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History or Understanding the History of Poverty
Simply joining the throb to make poverty history will never be sufficient
to banish injustice, writes Issa Shivji. Rather, in order to make poverty
history, the history of poverty must be understood.
The GG8 (Geldof & Group of 8) fanfare in Gleneagles, Scotland is
over. Its slogan was `Make Poverty History`. Originally this was the slogan of
well-meaning NGOs and concerned young people who could not stomach the
outrageous poverty of millions in the South existing side by side with the
filthy wealth of a tiny minority on this planet.
The richest 225 people in the world own a combined wealth equal to the
annual income of almost half the population of the earth. 1.2 billion of
humanity exists in subhuman conditions at less than a dollar a day when 4 per
cent of the wealth of these filthy rich 225 persons would be sufficient to pay
the additional costs to achieve and maintain universal access to basic
education, health care, maternity care, adequate food, safe water and sanitation
for the whole human race.
The statistics are not new. They have been well known. Now even the
perpetrators of the system which produces and reproduces this inhuman system
quote them – of course for their own purpose.
But as these things go, the politicians of the system (euphemistically
called globalisation) co-opted the slogan. The fun-idols of the well-meaning but
naïve, privileged youth of the North were accommodated as the likes of Geldof
were knighted by the queen and appointed to Blair’s Africa Commission to rub
shoulders with the presidents of the African poor.
The point is that while it is necessary to campaign to Make Poverty
History and shame the shameless classes of exploiters and oppressors and win
over the uncommitted, it is not sufficient. To make poverty history, we must
understand the history of poverty.
Poverty is neither our fate nor God-given. It did not and has not existed
from time immemorial. It was not invented by the West either. It was created by
them, who invaded our countries and imposed their system which continues to
siphon off resources from the continent.
The history of the plunder and pillage of the African continent through
the slave trade and colonialism; neo-colonialism and imperialism is known -
although these days not taught in our schools since they have become
“international” academies. If this was only history, we could have perhaps
forgiven, although, not forgotten. But it is not just history. It is our
present. New forms of slavery and colonialism and imperialism packaged and
labelled in different forms continue unabated.
The mainstream media and politicians including our globalisation-friendly
presidents and prime ministers continue to beg for forgiveness of debt and go
round with a begging bowl to alleviate poverty. Yes, indeed, even preparation of
Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) comes as a condition of aid. And as a
further condition of aid we hire 1000-dollar a day consultants to help us draft
those papers, all part of “aid”.
Meanwhile, we shower praises and send congratulatory messages to Mr Tony
Blair for taking upon himself to chit-chat with his fellow G8’s on African
What is in there for the Blairs, Browns and Bushes of this world at this
time to Brownwash (courtesy World Development Movement, WDM) African aid, debt
and poverty? As I said, there are many a well-intentioned people in the North
who have been campaigning to Make Poverty History. But also there are those –
who are usually painted by the mainstream media with the brush of anti-this or
anti-that minority “bent on violence” - who have and are going beyond it to
understand the history and politics of poverty.
Martin Curtis, the head of WDM and a well-known British historian, says
that the British Government has a political and an economic goal behind taking
up the question of African poverty. The political goal is to maintain a big
power status for Britain. “This boils down to invading a country from time to
time, retaining nuclear weapons to make sure we can obliterate most of the world
several times over, and professing our total support for US foreign
“The economic goal is to organise the global economy, and particular
regions, so that the Middle East, southern Africa and South East Asia work in
the interests of Western and British corporations.” Only ignoramuses would
challenge this analysis.
The neo-liberal policies thrust upon African countries are clearly to
integrate the continent further in the web of exploitative relationships and
thus profit from the enormous resources of the continent. The US has now
significantly moved its attention to Africa’s oil, as Middle East sources become
more unstable due to the political resistance of the Arab masses which continue
to simmer to a boiling point.
Britain’s interest is to develop African markets not only to dump its
goods but also to sell services, the so-called invisibles. It thus firmly
supports the privatisation and commoditization of water, energy, heath care,
education, and land. We have had a taste of what this means for the “poor” in
British secret Foreign Office file from 1968 says: “We should bend our energies
to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income
from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper.”
In effect therefore it should not come as a surprise to anybody when
Blair wields the carrot of aid and debt relief with one hand, while using the
stick of World Bank-IMF-WTO rules and conditionality on liberalising and
privatising the economy, with the other.
The Geldof-type Live Aid Bands and musical shows assuage the conscience
of the wealthy inhabitants of the North while giving political legitimacy to the
military interventions and political interferences of Western leaders in the
lives and affairs of the African people – ninety per cent of whom have now been
labelled “poor” and therefore disabled to resist and fight for their own
No need to cite another string of statistics. Just one may suffice. The
2002 Human Development Report of UNDP computes that developing countries lose
more than twice in debt servicing what they get in net foreign investment, aid
and grants to NGOs combined.
The Bob Geldofs of this world need to pay heed to their fellow
campaigners like Martin Curtis when they say:
“We should not only be ratcheting up campaigning on individual issues. We
also need to unite in a campaign to fundamentally change the
Our own media and NGOs and the angry youth need to understand this
message even more and not simply get subsumed in the globalisation mania in
return for a few “trinkets” thrown on our NGO tables.
© 2005, Issa
Shivji. Issa Shivji is Professor of Law at the University of Dar es Salaam,
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