The Guardian 20 July, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Leaders of the rich
and Third World poverty

This year is the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. On October 21, 1805, British imperialism finally trounced France as a serious imperial rival.

From that date on, Britain was able to consolidate its global colonial empire without major hindrance, at least until 1914. The colossal wealth derived from the exploitation of its colonial possessions enabled British capitalism to lead the world in industrial development, military might and trade.

The residue of that wealth and power, created out of the resources — and the sweat — of Third World populations, is the basis of Britain's continued membership today in the self-appointed Top Countries club, the G8.

The G8 (more properly the "Group of Eight") comprises the leaders of the eight wealthiest, and hence most powerful, capitalist countries. In a macabre spectacle, they recently met in solemn state in Scotland with the avowed — and splendidly ironic — aim of alleviating Third World poverty.

They emerged from their deliberations to triumphantly announce miniscule debt relief for 18 of the poorest countries in Africa. The $56 billion which the G8 leaders agreed not to press for is about the same as two years' interest payments from Third World countries to multilateral and bi-lateral creditors.

Moreover, as Eugene McCartan of the Communist Party of Ireland told an "alternative" summit that coincided with the G8 meeting, "it took those same 18 countries eight years to satisfy the crippling policy conditions running into hundreds of stipulations being imposed upon them to qualify for debt cancellation".

The G8 meeting, for all its brouhaha, actually had neither legal standing nor political legitimacy. It was simply an occasion for the leaders of the main capitalist countries to big-note themselves by throwing some of their small change to the poor.

The rich have been tossing their loose change to the poor for hundreds of years, generally as the rich rode past in their carriages. In return, they expect the poor to show proper gratitude for any coins they may chance to pick up and also to display proper respect for those who can so contemptuously toss money to the less fortunate.

The G8 meeting was held, appropriately enough, in a posh hotel owned by transnational drinks corporation Diageo. British PM Tony Blair has put Diageo on his much-lauded Africa Commission, which should be a good indication of just how little concern Blair — and imperialism generally — really has for overcoming the legacy of colonialism and imperialist exploitation in Africa.

On the other hand, ordinary people do want something done about Third World poverty. The "Live 8" concerts staged by well-meaning musicians before the G8 summit, were watched by between two and three billion people via TV.

The popularity of their slogan, "Make Poverty History", was clearly evident, and the G8 leaders ostentatiously rushed to embrace it — in public.

In private, they looked for ways to turn the poverty of regions like Africa to their own advantage. In the process, their spokespersons engaged in the now-customary re-writing of history.

An editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald on July 5, headed "The poverty of Africa's history", acknowledged that "for centuries Africa was merely an economic opportunity for the West, a vast, rich land to be plundered for slaves and mined for gold, timber and the like". [How do you mine for timber?]

But the editorial quickly moved on to assert that after WW2, "a proud new era did not follow the end of colonial rule". Instead, according to the Herald's leader writer, "the United States and the Soviet Union armed and funded a slew of competing African dictators who pillaged at will".

This is a breathtaking piece of historical inaccuracy. Think of any "pillaging African dictator" and you will come up with someone who was put in place or certainly kept in place by Western imperialism.

The contrast could not be more explicit: the West, not the Soviet Union, maintained the monumentally corrupt Mobutu and "Emperor" Bokassa in power. Similarly, it was the West, not the Soviet Union, that murdered incorruptibles like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso.

But the main thrust of imperialism's line is expressed in the latter part of the Herald's editorial: Western "aid" is too easily squandered by "corrupt elites". Stopping this squandering "demands the arduous and complicated rebuilding of institutions and governance".

This is the familiar "failed state" argument being advanced to embrace the whole continent of Africa, and to provide a rationale for imperialism to try to force agreements on African states that provide for greater political interference by the US, Britain and the EU.

Under the guise of combating corruption and in defence of "good governance", these powers are trying to make their "aid" conditional on the poor countries who need the aid adopting — not negotiating — major economic changes including privatisation of natural resources like water and oil and "opening up" their home markets to competition.

To quote Eugene McCartan again: "We can only concur with Hugo Chαvez when he states that we can only end poverty by giving power to the poor. That is not on the agenda of the G8."

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