books include Hungry for Trade – How the poor pay for free trade, and Big Business: Poor Peoples – how Transnational Corporations damage the world’s poor. His latest book Beyond Reach? tells the story of the Make Poverty History campaign in novel form. Details at He is a former member of the Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Andrew Suffield 7th Mar '10 - 4:15pm

    It’s a nice idea, but I don’t think you’ve established your main point – certainly nothing useful is being done, and the corporate interests don’t want anything to be done, but the proposals to do something are vague, with little or no evidence that they can work.

  • “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier is a good book to read if you want to know what would work

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