Gordon Brown: We cannot fail the challenge of tackling world poverty

The events in Haiti remind us of the desperate plight of the world's poor

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The unpredictable crises like the catastrophe in Haiti this week show once again both the fragility of life on our planet, but also the very human instinct to come to the assistance of those in need. The impact of the earthquake has been truly horrific for Haiti's people and it is a catastrophe that is still unravelling. It is a tragedy beyond imagination.

Where men and women and children are suffering under the heaviest of burdens, that place must for that moment become the centre of our world's attention, the world's compassion and the world's humanitarian help.

But we should not lose sight of our wider responsibilities to address the daily suffering of millions. The first decade of this millennium was striking for the way concern over global poverty finally captured headlines and attracted sustained political and popular attention.

In the years immediately after the breakthrough agreement on Millennium Development Goals, great strides were made and there were genuine grounds for optimism. Now a convergence of global crises – which are economic and environmental – threatens to reverse recent gains and end an era of progress when it has only just begun.

For poor countries, the climate crisis is not some abstract problem measured in terms of future generations but a stark, dangerous and pressing reality. Ecological catastrophe is already killing 1,000 people every day and a new hunger emergency looms.

While the climate crisis has been slow to build, the effects of the financial storm have been sudden and severe. Without diminishing the suffering the global recession has caused many families in the well-off world, there should be no doubt that in poorer countries it has been the grim difference between life and death.

Let me put the toll plainly. It is feared that 400,000 more children will die each and every year and millions more who would otherwise be on the path to learning will grow up unable to read and write.

So faced with two grievous and simultaneous challenges, I believe that the 12 months of 2010 will be as decisive as the 10 years of the last decade. Our mission must be both to deliver past pledges and pursue new ways to answer climate change and overcome the economic constraints that could imprison hundreds of millions in permanent poverty and despair.

First, we must stay the course to make poverty history. Britain will not only keep our aid promises in 2010, we will exceed them. That is why today, the UK is publishing draft legislation that would make it the first country in the world to give a permanent guarantee we will reach and maintain the United Nations aid target of 0.7 per cent. I hope this will find all-party support and I encourage the Conservative party to rethink their opposition to what would be historic legislation. Of course, aid alone is not the whole solution. But with revenues falling and demand for services increasing in developing countries, aid can play an irreplaceable role in keeping schools and hospitals open and providing a vital safety net for the destitute.

The terrible events in Haiti this week also remind us of the need not just for development assistance but humanitarian relief to save lives in emergencies. The UK has already sent specialist teams and pledged £6m to help kick-start the aid effort – we know that much more will be needed as we move from relief to recovery.

Second, given the scale of the challenges, we must find new and innovative sources of finance to fight poverty and climate change. We have already generated billions of pounds by selling bonds and from public donations, but I am convinced that more is practical as well as possible.

The IMF, for example, is looking at how the financial sector can contribute more towards paying for the burdens of government intervention, including a global financial transactions tax which could raise substantial revenues if the details can be addressed.

Third, we must ensure that developing countries not only deal with the crises but invest in the future. As in the UK, investing in education is critical to future growth. That's why I'll be working with Sepp Blatter from Fifa and President Zuma of South Africa who have vowed to make education for all the legacy of the first World Cup in Africa through the 1-Goal campaign.

Fourth, we must encourage the capacity of developing countries to grow their own way out of poverty. There is, through the G20, a new opportunity to pursue global growth that includes and benefits low-income economies.

This year, we have all the international means that we could wish for to embed progress and account for the pledges we undertook at Gleneagles at the climax of the Make Poverty History campaign. Most crucial is the UN Poverty Summit in September, where I believe we must agree a substantive global action plan – underpinned by specific national commitments – that sets out clearly how we will achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

To build momentum, we must build high level political resolve early. 2010 is a test of the world's concern for the poorest – and their faith in us. In conscience and in our own self-interest, for their sake and ours, we dare not fail. We must act now to give the entire world back its future and its hope.

The Labour Party is launching a new campaign today to demonstrate public support for the fight to tackle poverty. Go to www.globalpovertypromise.com to show your support.

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