There is a Gil Scott-Heron song that I used to listen to (but sadly seemed to have lost) which said that African history was too often "his story", the story of the white man, those who had exploited Africa. History was rarely told about those, many of whom were women, who had taken courageous risks to resist both colonialism and imperialism.
The song seems rather pertinent as the world builds up to the climax of the "Make Poverty History" campaign, which hopes to persuade the world’s richest leaders (G8) to finally act and take decisive steps to end poverty by cancelling debt, increasing aid and establishing just trade relationships.
The focus of the press, and it would seem the campaign itself, in the build up to the G8 summit is all about "his" stories: The eight men who have the power to change the world by changing their policies, the crusading white heroes Bono and Bob Geldof who have single-handedly put poverty on the world agenda, the millionaire Tom Hunter who with celebrity film director Richard Curtis have bankrolled and often ended up directing the public face of the "Make Poverty History" campaign.
As I once worked for the Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation campaign, it has been impressive seeing almost daily "stories" on Yahoo as well as at times the Bolivian press of the latest development in the Make Poverty History campaign. Jubilee 2000 also tried to use the potent mix of a strong target (G8 summit), celebrity power and mass mobilisation to push for debt cancellation, but it was never as successful as MPH has been on putting the issue of poverty on the public agenda.
Yet watching it all from afar in Bolivia, I can’t help wondering what difference all the hype will make to poverty and injustice here. The campaign seems to do nothing to give voice to the struggles that people are making in Bolivia for greater justice. It also seems silent on the injustice of eight men even having the power to affect lives in Bolivia. I can’t help wondering if the obsession on "his stories" could undermine "our stories" of the ongoing struggle for justice that will have to continue long-after the noise of the Live8 concerts has died down.
That doesn’t mean I don’t welcome the campaign or the focus on poverty. I would be on the rally in Edinburgh this Saturday if I was in Britain. The Make Poverty History coalition’s demands for cancellation of unpayable debt (which would be 100% of the debts of 62 countries), a dramatic increase in aid, and just trading relations (including the end to enforced liberalisation) are radical demands. If enacted, in full, they would tackle some of the key underlying obstacles to development and reflect a fundamental change in policies from those enacted by the G8 nations at present.
There are also undoubtedly positive benefits from the huge publicity in that it takes issues that are normally discussed behind closed doors or in small meetings of committed activists out into the wider arena.
Too often, activists just end up talking to each other and seem unable to popularise these crucial issues to the wider public. (I know from countless meetings where you end up meeting the same people, often representing more than one campaign).
Through the campaign, young people in particular are being introduced to crucial issues of international injustice. Pop stars, like Bono, also open up doors and are able to talk to powerful (and usually objectionable) political and economic leaders who are rarely even touched by "worthy" campaigns.
However questions have to be asked, when the British Government, keen to be associated with a foreign policy other than Iraq, is actively encouraging the hype. Tony Blair in March said "Millions across the world are now campaigning to Make Poverty History. They are demanding that we act for Africa. Success is in our hands" as if he was one of the leaders of the MPH campaign.
Most of the British government can be seen sporting "white bands", the symbol of the movement and Gordon Brown will be one of the main speakers at the march on Saturday. That would be fine if the British Government and the G8 were enacting or intended to enact the demands of the Make Poverty History campaign, but as WDM, Friends of the Earth and War on Want have pointed out the British Government’s current environment and development policies are part of the problem, not the solution.
The question is what will happen to all the hype when the G8, without a doubt, fail to deliver when they meet over the next few days? What will the coalition say, when all the build-up and language has talked of a chance to "make poverty history" this weekend.
The G8 will clearly not only fail to "make poverty history", their record suggests they will barely make a dent. As a recent report by WDM demonstrates, their record of delivery compared to their flowery promises over the last five years, is pitiful. The evidence from the much-hyped debt cancellation deal by the G8 finance ministers (which only cancelled a tiny proportion of developing countries debt, and actually increases harmful conditions) suggests that this G8 summit will be no different.
In the face of this, the Make Poverty History Coalition will be probably be forced to say something like "some crucial steps were taken towards making poverty history". Thousands of people new to campaigning who were told that in this one moment they could change history will naturally feel disappointed and perhaps disenchanted.
More dangerously, the whole event could be mutually hyped by both the coalition and the government to suggest that the combination of the summit and the protests have changed history. In this respect, it could be like the Live Aid concert which created a huge "feel good" factor in the West while doing nothing to change the reality of injustice that created poverty in countries like Ethiopia.
On reflection I feel the whole thrust of the Make Poverty History campaign (and by default the Jubilee 2000 campaign) is fundamentally misdirected. The problem goes back to the campaign’s focus on "his stories" rather than "our stories."
The first underlying assumption of both campaigns is that you can appeal (sometimes it’s called pressure) to the leaders of the rich nations to enact different policies. The campaigns all say it: "These 8 men can change the world." The second related assumption is that you can get these nations to go against their interests and enact policies that undermine their political and economic power.
I read one article in which Bono talks of reaching America by appealing to their greatness rather than just their compassion. But therein lies the problem. Their greatness is the reason for the crisis. The focus on the eight leaders and their need to take action merely reinforces their power, the power that allows injustice to continue. It allows them to adopt the language of campaigns (the British Government is especially good at this) without any fundamental changes in policies.
Poverty exists not because of lack of action by the G8, but by their daily actions, their very nature as the most powerful nations. The G8 and other rich nations control the International Institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO that inevitably shape policies that benefit them rather than the poorest nations. They are also nations which are subject to the political pressure of large multinationals that have much more sustained political influence than charities can mobilise, even through the Make Poverty History Campaign. They may be persuaded to temper their behaviour, but you won’t get them to act against their own interests. The very fact that they are in control perpetuates poverty.
I would also go beyond talking about "they" and talk about "we" because we in the rich North are all responsible. People are poor, not just because of our governments natural instinct to protect our interests but because we have too much. Let’s not forget: 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of the world’s resources.
We are not prepared to recognise that justice for the world’s poor means us doing without and redistributing our wealth, and would rather blame it on governments and multinationals. Their greed and lust for power is just an extension of ourselves. We, and I also definitely mean I, aren’t prepared to pay fair prices for our food so that farmers can get a fair wage. We won’t sacrifice daily luxuries to give money to those without anything or do without a foreign holiday involving a long-distance flight to prevent the global warming that floods a small island in the Pacific.
To tackle the root causes of poverty, campaigns need to move from a focus on "his stories" which suggest a few powerful people can make a difference to "our stories" which emphasise that "we" must change.
It means talking less about poverty, than injustice. It means challenging rather than reinforcing structures of power like the G8. It means highlighting the role of ordinary people struggling for justice in Bolivia, rather than reinforcing the media’s obsession with celebrity. It means accepting our responsibility for injustice and taking concrete steps to change our attitudes and actions. It means moving beyond ideas that we can tackle poverty in one moment, to realising that justice is a never-ending struggle in which we must all play a part.