Debt Relief

Poverty has changed my view of politics, says Brown

Gordon Brown: ‘We must rise to the challenge of tackling world poverty.’

Gordon Brown ends the year by preparing frantically for the next. He is in the US completing a five-day trip of high-level meetings and speeches. Britain assumes the presidency of the G8, the group of leading industrial countries, on 1 January.

The Chancellor tends to be in the US at moments of high political drama in Britain. The last time he was in Washington, Tony Blair announced his intention to stand down at the end of a third term. Now Mr Brown is away for the aftermath of David Blunkett’s resignation and the cabinet reshuffle. He confines himself to a single sentence on those events. “David was an excellent Home Secretary and whatever his troubles, I am sure people realise that.”

He is brief as he focuses on one of his great passions, the need for more co-ordinated international action on world poverty. It is a passion that has led him to reconsider his approach to British politics.

Mr Brown’s trip to the US is part of the Government’s preparations for the G8 presidency and a chance to highlight what he regards as the urgent need for new policies aimed at helping the developing world. This will be the theme of Britain’s presidency.

“The question of the coming year is whether we rise to the challenge of 110 million children who do not go to school, the 30,000 children dying every day of diseases that are curable, and the blight of 11 million orphans from Aids. We cannot excuse our inaction because we don’t know.”

The Chancellor does not expect inaction. Instead, he predicts a new momentum, partly because of the Government’s determination to make a mark but also as a result of a range of other activities.

“On January 1st in Britain there will be the launch of Make Poverty History, a new umbrella group bringing together lots of voluntary organisations. I’ll be making a big speech on development a few days later. Then there’s a meeting of EU finance ministers to discuss international development. The same month I’ll be making a trip to Africa.

“The poorest countries in Africa owe half of their debt to the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank. We aim to achieve 100 per cent debt relief on money owed to these institutions. It has never been possible to persuade people that these institutions could write off their loans just as Britain wrote off its loans. This would be a big shift as it would complete the process of debt relief, undoing the damage of the 1980s and 1990s when we allowed these countries to become crippled by debt.

“Secondly, we plan to introduce a new international finance facility to ensure substantial new finance for development. For 20 years, aid has been in decline. If we are to achieve the goal of every child in primary education, poverty halved and infant mortality in decline we have to spend $50bn more on aid for investment every year.

“Thirdly, in its presidency, Britain will seek new ways to encourage trade with poorer countries. There is the prospect of a trade round being completed next year in the interests of developing countries.”

I raised the issue of the US, inevitably the most significant player in addressing world poverty. Presumably President George Bush is not as enthused by Britain’s aspirations, and without his co-operation these ambitions will be unfulfilled.

“Bush went to Monterrey [Mexico] for a meeting of development organisations. He made it clear that no country introducing reforms should be denied the resources it needs for health, education and anti-poverty initiatives.”

What of those who argue, in Britain and at an international level, that a lot of the aid is wasted and that internal reform is the key to addressing poverty?

“Aid as compensation, as if we’re just paying people for the problems of the past, is not the answer. But aid as investment is an altogether different matter. Increased aid can develop capacity for trade, increase the number of vaccinations, and increase also schools and teachers. This is value for money.”

Mr Brown has become so gripped by this issue that it has changed his view of politics. Perhaps partly because he has more time since he no longer has a central role in Labour’s next election campaign, he has spoken on Third World poverty more than on any other topic recently. In doing so, he has engaged with groups beyond his party.

“The campaign for Britain to introduce debt relief involved the Government, voluntary groups and charities. Many were involved in moving public opinion and, as a result, there was an upsurge of support for change. Progress in this area depends on popular will. It cannot be done by governments or a political elite alone.”

Mr Brown is applying these lessons to a broader political canvas. He cites the support for debt relief as an example of a progressive consensus in the UK. He seeks a similar consensus on other domestic issues. Some see his call for a progressive consensus as a coded challenge to Mr Blair’s leadership. For now, Mr Brown highlights his strategic aspirations by relating them to the Third World.

“When I talk about a progressive consensus, I mean more than simply a progressive policy, although aid and debt relief are clearly progressive policies. But it is also a progressive form of politics where we hear a wide range of voices coming together. What is exciting is that we have all found ways of talking to each other that point to a different form of politics.

“With Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, I regularly meet church leaders, charities and faith groups. I’m grateful to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for giving support for the new international facility we plan to establish aimed at achieving more investment in Africa. But it is about more than being party political. Oxfam, Christian Aid and other groups have shown that their concern and compassion have put the issue on the agenda.

“There is a common cause here, the coming together of people who feel, however distantly, the pain of others. People who believe in something bigger than themselves.”

Mr Brown and some of his colleagues in the Treasury are equally concerned about poverty in Britain.

“What has happened over debt relief and development is a model for what we might do in Britain in the future. It is in no one’s interest that millions of children are left behind. In contrast, it is in all our interests that children get the best start in life. Dialogue at a local level over what the Government is trying to do and what local organisations and mothers and fathers are trying to do for children is what we should be encouraging. In the new year, we will be setting up Children’s Forums in constituencies, looking at child care, SureStart, and how they might develop in the future. Those attending will be from all political persuasions and none.”

At this point, he modifies his old catchphrase about being prudent for a purpose: “I’m looking for a dialogue for a purpose in Britain over issues relating to child poverty.” The outcome of such a dialogue is not yet clear, but Mr Brown is trying to rediscover some of the fizzy excitement that greeted the Labour Government when it came to power.

“We must open up new alliances. In 1997, people voted for progressive politics as well as progressive policies. We want politicians who are prepared to listen and not be remote from the experiences of people in their everyday lives and who are prepared to be more rooted in what is being said in individual communities. I have learnt lessons from campaigns relating to world poverty. We have to do more to ensure that there is not just dialogue, but dialogue that leads to decisions that reflect what people are saying at a local level.”

Mr Brown speaks often about the need to to establish a robust, confident sense of Britishness, a patriotism that would make voters more self-confident about other challenging issues such as the country’s relationship with Europe. “An essential element of Britishness is an outward-looking internationalism,” he says.

“From the campaign to abolish the slave trade to debt relief there is a strand in the British people’s view of the world that wants to stand up for certain values: We are open to the world, for example in encouraging international trade and having a responsibility for the poorest countries. The European Union is also ready to address the problems in Africa and we will encourage that when we assume the presidency of the EU in the second half of next year. Britain is internationalist and pro-European.”

Africa has become a template for a range of more controversial issues including Europe, addressing poverty in Britain and the most appropriate strategic approach for a left-of-centre government. Lurking within these arguments are an outline of what a Brown-led government would seek to achieve.

But they are not merely a code. Both Blair and Brown view the issue of Third World poverty on its own merits and can cite a range of policies as evidence of their commitment.

Next year, probably an election year in Britain, poverty in Africa will command as much attention as some domestic issues. In urging others to join his crusade, Mr Brown is becoming a less tribal politician who still hopes to lead his tribe.


Born: 20 February 1951

Education: Edinburgh University (PhD 1982)

Family: Married Sarah Macaulay. One child

Career: 1972: Edinburgh University: Rector

1975: Temporary lecturer

1976: Lecturer, Glasgow College of Technology

1980: Journalist, Scottish Television

1983: Elected MP for Dunfermline East

1983: Chairman, Labour Party Scottish Council

1987: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

1989: Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary.

1992: Shadow Chancellor.

1997: Chancellor of the Exchequer

Steve Richards, The Independent (UK), December 20, 2004

Categories: Debt Relief, Odious Debts

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