Clare Short promotes herself expertly in the media. She is the "rebel" in the Blair cabinet, the outspoken rough diamond opposed to "those privileged middle-class types" who challenge the diktats of the World Bank, of which she is a governor.
In truth, she is invaluable to Tony Blair, providing the illusion of a people's government in between supporting the bombing of mostly civilians in Afghanistan and abusing aid workers and others who question western policies. At the Orwellian-named Department for International Development, which she runs, her commitment to ending world poverty, outlined in numerous interviews, is demolished by one statistic. Britain gives just 0.3 per cent of GNP in aid to the poor, which is less than half the minimum laid down by the United Nations, and Short has refused to say when or if this will be increased.
Short's true commitment - to a globalised economy run by powerful, mostly western capital - is exemplified by her "development" enterprise in Ghana. Her department has told the Ghanaian government that it will get aid money for a major water project only if it effectively privatises the water supply, allowing British and other multinational corporations to make a killing.
Making a killing can be taken literally in Ghana, where more than half the people lack a regular, safe water supply and children die from water-borne diseases. Since a "private-public partnership" was announced, water bills for the poor have begun to rise sharply in order to make the water industry "competitive" so that it can be sold off. The Christian Council of Ghana says that "to privatise water is like handing down death sentences to the urban and rural poor in Ghana, because they cannot afford to pay".
Last October, Christian Aid published an impressive report, "Master or Servant", in which the chapter "Trading in white gold: who decides Ghana's water policy?" showed how British aid was still tied to profit. It revealed that Short's department had frozen funds for the expansion of the water supply in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi until all contracts for the lease of the country's water supplies were agreed. "Effectively," says Christian Aid, "the UK is withholding funds from the final phase of a project that will bring water to more people as a lever to force through a public-private partnership that may not."
On 20 March, Short wrote a standard letter to Anne Campbell MP attacking the Christian Aid study as "inaccurate and misleading", and claiming that "the UK government has no influence over the selection of private sector participants, and all water supply infrastructure will remain in public sector ownership". Neither statement is true; it is Short who is misleading us.
Five months earlier, a senior official in Short's department responsible for water privatisation wrote this in a memorandum: "In an agreement between DFID and the government of Ghana, the release of these funds was conditional on the receipt of bids for the private partnership lease contracts being received." Readers will need no reminding that "private partnerships" are the threadbare veil behind which big capital is allowed to dominate public services. Against the wishes of most Londoners, the Underground is being effectively handed to private companies who will make billions, justified by the same specious arguments as those used over water in Ghana.
Ghana's water has been taken over by the Water Sector Restructuring Secretariat which, although resident in the Ministry of Works, is funded and in effect run by the World Bank, with the UK Department for International Development and the Overseas Economic Co-operation Fund of Japan. The World Bank pays the salaries of the staff, and Short's department has given £2.8m, according to a Strathclyde University study, in "technical assistance to the privatisation process". Moreover, to advise it on regulating Ghana's new water industry, Short's department has hired the right-wing Adam Smith Institute, which believes in "corporate governance and weak regulation".
When the present government of Ghana was in opposition, it spoke out against foreign companies monopolising water; most Ghanaians with a sense of community need no convincing that only a comprehensive clean water supply will serve the majority. But such is the cancerous obsession with "free market" ideology among those who push the crumbs from the tables of the world's rich and powerful, regardless of the political masks they wear, that a country like Ghana, with a desperate need for capital, has been given little choice. The campaigners resisting the theft of a people's water, here and in Ghana, deserve our support. You can contact them on email@example.com .
John Pilger's latest book, The New Rulers of the World, is published this month by Verso