Paul Vallely: So, Bob, what did you really achieve?

The cynics say the Live8 concert a year ago helped only a few old rockers. Paul Vallely, who was closely involved in the project, tells a different story
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The Independent Online

So what did it all achieve? A year ago 250,000 people marched in Edinburgh as the leaders of the rich world met in Gleneagles. Millions of others had campaigned through 504 organisations under the banner Make Poverty History. Across the world, 150 million more had joined the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. The 10 simultaneous Live8 concerts had been seen by 3.4 billion people. It constituted the biggest political lobby in human history.

But was it all a waste of time?

You could be forgiven for thinking so from the response of many in the immediate aftermath of Gleneagles. "The people roared and in response the G8 has whispered," said the chair of the Global Call, Kumi Naidoo, immediately after the G8 deal was announced. Many aid agencies offered similar verdicts.

A year on, however, there has been an interesting shift. The external evaluation commissioned by Make Poverty History recently reported that the majority view in the aid world was that the initial response was overly critical and failed to acknowledge that any positive progress had been made.

Individual websites reveal nuanced changes. Even the World Development Movement - the most hysterical outriders of the aid lobby who characterised Gleneagles as "a disaster for the world's poor" - now describe the debt deal as "a good step forward". More level-headed agencies such as Oxfam report from the field that there has already been "real improvement in the lives of some of the world's poorest people".

Before examining that, it is worth registering something else - a sea-change in social and political consciousness which, just two years ago, would have seemed impossible. The key difference between Live Aid and Live8 was that the first called for charity but the second for justice. It was a transition that campaigners like me had been trying to engineer for 20 years. Now the message - for which the report of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa had provided the intellectual underpinning - could be heard being talked about by parents at the school gates. After just six months the UK population had got the idea that this wasn't a problem you could solve by writing a cheque. It's about structures and governments. "Justice not charity," was Bono's cry at the opening of Live8.

It was a Live Aid moment for the next global generation. In the UK, awareness was already high. But Middle America was deaf to the need for justice for the world's poor. Campaigns were small in France, Germany and Canada. They were non-existent in Japan and Russia. Live8 changed that.

In the UK, there has been a sense of anti-climax after Gleneagles. Not elsewhere. The activism spurred by Live8 has been growing apace with young people understanding that idealism matters and if they get involved, they can change the world. The One Campaign in the US now has two million members from the internet generation, actively lobbying the White House and Congress. The 4.5 million Hottokenai coalition has produced Japan's first aid increase for years. Russian activists are planning high-profile demonstrations in the run-up to next month's G8 in St Petersburg.

The politicians have clocked this political shift. In the last UK election, the key coalition demands were endorsed in the manifestos of all parties. In the US, George Bush has doubled the aid budget. Before the Italian elections, Prodi made a public promise to Bob Geldof that he will get Italy's aid budget from 0.14 per cent of GDP to 0.56 per cent in five years. In the UK, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, looking for issues to bring his party closer to mainstream concerns, has chosen development as one of them. We may be cynical about politicians' sincerity but we can rely on their populist antennae.

So have they delivered in the three key areas of debt, aid and trade? The picture is mixed.

They have done best on debt. The agreement to cancel 100 per cent of the multilateral debts owed by the world's poorest countries was ground-breaking. Until now, politicians argued that only partial cancellation was needed, to bring debts down to a level where countries could carry on paying. Justice, for such unfair debts, insisted on total cancellation. The change came thanks to a private two-hour meeting between Bush and Blair, with no note-takers present, who argued the case for what was a massive ideological wrench for the Americans. Later, Chancellor Schröder visited Bush and said to him, "Blair's going over the top with all this Africa stuff." Bush laughed, "Yeah, he's a pain in the ass", but he did what the British politician asked.

This January, the IMF debt relief kicked in. The World Bank part comes in on 1 July. It frees up $1bn a year (rising to $1.7bn by 2010) for at least 18 countries. The fruits of this are evident already. From March, basic health care has been made free in Zambia. Ghana is building new feeder roads for poor farmers. Tanzania has bought food for 3.7 million drought-hit people. Nigeria has hired 150,000 more teachers. There are similar stories to tell in a dozen other countries.

More could be done. More countries could be added. The sometimes damaging economic conditions attached to loans should be removed. But this is a major achievement.

On aid, things are more mixed. The G8 promise was to double aid with an extra $48bn a year by 2010. To achieve this, EU members have committed to raising their spending to 0.56 per cent of GDP by 2010, with Africa as top priority. This was more than even the most optimistic agency expected two years ago. Today, aid has increased massively, by 37 per cent over its 2004 levels. But this is not as good as it looks, because 80 per cent of the rise is made up of one-off debt cancellation deals for Iraq and Nigeria. Strip that out and Europe's aid isn't growing at a rate that will allow the Gleneagles pledges to be met. A change of gear is needed.

Even so, the aid rises are bearing some fruit on the ground. The UK has doubled its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Last month, the rich world asked Third World governments to draw up detailed spending plans on Aids, with the promise that every decent plan would be funded. One million HIV-infected people in poor countries now have access to treatment. (Six million more need it.) By the end of 2006, we should be able to say that the spread of polio has stopped in all countries except Nigeria, where it will probably take another year. A $4bn International Finance Facility for Immunisation has been launched which will save 10 million lives. The French plan for a levy for the Third World on all air tickets has got off the ground.

But the campaign on trade has been an almost total failure. There were some token gestures. The Hong Kong trade talks finally agreed to scrap export subsidies. But that is just 5 per cent of the total subsidy to rich world farmers with which Africa's poor farmers cannot compete. And though the G8 promised to stop compelling Third World nations to restructure their economies, in practice nothing has changed. Optimists say there is a glimmer of hope to break the deadlock within the next three weeks, but the rich world wants the poor to cut their tariffs by 70 per cent - while offering to cut their own by a mere 25 per cent.

The tragedy is that changes in trade rules would benefit the poor world more than a quintupling of aid would.

A major report on the G8 pledges, detailing progress country-by-country, compiled by independent experts, will be published by Data (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa), Geldof and Bono's organisation, on Thursday.

The fight is not over. Some critics of the Make Poverty History movement seem to think that all that was required was for the G8 to get together, agree, get their chequebooks out and then move on to the next thing. This misunderstands the processes of international finance which involve the funding of successions of individual initiatives. Making poverty history is a series of marathons not a single goal-scoring moment.

And it is political. Getting the debt deal through the IMF and World Bank involved a good deal of big-power bullying of smaller rich countries who were aggrieved at being told to cough up. There were compromises - they agreed to the full deal at the IMF but backdated the World Bank deal by a year, saving themselves $5bn at the expense of the world's poor.

Above all, it is incremental. Mr Blair has twisted Vladimir Putin's arm to include a session on Africa at the St Petersburg G8, which Mr Blair will chair, to push for delivery on the $10bn needed to get every child into school and $27bn to provide basic health care for all. Tomorrow Mr Blair will announce he is convening a Gleneagles Monitoring Group - chaired by Kofi Annan, with Geldof, the President of Nigeria and Peter Eigen, founder of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, as members - to keep the pressure on after he has gone. Bill Gates will have a key role.

In Germany, campaigners are already at work - led by the country's popular rock musician, Herbert Grönemeyer - insisting that global poverty features high on the agenda for the German presidency of the G8 in 2007. Chancellor Merkel, despite recommitting herself to the Gleneagles pledges three times, is resisting. In Japan too, which has the G8 presidency in 2008, activists are at work.

Innovative thinking is needed in France. UK activists and politicians need to find a way of reforming the Common Agricultural Policy which helps African farmers without opening up the EU to American-owned agribusiness. The French need to be shifted, not confronted.

In all this - and in Russia and the US - the activists coalitions forged by Live8 have a key role. "2005 was a gigantic wave that crashed on to the beach of disinterest and selfishness," says Stephen Rand, chair of the Jubilee Debt Campaign. "This year's wave may be smaller, but the tide of change is still coming in."

Paul Vallely was part of the group that lobbied G8 with Bono and Geldof

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