Rosie Murray-West : Can St Bob really Make Poverty History?

BST  07/06/2005

Rosie Murray-West assesses the likely impact of the high-profile campaign by Geldof and his celebrity friends

Click, click, click. Everyone from Nelson Mandela to Kate Moss is doing it, but is the Make Poverty History campaign anything more than an excuse to wear a trendy wristband and feel good about yourself?

If you’ve sat down and watched television even once in the last six months you’ll know that every click of the fingers is supposed to represent a child dying from poverty.

That happens every three seconds, according to statistics garnered by the coalition of 450 non-governmental organisations that make up MPH.

Click, click, click. It’s a shocking statistic, but not everyone is convinced that MPH has the answer, and even if it does it might be better named Make Poverty Slightly Better than It is Now.

That wouldn’t fit on the wristband, but MPH’s aims aren’t as broad as you might think from the groundswell of popular opinion behind it. The coalition wants to make sure that the Millennium Development Goals, which were endorsed by every member of the United Nations in 2000, are met. The first of these is to halve the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015, a goal that certainly wouldn’t wipe poverty out completely, although it might be a good start.

It is difficult to estimate the costs to the NGOs involved of the MPH campaign. Celebrities are donating their time and money, and charities such as Christian Aid have hit back at criticisms that they are spending money on campaigning that could be spent on helping people. "We can’t do what we do unless we challenge the structures that keep people down," says Andrew Pendleton, Christian Aid’s senior head of policy. "This is absolutely what we should be doing. This poverty is arguably the worst scandal on the planet."

Unlike most high-profile charity campaigns – from Live Aid to Comic Relief – MPH is starkly political and its members, if they aren’t fighting like kittens in a sack, are at least unlikely to agree on how publicly to ally themselves with the current government.

UK politicians have been keen to nail their white bands (hopefully not made in a Chinese sweatshop) to the mast, although cynics might suggest that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s willingness to be associated with the campaign during the run-up to the election was mere political expediency. When U2’s Bono spoke at the Labour Party conference, he described the two leaders as the "Lennon and McCartney" of poverty reduction. Tony Blair has been seen sporting a white band, but took it off during the election campaign after a woman assumed it was a hospital identity tag following a health scare.

Not surprisingly, the more radical charities in the coalition have not been keen to see politicians jumping on the MPH bandwagon – War on Want’s John Hilary has been particularly outspoken about Blair and Brown wanting us to believe that they are part of a popular crusade, without actually changing their policies. In an article in left-wing magazine Red Pepper, he attacked them saying that despite the "pro-poor rhetoric" coming from Downing Street, they have already indicated that nothing is actually going to change. Oxfam, on the other hand, has been criticised for being "far too cosy" with the government – a charge that it refuted in a recent article in the New Statesman. Clearly any coalition including so many NGOs is going to have a tense time of it.

Putting the political bandwagon aspect of MPH aside, the organisation is focussing on three areas that it describes as "inextricably linked". These are categorised as Trade Justice, Drop the debt and More and better aid. Bob Geldof summed up the coalition’s position when he said last week, launching his Live8 concerts, that: "by doubling aid, fully cancelling debt, and delivering trade justice for Africa, the G8 could change the future for millions of men, women and children."

Not everyone in Africa agrees. Franklin Cudjoe, the director of Ghanaian think-tank Imani, called the campaign "a group of disgruntled rock stars who are not in tune with the realities on this continent". His beef, and that of many other critics, is the issue of Trade Justice, an emotive label that he believes covers up an inconsistent position. Trade Justice is not the same as free trade, or even as Fairtrade. Instead, it revolves around developed countries, including the whole of the EU, dropping all of their agricultural export subsidies now – a sentiment that free trade economists would agree with.

Where they differ, however, is that MPH argues that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund need to stop forcing poor countries to open their markets to trade with rich countries. "You can’t say, on the one hand it’s one rule for them and one for us," says International Policy Network programme director Kendra Okonski. "We call it one-way trade and it is incredibly hypocritical. I think one of the most important things that Africa can do is eliminate trade barriers."

Pendleton, at Christian Aid, couldn’t agree less – saying that the MPH Trade Justice agenda is now "broadly accepted". "If you force poor countries to liberalise too early they don’t have the industries in order to compete," he says. "There is this tendency to paint us as into a 1970s-style protectionist culture, but there is a pragmatism to what we’re saying." The Labour Party’s election manifesto, which contained the phrase "we do not believe poor countries should be forced to liberalise", appears to support his point. However, Hilary, at War on Want, is on record as saying that this promise "rings hollow".

The other two planks to the MPH campaign are debt forgiveness, a policy that has been at the heart of many charity campaigns since Jubilee 2000 at the Millennium. "Despite grand statements from world leaders, the debt crisis is far from over," the organisation says, asking for poor countries to be given more grants rather than further loans. The organisation is also calling for donors to deliver at least $50 billion more in aid and set a binding timetable for spending 0.7pc of national income on aid.

It also wants the aid that does go to Africa to be better targetted, with more of the money being spent on basic healthcare and education.

Pendleton says that the aid poured into Africa during the Cold War was given out "on politically expedient lines". "People who say we have been pouring aid into Africa for decades forget that," he adds.

The poverty targets that the G8 have signed up to already commit them to the increase in aid spending that MPH wants, but the coalition additionally desires aid without strings – without even a promise from the recipients of economic reform. "All you do by doing that is favour the elite with power and influence," Pendleton says.

He’s got less than a month before the G8 Summit in Scotland, where campaigners and rock star celebrities plan a stunt to encircle the city of Edinburgh. Geldof believes his Live8 concerts, together with the protests, will convince the delegates. "There is more than a chance that the boys and girls with guitars finally get to tilt the world on its axis."

Pendleton’s hopes are set rather lower. "There is a real chance that if nothing else more attention is brought to the issues," he says.

That’s a laudable enough aim, but surely too modest for St Bob to sign up to? Poverty in Africa is a scandal but wearing a white band isn’t going to provide us with a complete answer.

Amid so much noise click, click, click is in danger of being drowned out.