Focus: Can the celebrity super-rich really make poverty history?

Not on their own, no. But three million other Britons are also wearing white bands in support of the campaign that inspired Bob Geldof to plan Live8. So what do they want, and what makes them think they can persuade world leaders to agree? Katy Guest finds out
Click to follow
Indy Politics

This is all Bob Geldof's idea, isn't it?

This is all Bob Geldof's idea, isn't it?

No, although it is the inspiration for the Live8 concerts he is holding on 2 July, which have received so much attention. Madonna, Robbie Williams and U2 are among the superstars performing in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Philadelphia. But 20 years after Live Aid, Geldof doesn't want our money. He wants to influence the decisions that will be made when the heads of the G8 countries meet in Scotland the following week. And the reason he wants to influence them is that he is a supporter of a campaign called Make Poverty History.

Geldof and his famous friends - there are wild rumours that everyone from the Spice Girls to Pink Floyd and Tony Blair's old university band will re-form for Live8 - are only the glittering tip of an enormous iceberg. Since it started a year ago, Make Poverty History has grown into a coalition including 463 organisations, from Unicef to the TUC. Its members are global charities and local faith groups, rockers and girl guides, British luvvie lefties and the American religious right. In this country, more than three million people are already wearing the white bands that are the symbol of the campaign.

The only things all these people really have in common are that they are horrified by the status quo and convinced that something can be done to put it right. Geldof supports the campaign but is not in charge of it.

So where did the campaign come from?

Calls for rich countries to give the poor a chance by cancelling crippling debt repayments began in the late 1990s. Campaigners formed human chains in 1998 to persuade the G8 to act. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, already sympathetic and emboldened by the scale of public support, lobbied hard for debt relief. However, the international results were disappointing. As the anniversary of Live Aid approached, activists decided to try again. They included the writer Richard Curtis, who used campaign footage from Africa in his New Year edition of The Vicar of Dibley. By the time the sitcom finished, his characters were converts to Make Poverty History. So were many of the eight million viewers. After the programme, visits to the campaign website went from 150 every 60 seconds to 17,500 per minute. Sales of white bands soared.

"Thirty years from now," said Richard Curtis, "our children will be saying there was a holocaust and nobody thought it was worth bothering about." Every day, 30,000 children die because they are poor, he says.

That is one every three seconds. For the rich countries to double their aid would cost each of us about the price of a pint of lager per year.

What does the campaign want?

Three things: trade justice, the cancellation of debts owed by poor countries and more and better aid. Britain hosts the G8 summit - the annual gathering of Britain, France, the US, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia - in Gleneagles in Scotland on 6 July. The campaign is trying to persuade the heads of these nations to drop the unpayable debts of the world's poorest countries, immediately and without imposing crippling economic conditions. Debt repayments cost Africa more than £5.5bn a year. That's £7 per citizen, in a continent whose citizens live on an average 60p a day.

The campaign also wants rich countries to double the aid they give to poor ones - also without conditions. The G8 countries have already promised to provide 0.7 per cent of their joint national income in aid; they must now set a date by which to do that.

The final target is "trade justice": ensuring that producers are paid fair rates for their goods, and that developing countries can trade with richer ones without crippling restrictions. This would then allow governments of poor countries to choose their own solutions to poverty.

Poverty will never really be history, so isn't this all hopelessly naive?

"There will always be some people poorer than others," says campaign chairman Richard Bennett, "but abject poverty of the kind that kills a child every three seconds is solvable by the right aid and trade conditions."

If I want to support the campaign, what do I do?

This is not like Live Aid: they do not want your money. They want your voice. Make Poverty History is about persuading eight men on 6 July that their citizens really want them to end poverty. The easiest way to show your support is with a white band. The campaign website shows you where to get one, as well as how to email and write to world leaders and tell them what you think.

Make Poverty History is holding a massive, peaceful rally in Edinburgh on 6 July. "The G8 leaders have it in their power to make history," says Bob Geldof. "We've never been wealthier. We know what it costs. Do it."

'If money is spent, life will be better. It's simple'

Richard Curtis, founder of Comic Relief, on how he persuaded Bob Geldof to stage Live8

The first time I remember getting involved with Make Poverty History was at a meeting at the Treasury, with the president of the World Bank, former Archbishop Carey, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Bob Geldof, Bono by videophone ... I remember emerging with the feeling that on the anniversary of Live Aid there would be the perfect opportunity for a meeting of the stars for a breakthrough on poverty. I mean the heavenly stars, not the pop stars. If things are not wrenched around this year, they will just become dreams and dust.

Of course, nothing is now or never: I still believe I have a chance of getting into the Rolling Stones - if they all die. But the next G8 is in Russia; certainly it will be five years before people start thinking like this again.

The Pope, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama have all been asked to make their presence felt in some way, because this is such an important moral issue. We're going to put a white band around St Paul's Cathedral.

All you can do is do all you can. I haven't done anything to attempt to affect government decisions before, but it's just got to be worthwhile. Bob Geldof told me that by having tea with President Mitterand of France he probably made more money for Africa than from the whole of Live Aid.

This is not just about Africa - Comic Relief has been working in India and Peru, for example - but some of the things I see there are just beyond belief. A mother with Aids who can't afford to buy milk and is too afraid to breastfeed her baby, so the baby dies. I've just sat in room after room with girls who have Aids and are too afraid to get their babies tested because their hearts are already broken. The difference that this could make to health and education for them is huge. If more money is spent, life could be so much better. It's just such a simple thought.


Leaders of the rich world, Joyce has a message for you

Joyce Mbwilo raises both her hands, arms outstretched, towards the Tanzanian skies and declares: "We are struggling. We don't want to remain poor. If I could talk to the heads of the G8 summit I would ask them to put themselves in our shoes, walking long distances to collect water and not able to send our children to secondary school."

And Joyce knows about walking. For two decades, the 30-year-old mother of four walked for 10 hours each night to fetch water so that her family could wash, cook and clean the next day. Leaving her village of Uhambingeto at midnight with other women from the village, she would return with a heavy 20-litre bucket of water at 10 the following morning. Each year Joyce covered 5,200 miles, a total of three circuits of the globe. Life was a relentless struggle.

"We would come back very exhausted," she says. "Sometimes we would fall down in the dark on the way back and spill the water and have to go back. We had to spend more time working than sleeping because our children need water, they need food, they need to go to school."

Sitting in the shade of her home, next to this year's maize crop, half of which has already died because of erratic rainfall due to the changing climate, Joyce says life is slowly improving. The British aid agency Tearfund and the Anglican diocese of Ruaha have provided aid for water to be piped into the village. And Joyce's children now go to primary school because Tanzania's partial debt relief has meant the dropping of school fees, extra classrooms and renovation of a previously run-down local school.

Yet life remains a struggle on less than 60p a day. Secondary school will be beyond her children, says Joyce, because of the prohibitive fees. Making any kind of living is hard. The villagers have taken advice and formed a co-operative, to pool their farming tools. They are diversifying into more drought-resistant crops. But because the roads to the nearest town of Iringa are so atrocious, Joyce and her fellow villagers cannot sell the maize they do manage to grow directly. "We have no ability to get our food to market to sell because of poor roads, and no trucks visit our village. We end up relying on middlemen who are exploiting us for little or no profit on what we sell."

Full cancellation of debt by the G8 would mean her children being able to attend secondary school. New global trade rules would enable Joyce to sell goods at a fair price, and Tanzania's fledgling industries and businesses to thrive and grow. More aid, better spent, would lead to better healthcare, schools, and infrastructure, including improved roads. "We can do some things ourselves," she says, "but we still need outside help."