Pity the financiers in the heart of darkness

It's the people of Africa who are being ripped off.

There is a deep rooted and pernicious view, amongst those claiming to want to "help" Africa that proves difficult to shake. It says that Africa's impoverishment can be laid primarily at the door of a group of corrupt leaders. The solution, it says, is not to stop giving aid – after all we Europeans have a mission to help those less fortunate, whether their fault or not – but to impose heavy conditions on any aid we provide and any debt we cancel. The implication is that Africans are unable to govern themselves, and that we, who have centuries more experience of running things to a certain standard, need to save them from themselves.

This is the basic argument put forward by Eric Joyce MP ("Congo's victory against a 'vulture fund' is hollow", The Guardian, 19 July). Joyce is right that vulture funds form part of a much bigger picture of looting. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth stopping shady hedge funds profiteering from the odious debts of Congo on the grounds that Congo's leaders will be unable to use that money properly anyway. Congo's problems do not, according to Joyce, arise from decades – centuries – of the most horrible exploitation the world has ever witnessed, but from greedy national leaders who actually need to do more to encourage Western financiers into the country to help them use their resources more efficiently.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has certainly not had the governments it deserves. But we do not have to go back even to one of the most brutal colonial regimes of the nineteenth century to discover why. In 1960 Congo's first democratic Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated with the help of the American and Belgian secret services. Brought to power was one of the most corrupt leaders Africa has ever seen – Mobutu Sese Seko.

Mobutu's corruption was actively supported by his paymasters in the West. When an International Monetary Fund mission to Congo (then Zaire) in 1982 documented the extent of Mobutu's corruption, telling creditors there was 'no chance of getting their money back', they proceeded to increase lending to the autocrat. Little wonder that Mobutu left a mountain of debt to his country. This is the debt that Joyce believes we – who lent the money and fuelled the corruption – should hold against the country now. Where he thinks the moral legitimacy to do this comes from is unclear.

This debt has cost DRC very dearly. Some of it was cancelled two years ago – but only after DRC spent 8 years jumping through hoops and spending $2 billion. But even this pales into significance compared to the taxes lost to DRC as multinational corporations have plundered the country of resources, paying laughable amounts of tax on their profits (Heather Stewart, "£13tn: hoard hidden from taxman by global elite", 22 July).

The idea that these companies are put off operating in DRC by the levels of corruption in the government only serves to highlight the double standards in Joyce's arguments. After all corruption takes two. It is not simply that members of Congo's elite benefit from corrupt mining deals, so do those offering the bribes and escaping their taxes. Joyce is right we should look at both sides of corruption - as we’ve done in the recent case of British development funds in the James Ibori trial in Niger delta. But it has to be seen in a wider context.

Joyce does have praise for one African government – a genuine case of the "deserving poor". One government has been good enough to deserve the generosity of the British public. That government is Rwanda, which has developed beyond all expectations since the horrendous genocide it experienced in 1994.

Certainly Rwanda has used a development technique familiar to the corporate interests Joyce appears to applaud: plunder. Rwanda has benefited hugely from plunder of Congo's resources and the continued destabilisation of DRC. It's ongoing role in DRC is a key reason for the succession of venal governments and ongoing war which DRC's people continue to suffer. As time has gone by, Rwanda's government itself has become more and more autocratic. Perhaps it is extraordinary, perhaps it is perfectly explicable that this country has become a poster child of Western "aid".

Joyce is quite right that defeating one vulture fund is going to make little difference to the people of DRC. The issues at stake are far bigger. Vultures are really just a symbol of the forces tearing at Africa's resources – the financiers and businessmen who are not, as Joyce would contend, being "ripped off" but are themselves ripping off a people who has suffered at the hands of the West for a very long time.

Nick Dearden is the director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Congolese women walk with their belongings to the border. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.