Why should Pakistan trust us?

Distrust lies at the heart of the west’s relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan -- but this is n

For western governments to lecture the likes of Pakistan about democracy and stability, as David Cameron did this morning, must seem a cruel joke to many in that country. Our part of the world has a long history of generously lending money to fuel violence, prop up undemocratic, often brutal regimes and exacerbate poverty.

Pakistan is a country with only 54 per cent literacy, and where 38 per cent of small children are underweight, yet it spends nearly $3bn a year servicing debts -- almost three times what the government spends on health.

Loans have flowed freely into Pakistan in order to keep favoured military governments in power, most recently that General Pervez Musharraf, when Pakistan's debt increased from $32bn to $49bn.

A recent $7.6bn International Monetary Fund loan, needed so that the country can keep paying off its old debts, is conditioned on reducing budget deficits, eliminating electricity subsidies and increasing indirect taxation. As usual, ordinary people will pay for the west's "largesse" that kept in power governments subservient to western interests.

Such injustice doesn't stop at Pakistan. Consider Indonesia, where 61 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day. Like with India, as David Cameron reminded us this morning, fighting poverty in Indonesia will be central to the success of the Millennium Development Goals. But just like India, this seems a second-order priority compared to selling scores of Hawk fighter jets to the country.

Indonesia still owes the UK over $500m for Hawk jets and other military equipment sold to the brutal General Suharto. Suharto was guilty of crimes against humanity by any standard, killing up to a million political activists in his first year in office.

Today, Indonesia pays over $2.5m every hour to service its $150bn debts -- much run up by Suharto. Is it surprising if Indonesians think their lives matter less than the financial and strategic interests of the west?

Afghanistan has been rushed through the debt cancellation process to prevent any embarrassing examination of past lending, but has been forced to privatise its banks and will doubtless return to the same state of heavy indebtedness in years to come -- it serves the government, which needs the finances to hold on to power, and it serves the west, which needs the debts to keep control after the soldiers leave.

Control of these countries can be maintained through this same, deeply unjust economic system, through playing one faction off against another, through fighting when everything else fails to work. Democracy, stability and trust, however, require something far bolder, but not impossible.

It is possible to stop lending in such deeply unjust ways. It is possible to cancel debts based on loans that should never have been lent. It is possible to stop forcing countries to pay what they are unable to afford, or to force them to make their economies work in our interests simply because we can.

As repayments on deeply toxic debts continue to drain Muslim countries of their wealth, we need to realise that the debts, or reparations, if you prefer, that our governments owe the Muslim world are vast and rising. Trust will not be possible until they are paid.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign's "Fuelling Injustice: the Impact of Third World Debt on Muslim Countries" is available at

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.