Mark Steel: It's easy to solve world poverty

When the IMF comes round, the whole country should turn off the lights and hide behind the sofa
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The Independent Online

Solving the problems of Africa shouldn't be tricky - it's world leaders who make it complicated. Whenever it's an issue, a senator will make a statement such as: "It's economically naive to imagine you can make someone better off just by giving them money."

Solving the problems of Africa shouldn't be tricky - it's world leaders who make it complicated. Whenever it's an issue, a senator will make a statement such as: "It's economically naive to imagine you can make someone better off just by giving them money."

And this will be said in a fatherly tone that suggests "We know best what's good for Africa."

When they deal with an area struck by famine, their advice will be: "You won't make the land wet just by pouring water on it." Just as Vice President Dick Cheney was opposed to releasing Nelson Mandela from jail. He probably said: "You won't solve the problem of Mandela being in jail just by letting him out of jail."

Spokesmen from organisations with names like "The Inter-Galactic Forum for Fiscal Enrichingment" appear on Newsnight, with the White House in the background. And with the intonations of an automated banking service they'll say: "If we just give these countries money, the evidence is they will fritter it away.

"But by binding the aid to a series of trade agreements, we ensure they will spend it wisely, on paying back the interest on the money we loaned them last month."

Then they inform us Africa causes its own problems as they worship megalomaniacs who waste their vast wealth on extravagant monuments designed to make their own tribe feel self-important, whereas they need dynamic Western businessmen such as Roman Abramovich.

New Labour ideology tries to apply kind motives to the idolisation of the free market. Blair seems to believe it when he says we can only invest in transport and hospitals by involving big business. Similarly, he enthuses about solving poverty in Africa by encouraging free enterprise. Maybe he'll stand on the lawn at Gleneagles and announce a sponsorship scheme, in which countries are offered three-year deals to become "Vodafone Rwanda".

And the continent will be given the opportunity to exploit the marketing potential of its famines. A brochure will be produced exclaiming "Every night for several weeks, these events are broadcast round the world. But up to now, no one has maximised this massive capacity for substantiating their market brand. Next year, as everyone is queuing for rice at a Red Cross camp, why not get dress them in a shirt that says: 'This drought is being brought to your home by Norwich Union - saving up for your rainy day'."

Or Blair might broadcast a television advert across Africa that says: "Why not consolidate all your debt into one easy monthly payment? Mr G of Tanzania says: 'When my whole province died of malaria because we couldn't afford the basic medicine, I couldn't sleep with the worry. But then I found Easy Direct Debts in One Basket, and after one simple phone call they sold us off to Shell. Now I can enjoy all the gurgling of a pipeline running through my very own village.' (Clients are advised life expectancy can go down as well as up)."

As the G8 leaders are under pressure on the issue, they're sure to make proposals on debt, but they can't escape the logic that insists every action must result in profit. This is why Nigeria, for example, has borrowed $17bn, paid back $18bn, but now owes $34bn. Or why $15bn of last year's US aid was tied to regulations insisting the indebted countries bought specific drugs from US companies.

Or why the IMF instructed Zambia that in order to qualify for a debt cancellation scheme, they would have to impose a pay freeze and make thousands of teachers unemployed. And as the IMF is a bank, they probably charged Zambia a further 18 quid for the letter informing them of this as well.

So many people find this situation abhorrent that the main story of the G8 summit is not now about the world leaders, but of all those who will protest against them. Sinisterly powerful bodies, such as the IMF and the World Bank, have had to adapt their policies to acknowledge campaigns like this. In some cases, such as the movement to force drugs companies to make Aids medicine accessible to the poor of South Africa, the multinationals have been compelled into making huge concessions.

At Gleneagles, world leaders will pontificate on the conundrum of how to curtail poverty, when they'll all be aware that the annual US budget for the military currently runs at $420bn. If the will was there, sorting out the poverty would not be hard.

But the solutions offered by G8 will be no more use than the "help" offered by the gas board when you're behind with the bills. Maybe someone will ring from a call centre to say: "Hello, is that Botswana? This is Maureen from Allied Credit Ltd. Just a friendly call to say you're behind on your payments, I can take a Visa or Delta payment now, or we can recall your vaccine for measles."

So the most useful advice to Africa would be to try traditional methods of evading debt. When the IMF come round for their payments, the whole country should turn off the lights and hide behind a settee. Maybe one person could wander past and say to the IMF bailiff: "Who you looking for, mate? Ghana? Phhhh, haven't seen it round here for years, mate, I think they moved away."

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