We achieved next to nothing

On the eve of crucial world trade talks, Noreena Hertz argues that politicians and campaigners have

It was an audacious project. To make poverty history in just one year. Yet in 2005 an unpre-cedented number of campaigners sought to do just that. From all corners of the world they came, their focus a few major summits - the EU, the UN, the World Bank and IMF meetings, the G8. Their aims: the cancellation of debt, an increase in aid and free and fair trade.

This was unprecedented. Ten million people bought white wristbands in Britain alone; an estimated three billion watched Live 8. Mainstream politicians, knowing a good thing when they saw it, sought in those countries where mobilisation was greatest to be associated with the campaign. In Britain, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair squabbled over who could do the most for Africa, while the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, claimed a "passion for trade justice". If success could be measured by the numbers that came together in the common cause, then success, it would have seemed, was certain.

But of course the end of poverty and the numbers who support that noble aim are not one and the same. With the final date in the campaigners' diary fast approaching - the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference begins on 13 December in Hong Kong - now is the time to take stock. Beyond the rock concerts and the wristbands, what has actually been achieved?

The short answer is: depressingly little. With regard to debt, the deal, as of now, is that 18 countries will get their debts cancelled, though 62 countries desperately need it. Any subsequent debt cancellation will be conditional on countries allowing the World Bank and IMF to dictate from afar their domestic economic policies - despite the overwhelming evidence showing that these dictates have made the developing world significantly worse off. On aid, an additional $50bn a year has been promised, which at face value looks like a result. But more than half of that is either double-counted or is money already pledged. And it will be delivered only in 2010. Too little too late. On trade, the intransigence of the French over the removal of agricultural subsidies seems likely to dictate an uncompromising EU line on access to its markets at the WTO meeting. The US will be only too happy with this, as it means it will not have to make concessions (having professed a willingness to address its unfair trade policies, but only if the EU did so first). This despite the fact that these rich-country policies are costing the developing world, at the most conservative estimates, $200bn a year in lost potential sales.

If we look closer the situation is even more bleak. Countries that are to get their debts relieved will have their aid reduced by the same amount. The amounts of aid promised, even if met, are unlikely to reach those on the ground that need it. ActionAid recently reported that only about a quarter of all aid actually does so, with most of the rest ending back in the coffers of donors - or more specifically their corporations, consultants and advisers. The opening-up of markets will create losers as well as winners, but little is being done to address the concerns of those developing countries that will lose out.

Indeed, if we evaluate what is on the table by examining the impact it will have on the lives of people in the developing world - the only way to measure its success - what has been achieved is more than depressing: it's actually unconscionable. Judging by the present package, the much-touted UN Millennium Development Goals - the goals that every rich country signed up to in 2000, which include halving the numbers living in poverty and hunger by 2015 - will be met not ten years from now as promised but, it is generally acknowledged, in a hundred years instead. And although it is true that once this package is in place a child will no longer die every three seconds from poverty-related disease in Africa, as is the case at present, it is estimated that a child will die every 3.5 seconds. That is hardly progress on a scale to be applauded.

How can it be that after so much effort on the part of campaigners, after so much pomp and ceremony around the issues, so little has actually been delivered? Although part of the explanation is the unwillingness of entrenched interests to give up anything significant, I believe that much of the answer lies in the nature of the Make Poverty History campaign itself, or at least the strand of the campaign that ended up taking centre stage. Its focus was too narrow, its aims were not radical enough, the bar was set too low from the start.

It was always going to be a compromise campaign, with so many groups signed up to it - the range of beliefs, tactics and constituencies involved ensured that what was called for would be diluted. It was always going to be double-edged, signing up celebrities - a trade-off between the huge crowds of supporters they could bring in and the tempering of the political message that was needed to attract them in the first place. It was always going to be bloody hard to get governments of the north to give a damn about poverty in developing countries, especially in those places where public mobilisation was small or issues of domestic poverty were not being addressed. Such realisations encouraged a campaigning strategy of going for the low-hanging fruit rather than making demands based on what was right and just. And the insider-outsider strategy the campaign broadly accepted - a campaign that attempted to combine confrontation with collaboration - always carried the risk that certain participants and organisations would be co-opted. As indeed became the case.

Because the campaign was so compromised its results were always likely to be limited - especially as, in the quest for success and the desire to come up with a clear media message, fast progress on debt, trade and aid became the espoused goals, of themselves.

Rather, they should have been presented (and I was guilty myself on occasion) as a set of tools that could be used to address the fundamental issues that continue to underpin underdevelopment: inequity, illegitimacy and power imbalances.

The upshot of this was profound. It meant that the big issues never made it into the campaign. So the question of how legitimate a system could be that had allowed poverty to become so pervasive was almost never publicly raised. The power imbalances implicit in today's political economic order were barely challenged, and the need to ensure that those on the margins would have the opportunity to participate in the process and share in the outcome was never stressed strongly enough. For the sake of simplifying the message, for the sake of getting more people on board, for the sake of not appearing too radical and of maintaining unity in its own ranks, the campaign, or more specifically those within the campaign who captured the media space, made serious omissions.

If we are determined to make poverty history we must now address these omissions. A new campaign is needed for 2006, one with three principles at its heart: justice, empowerment and accountability.

A focus on justice would entail, for example, a push for a process that uses arbitration tribunals to identify and cancel illegitimate debts, such as loans knowingly made to tyrannical dictators who were never going to use them in the interests of their people. It will also involve demanding the creation of a mechanism for the repatriation of money stolen by corrupt regimes, the billions of dollars in offshore bank accounts that by right should be sent home. This will mean pushing our governments to put pressure on the big banks. The focus on justice will mean, too, a push for comprehensive and far-reaching redistributive polices, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that those who are disproportionately gaining from globalisation pay for this privilege when the privilege is to the detriment of others. And it will mean putting pressure on the World Bank and IMF to allow countries to determine their own economic policies, a freedom that was not denied any of the rich countries of today when they were on their development paths.

But a call for justice must stand alongside a call for empowerment. This requires the active seeking-out of practical policies to ensure that money and opportunity flow to those in developing countries who most need them. In some cases this will mean acknowledging that the state is not the appropriate transfer mechanism for aid funds (because it is too corrupt, or too unrepresentative) and coming up with alternative means to disburse such flows. And it should be the south's civil society organisations that take the lead.

It also means acknowledging that we must push for a much more comprehensive range of tools than simply debt relief, market access and aid. These will include some that may be perceived as radical: the international community must put developing countries under pressure to safeguard the rights of their workers to form and join trade unions.

A legal aid fund should be set up and bankrolled by countries of the north, so that individuals and communities, wherever they are, can hold to account corporations or governments for infringements of health, safety and environmental standards. And any additional transfers must come with the condition that people have access to healthcare and education regardless of their race, gender or faith.

Good governance has become the buzzword of the international community, yet none of these factors is used to measure whether governance is good. The campaign must work to change that.

Finally, the new campaign must focus on accountability. This means seeking to put mechanisms in place to ensure that the governments of the north make good on their pledges, or at least shaming them into doing so. Such action is especially important given that only a few weeks after announcing at the G8, amid much fanfare, that they would do all they could to address the HIV/Aids pandemic, the world's richest countries stumped up only half the money needed for the 2006 budget of the Global Fund to Fight Aids. It means having clear guidelines in place to regulate new lending, so that governments are not able to bankroll the often inappropriate projects they financed in the past. It means putting pressure on the governments of the south to distribute dividends equitably among their populations, so they can deliver on their development pledges - which in turn means moving towards making mandatory schemes such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, under which oil, gas and mining companies publish what they are paying to governments.

And it means forcing corporations to publish their ethical and environmental strategies - something the British government was promoting until late last month, when Gordon Brown announced that a requirement which had been scheduled to come into effect in April was no more. UK campaigners, using the language of accountability, need to push the government to reverse this U-turn.

Make Poverty History was an audacious project. But that is not why it has so far failed. It has failed because the campaign's design allowed it to accept inappropriate markers for success that were never real proxies for justice, empowerment or accountability. And also because its demands were never in fact audacious enough. Let 2006 be the year that changes that.

Where we stand

What has been done:

- Aid increase of $50bn by 2010 has been promised - an increase that could save the lives of five million children by 2010.
- $40bn of debt cancelled for 18 of the world's poorest nations. Initiative liberates $1.5bn for these countries annually, which can now be used for public services and poverty alleviation.
- EU has promised to put an end to its crippling export subsidies.

What has not been done:

- If the $50bn aid boost had an immediate rather than incremental effect, it could have lifted 300 million people out of poverty in five years.
- No cancellation of debt for desperately poor countries such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Kenya, among others.
- No official end date for the scrapping of damaging subsidies.

What will be discussed in Hong Kong:

- Market access: free traders want either an end to quotas, or substantial increases in quotas, so they can export their goods to different countries.
- Domestic support: there are demands for an end to direct payments to farmers to produce goods.
- Export subsidies: Tony Blair has pledged to lead the push for a set date to end these.
- Services: push for the lifting of restrictions on the services sector.
- "Singapore" issues: demands from some of the rich nations for more transparent laws and better legal protection for trading companies.