Global response could provide breakthrough in poverty relief

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The Independent Online

The unprecedented and worldwide public response to the tsunami disaster may help make 2005 a breakthrough year in tackling world poverty, senior figures in aid agencies believe.

The unprecedented and worldwide public response to the tsunami disaster may help make 2005 a breakthrough year in tackling world poverty, senior figures in aid agencies believe.

They feel it will show politicians there is a real constituency of people in the rich countries who care about poverty, and will increase pressure on them to act.

The coming year is crucial for poverty relief, above all in Africa, because Britain is putting the problem at the top of two international agendas, those of the G8 group of rich nations and of the European Union. In 2005 the UK will, uniquely, be chairing both bodies and Tony Blair is determined they should make progress on the three issues of aid, trade and debt relief.

Large-scale emergency debt relief to the Asian nations hit by the tsunami is now being discussed by G8 member states, but it is unlikely that this will divert ambitious plans to reduce African countries' debt. On the contrary, the Asian tragedy may well be a spur to further effort.

"A key thing to me about the tsunami disaster is that the public have led on the response, and they have pushed the Government's response," said Richard Miller, director of Action Aid UK. "The current Make Poverty History campaign is about mobilising the public to put pressure on politicians to act, and I think what has happened will show the G8 leaders that many people care about global poverty, and there is a real constituency there."

Anna Macdonald, campaigns director for Oxfam, said she also felt that the disaster could create a climate in which there was a greater public demand for poverty relief.

"Millions of people have had TV images of how poor people live catapulted into their homes," she said. "We've had thousands and thousands of calls, and when you talk to people you realise they do understand how in a disaster like this, poverty makes everything worse. They see a real connection with people suffering on the other side of the world, and if enough of them are clamouring for their governments to act, we do have a real potential for substantial breakthroughs on major trade, debt and environmental issues that we haven't had before."

Debt relief is expected to be a key element in long-term efforts to tackle the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, and the issue is likely to be raised by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, at the next meeting of the Paris Club of creditor nations later this month.

Damian Milverton, spokesman for the World Bank, said: "There is definitely going to be consideration of debt relief in reconstruction plans that are going ahead. James Wolfensohn [president of the World Bank] expects the donors to consider the best ways to help and he considers debt relief one of the tools."

But while the French and German governments have proposed that it should be substantial, UK Treasury sources insisted that talks were at an early stage and any debt relief could take a number of forms. Proposals put forward by the Canadians, for example, involve a moratorium on debt repayments, but no cancellation of debts.

The Treasury is anxious to ensure that any funds channelled into tsunami debt relief or long-term aid is "new money" to avoid cutting aid to Africa.

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