We have more power than we think

There is such a thing as a moral universe. So said Gordon Brown six months ago as the UK prepared to take over the chair of the Group of Eight industrialised nations. If the dignity of anyone, child or adult, is diminished by poverty, or debt, or unfair trade, we are all diminished, Brown said. Who can argue with that? The politics of stirring words raises our hopes and, inevitably, our frustration and anger. A year from now, how will we look back at the events of July 2005? Will we have even less respect for our prime ministers, presidents and rock stars? Will anything really have changed?

It is one of the myths of modern discourse that globalisation has denuded national governments of power, that multinational corporations and capital flows alone dictate policy. From tax evasion to the environmental damage caused by the aviation industry and on to commodity tariffs, individual nation states claim they cannot act except in unison. As one country refuses to yield, so the excuses conveniently accumulate.

Nowhere are the cowardice and hypocrisy of international affairs more evident than with the arms trade. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs - no enemy of the free market, he - wrote recently, the US will this year spend $500bn on its armed forces. US aid to Africa stands at only $3bn, or two days of the annual military budget. Attempts to tighten anti- corruption rules in the arms trade were watered down in the UK. Weapons manufacturers offer kickbacks as a matter of routine; the poorer the recipient country the more it is awash with arms; the greater the number of arms, the less stable the regime; the less stable the regime, the less likely it is to qualify for debt relief. It does not take a genius to spot the pernicious circle.

When it comes to the most difficult issues, you can count on a fudge from world leaders. A statement by G8 foreign ministers after a meeting on 23 June talked of developing a "common understanding" of governments' responsi- bilities as a "an important step in tackling the undesirable proliferation of conventional arms". They agreed on the "need for the world to build a consensus for further action". In other words, zilch. The G8 accounts for 84 per cent of all arms exports. The UK is the second-largest supplier. In one of his first decisions on taking office in 2001, President Bush instructed his negotiators to prevent any progress at the United Nations in limiting the spread of small arms, particularly to poor countries.

None of this will be debated at Gleneagles. Still more conspicuous by its absence will be any meaningful discussion of the true cause of injustice, the $300bn of subsidies that allow producers from the so-called developed world to flood Africa with their surplus goods, driving the fragile indigenous economies further into the mire.

In recent weeks, the New Statesman has sought to highlight these and other iniquities. This week we devote the entire front half of the magazine to the G8 summit, drawing on voices from around the world to suggest solutions, large and small. Moeletsi Mbeki argues powerfully (page 12) that foreign aid has impeded Africa's development. Michela Wrong (page 15) suggests that the improvements in governance on which Tony Blair's Commission for Africa depended for answers have not emerged as hoped. But there is more.

The story of IMF, World Bank and western-government involvement in Africa over the past 50 years is one of almost unmitigated failure. Now Brown insists (Interview, page 36) that the "structural adjustment" mania of the international lending organisations is over. Conditions will continue to be attached to financial support, but these, the Chancellor claims, are less ideologically driven and more sensitive to local needs. He calls it a "pro-poor policy". If only that were the case. If only the poor were not made to pay for basic healthcare and education. If only countries were allowed to diversify instead of relying on single-commodity production channelled through multinational companies.

It is relatively easy for governments to deliver aid and debt relief, whatever the conditions. Politically, the harder task is fundamentally to change the way we do business. This requires governments, meek when they choose to be, to take on the corporate lobbies, from oil to arms.

We citizens are also to blame. We, too, profess powerlessness as justification for inaction. We, too, preach far more - on the environment and poverty reduction - than we ever practise. Yet it is possible, just possible, that the millions disengaged from conventional politics are finding a new purpose. Global injustice and climate change are now established as mainstream concerns, leaving mainstream politicians struggling to catch up. There is a danger in this new-found "respectability" of hijacking the moral purpose and diluting the aims. That should not, however, be a deterrent to action.

Some of the solutions are closer than people think. There is much the UK government could do on its own, as a first step: reach the 0.7 per cent target for aid next year, not in 2013; return to the original Kyoto targets we set ourselves only to back away from them; enforce much stricter ethical guidelines for our corporations working in the developing world; and stop subsidising our oversized, inefficient arms industry.

None of this will happen at Gleneagles. The eight leaders may make a little more progress on aid and debt relief. Something is better than nothing. So this should be just the start. Whether or not the issue is forgotten a year from now depends largely on us. Politicians will profess powerlessness only if we project complacency.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act