Make poverty history or indulge the soap opera

While our news has always been dominated by what Tony Blair rightly calls ‘the soap opera of politics’, all the stuff about Blair, Brown and the succession is hiding what in the long term will emerge as the bigger news story. We have in our sights an opportunity to make poverty history, thanks to Brown’s determination to ensure the UK’s presidency of the G8 sees that issue on the top of the agenda. Boosted by good will towards the developing world generated by the tsunami, he’s been able to propose a new Marshall plan. This is the sort of politics that should inspire us. And we can all do a little bit to help make it happen by supporting Make Poverty History. They have three aims; to make trade fair, to relieve debt and to provide aid.

Making others’ lives better is a nice to do, but it’s not a luxury. The right sort of aid is an essential investment. Globalisation is an irresistible force and we need to act to make it the force for good it can be. As poorer countries develop and stabilise, our security will improve and our own economy grow through increased trading opportunities. And it’s the kind of investment the private sector cannot make because providing schools or healthcare to poor people doesn’t generate returns that can be directly collected.

Trying to collect debts that, more often than not, have been built up by now deposed, corrupt and grossly undemocratic regimes is foolish and undermines that investment. Lenders need to come to terms with the fact that all loans carry risk and that in this case, the dice has come down against them. They need to accept they’ll never be paid and cancel the debt so we can move on.

We also need to stop pretending that trade rules are there to free benign markets. They clearly are not. That free markets always produce ‘good’ outcomes is, of course, a myth (outcomes can be good or bad, the market isn’t a moral creature). Yet even if it were always good, current rules reengineer markets in a way that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich. We have the power to change that.

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