29 March 2007 Edition

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International : Global poor ignored and marginalised

Nothing to Celebrate


Fifty years ago this month, on  6 March 1957, Ghana declared its independence from British rule, becoming the first sub-Saharan country to achieve liberation from colonial rule.
Not surprisingly, this inspired a wave of freedom struggles the world over. Three short years later, 17 more countries had broken the colonial yoke. It was the beginning of the end for the old empires that had grown out of the 19th Century’s scramble for Africa. People are still paying the price today.
As the young Africans were busy dispatching their former masters, simultaneously in Europe some of those old empires were involved with the 1957 foundation of the European Economic Community, a six nation grouping that was the precursor of today’s European Union.
And while, 50 years on, the members of the EU have much to boast about, life in many parts of Africa appears to have gone into reverse. In fact, it often appears that huge swathes of that continent are close to dropping off the globe altogether, so perilous is their situation.
Successive generations of Africans have been and continue to be excluded from global trade by punitive tariffs levied by bodies like the EU. Thus, the idea of impoverished countries ‘trading their way out of poverty is a nonsense’, as they are prevented from doing so. To add insult to injury, EU producers then dump subsidised produce in local African markets at prices so low, local producers cannot compete. And when poor countries seek loans to help them build up their productive capacity, the conditions imposed are so punitive as to often leave them worse off. No wonder that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is colloquially known in the developing world as the Institute for Misery and Famine.

Falling aid

So, as Ghana’s people were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their country’s independence, the UK development agency Oxfam were demanding that Tony Blair make the fight against poverty a priority for the remaining term of his office. In doing so, they pointed out that aid from rich countries has fallen since the British prime minister presented the Commission for Africa report two years ago in Gleneagles. As bigmouth Bob Geldof often puts it, European leaders have lost interest in Africa. Although, when you think about it, it is hard to remember a time when they actually had a genuine interest in the continent. As opposed to its mineral and other wealth, that is.
In fact, the dispossessed of the world barely merit a mention in the West. The only occasions on which they tend to feature is when they are afflicted by huge humanitarian disaster and the media use them to sell papers and news. For a brief period, we see their faces, discover their names and hear their stories of loss and, sometimes, hope. Nothing of the conditions that make them so vulnerable to emergencies. Nothing to explain the poverty that makes their existence so perilous. And some aid agencies are guilty in this regard too, failing utterly to ensure people understand that poverty in the developing world is not an accident, an act of God or of nature, but that is a steadfastly political phenomenon that is amenable to a political solution. Famine, after all, does not strike in the US or the EU.
Why for example, do floods and hurricanes cause such devastation and loss of life in the countries of Central America and the Caribbean? In scenes repeated year in, year out, in Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and elsewhere across the region, we see lives and livelihoods devastated by flooding and hurricanes.
The fact that so many are vulnerable in these countries reflects their status on the very margins of their societies, crowded together and farming the worst land – land which is often not meant to be farmed, often resulting is deforestation and loss of topsoil. So when the floods come, their lives disappear. Interesting to note that another relatively poor country in the region is afflicted by the same weather systems, year in, year out, but loss of life or mass displacement does not occur. Strange how Cuba alone manages to avoid large scale disasters and emergencies? Must be an act of God.

Central Response Fund

Last year, the UN established the Central Response Fund, to deal with emergencies and humanitarian crises.
The emergency fund was created to increase aid agencies’ ability to deliver life-saving aid during the crucial first days of a crisis. Prior to the Fund’s launch last year, the humanitarian community, which depends on donor contributions, often had to wait weeks – or even months – before they could adequately respond to an emergency. In addition, the Fund is used by the aid community to assist vulnerable people affected by chronic ‘forgotten crises’.
Surprise, surprise, one year on, the CERF is undefended. Oxfam calculated what wealthy countries should have been contributing to the fund, according to their income. While countries like Britain and Norway contributed nearly 14 times more than their fair share, some of the world’s wealthiest, including many oil producing states, have lagged behind. France, the United States, Japan, and Germany have thus far failed to contribute their fair share.
The US donated €7.5 million – or 5% of its fair share to the emergency fund, while Japan gave €5.6 or 10 % of what it should have. Neither country has yet pledged money this year. In 2007, France has so far donated €1 million or just 4% of its fair share and Germany has contributed €5 million which translates to 16% of its portion.
Oxfam also highlighted the problem of donor nations diverting funds from other humanitarian programs to the emergency fund instead of contributing ‘new’ money in support of rapid response and forgotten crises.

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