The betrayal of the Make Poverty History generation

Stephen Doughty

15 years ago today, I stood in The Meadows of Edinburgh as over a quarter of a million passionate, diverse voices from every part of the UK, joined together. I was there, having helped organise the peaceful, powerful ‘white band’ that later ringed the city centre, while working with the Christian humanitarian agency World Vision. We watched in amazement as everyone from babies in strollers, members of the Women’s Institute and young people from every part of Britain joined in power and passion in support of a global, moral, leading Britain in the world.

Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands filled Hyde Park at the Live 8 concert, and hundreds of thousands more across the world joined marches and concerts from Philadelphia to Johannesburg – with millions more joining on TV, online or showed support by wearing a white band. They were supporters of all political parties, old and young, black, white and other people of colour, of every religion and none.

We joined together, across countries and continents, to demand action on global poverty, disease and inequality, for debt relief and on a just and fair global trading system from the leaders of the G8 – meeting later that week at Gleneagles. The response was global Britain at its best. Personal, proactive leadership from the Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, urged on by the passion of millions of grassroots voices, delivered one of the most impactful summits in over 30 years.

While it may have failed to deliver on every expectation – continued US intransigence on climate change being one – the summit confirmed:

  • An additional $50bn to tackle poverty and disease, half of which was to be focused on Africa;
  • A truly historic debt relief package, worth over $50bn – including the immediate cancellation of debt of the world’s 18 most heavily indebted poor countries; and
  • A commitment to universal access to anti-HIV drugs in Africa by 2010, more support for peacekeeping, and action on trade subsidies and tariffs.

G8 members from the EU also agreed to a collective aid target of 0.56% of GNI by 2010, and 0.7% by 2015. We should be in no doubt that the achievements of that summit, however imperfect, saved millions of lives and saw millions receive vaccinations, healthcare, and schooling that they would have otherwise not have done so.

Let me be clear to every person who marched, wrote, and wore a white band: instead of acting with moral purpose in our national and common interests, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are in the process of throwing your legacy and your achievements under a bus. The nasty party is back with a vengeance.

 Worse still, they are doing this in the middle of a global pandemic to divert attentions from their failings at home and abroad, to whip up populist favour, feed right-wing commentators and seek to further inflame the ‘culture war’.

The Covid-19 pandemic proves that investment in tackling poverty and disease, with Britain showing leadership through a dedicated department and cabinet minister, is crucial. Not only to save lives, but also to prevent the emergence of clusters of disease, whether Covid-19 or otherwise, that would threaten the British people.

Not content with abolishing a world-leading and highly effective department with a reckless government reorganisation, Johnson and Cummings now also plan swingeing cuts to life-saving programmes and partnerships in a range of countries across Africa and the Global South. They are diverting expert resources in the middle of a pandemic, and plan a regression back to the bad old days of tying British aid to narrow political priorities and pet projects. I have no doubt the next step could be the dismantling of the very legal protections, made with cross-party support, that guarantee our aid is used to tackle poverty and disease, not provide sweeteners for trade and arms deals.

The inequalities laid bare by this killer pandemic at home and abroad, the disproportionate impact on the poorest and the BAME community, and its disregard for borders show why a retreat into a narrow nationalistic bubble is exactly the wrong prescription. The challenges of disease, conflict, poverty and climate crisis globally will end up on our doorsteps too. Conservatives who privately deplored Johnson’s decision last week must speak out about why it is so fundamentally ill-advised and wrong.

Since Make Poverty History 15 years ago, millions of young people in particular, in Britain and beyond, have shown their support for movements like Global Citizen, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion – ever more recognising the need for collaborative action in tackling poverty, disease, social and racial inequality and the climate emergency. The life-saving legacies of those movements past and present are now under threat like they never have been before – and never more needed.

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