This man is desperate for food. Our answer was to spend pounds 8m so that eight world leaders (and their wives) could talk about him
Tuesday 19 May 1998
The man begging for morsels in the picture, like millions more in Africa, can expect a life that is poor, under- nourished and short. He illustrates painfully the gravity ofThird World poverty.
These are the poor peoples the debt relief campaigners had in mind when they demanded that the leaders of the world's industrialised nations cut debts owed by the poorest countries to the West.
They received a few fine words but little else from the G8 summit in Birmingham where the wining, dining and diplomacy of a handful of prime ministers and presidents cost the kind of huge sums that would have saved thousands of lives.
Birmingham, by contrast, is very happy. The summit has put the city on the map and pumped millions into its economy. The City Council estimates that the total spending on and by the summit in the city was between pounds 10m and pounds 11m. Of this, the official summit, the media and other visitors - such as the debt campaigners themselves - together spent pounds 2.6m on hotels, pounds 600,000-plus on food and drink and pounds 380,000 in shops.
The Foreign Office said its budget for the affair was pounds 8.3m, which accounts for a large chunk of the pounds 10million figure. But officials are remarkably reticent on details and yesterday refused to provide any kind of breakdown beyond saying they hoped to come in under budget. However, it can be assumed that taxpayers' money went on renting the International Convention Centre, a huge bill for policing and security and lesser costs of accommodation, entertainment, food, media facilities, renting Weston Hall for the retreat on Saturday and so forth.
Andrew Simms of Christian Aid said yesterday: "The cost of the summit could have provided a basic healthcare package for more than 1 million people in the least developed countries for a year. The summit might have been money well spent if it had delivered progress on the core issues of meeting human needs. But that was exactly what it did not do."
Take the pounds 2 that Bill Clinton's pint in the Malt House pub would have cost. Ann Pettifor, director of the Jubilee 2000 coalition of aid agencies, charities and churches campaigning for debt relief, said pounds 2 a person a year in Mozambique would save the lives of 600 children and the 15 women who die in childbirth every day. "We didn't begrudge the President his pint. But to accept the present debt relief scheme, as do Clinton and Blair, is to say it is acceptable for these women and children to die in order to pay debts," she said.
The council's leader, Theresa Stewart, said the summit had done the city a tremendous amount of good. "I have been informed that we will be very well placed when it comes to choosing a stage for future heads of state gatherings." Her deputy, Bryan Bird, added: "As a city, we raised ourself a couple of notches in esteem. We established Birmingham on the world stage."
World summitry is big business and Birmingham spent money to be ready. On top of a decade of inner-city regeneration, renovation programmes on the Council House were brought forward to help the city look its best. They planted their flower beds earlier than usual and laid on street entertainment in an pounds 800,000 programme to make sure world leaders saw the best of Birmingham. Glorious sunshine helped. And even the grass was dyed green.
Tony Blair, in his concluding summit statement, thanked the city for its "extraordinary and stunning display". He said: "There is no doubt this is now a major international centre."
The Foreign Office stresses that the Commonwealth heads of state conference in Edinburgh and the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in London in April both came in under budget. "We went to extraordinary lengths to make it a good value-for-money summit. We raised over pounds 500,000 in sponsorship," a spokeswoman said.
Rover provided a fleet of 100 vehicles and were credited as a sponsor, although the company would provide no details of what money was involved. "It's a prestige thing, obviously," a spokesman said. Canon, Fujitsu and the computer company Dell helped with photocopiers and other technical equipment for the media centre.
Both for the delegates' concert at Symphony Hall and for a parallel "people's concert", artists from Lionel Richie to Mick Hucknall of Simply Red are understood to have given their services for free.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, too, said it was "pleased" to have provided an evening's entertainment for the G8 leaders' wives. "I think it was seen as an honour," a spokeswoman said.
A consortium including the BBC welcomed the world's press with a lavish party in the Brindley Place development of bars and restaurants, in the city. The organiser Mike Owen, a Birmingham PR consultant, said: "I'd seen it done in America. Welcoming the media isn't essential, but if you've got these people here you ought to show them the city."
Everyone looked and saw that Birmingham was booming. Yet the comfortable aura of success did not embrace everyone. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth was furious at the large numbers of vehicles used to shuttle the leaders around.
And most unhappy of all were the debt relief campaigners who want greater action to reduce the debts of the world's poorest countries. They argue that the present debt relief scheme for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries is inadequate because it will not alleviate poverty. They believe it is merely concerned with getting such countries into a position where they are able to pay their debts.
Jean-Louis Sarbib, vice- president of the World Bank, told American journalists: "It's not really wiping off the debt. It's just making sure these countries remain good credit risks."
The final summit communique endorsed the relief scheme but gave no targets for getting the poorest countries to qualify for debt relief under the scheme. The commitment was even weaker than the Mauritius mandate proposed by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, last year, which called for three-quarters of the poorest countries to be embraced by the scheme by 2000.
Jessica Woodroffe, of the World Development Movement, said: "If Tony Blair had got the G8 to commit to a meaningful package of debt cancellation, he would have made his mark as a world leader and touched the lives of millions." The event had turned into exactly the talking shop he said he wanted to avoid, she added.
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