Gordon Brown’s moral universe

Ending global poverty: do we have a choice?

CAFOD: Pope Paul VI Memorial Lecture: 8th December,2004

Speaker: Gordon Brown: Chancellor of the Exchequer

“We live in an interdependent world and should frame our lives within a moral universe.” This was the constant refrain of Gordon Brown’s CAFOD lecture last night. “”If some are poor, then we are all impoverished,”” he said.

The Chancellor will draw on this philosophy in his personal drive for progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the “make-or-break year” of opportunity for the UK government in 2005. “”If we fail to achieve the 2015 goals,”” he said, “”political leaders will never be trusted again…..This would be the greatest betrayal of the poor by the rich of all time.””

Needing little encouragement from the brief to include a “faith perspective” in his analysis, the Chancellor returned again and again to his themes of interdependence and morality, invoking Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Gandhi, and Isaiah. On a day of disappointment in efforts to bridge the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, he refused to countenance any cultural barriers to his vision of a better world through global understanding of our interdependence: “The fate of the richest people in the richest countries is bound up with the poorest in the poorest countries.” The task is to extend familiar ideas of helping others in our local communities to a global battle for the dignity of all people, even those whom we will never meet.

Gordon Brown clearly feels that the MDGs are already at risk for lack of funds. He outlined his mission to encourage more countries to commit to the target aid budget of 0.7% of GDP, to push for 100% debt relief for the poorest countries, and for a successful and fair Doha round for international trade. His innovative “International Finance Facility”, to accelerate the availability of aid funds, remains firmly on his agenda.

The Chancellor faces an early test of his missionary zeal. In preparation for 2005, this week he meets opposite numbers in the United States, themselves high on a successful election campaign rooted in values. Will the US be receptive to ideas of global values as distinct from American values?


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

Naomi Klein: Iraq is a laboratory for neoliberalism

Making a Killing: The Corporate Invasion of Iraq

Speaker: Naomi Klein

Event Sponsors: War on Want, Iraq Occupation Focus, Jubilee Iraq, Voices in the Wilderness

In her first public meeting in the UK for two years, Naomi Klein encouraged her listeners to consider “how to transform the anti-war movement into a pro-democracy movement”. And she urged campaigners to focus on issues of the present more than the horrors of the past.

In a carefully researched presentation, Naomi Klein argued that the war has little to do with the freedom of the Iraqi people. Instead, the country has become a “laboratory for the most radical form of free market economics”. In evidence she cited Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification exercise in the immediate aftermath of the war. He dismantled state institutions by sacking all the staff; and he wrote a constitution which envisages privatisation of 200 Iraqi state companies, free trade for western business, and other economic instruments of the free market. These are “antithetical to any idea of citizens’ participation”, said Ms Klein.

The most recent evidence is the decision by the Paris Club of rich nations to grant relief of 80% of debts owed by Iraq. The mainstream media has called this a “wonderful victory for debt relief”. But each tranche of relief is conditional on an IMF programme of economic measures which Naomi Klein says will take away the powers of the Iraqi government to make real decisions. Consequently, the people who elect the government themselves may begin to question a democracy in which “there is nothing left to vote for”. A sense of betrayal of the supposed aims of the war can create an environment in which the insurgency will flourish. Naomi Klein therefore urged that issues like full unconditional debt relief should be a target for campaigners.

The organisers had set Naomi Klein the objective of making the audience “feel  optimistic about the result of the US election”. “I can’t do that” she conceded, painting a gloomy picture of a “supercharged Bush acting with total impunity”. Ms Klein encouraged the anti-war movement to move beyond simplistic ideas of a war about oil, and pleas to withdraw troops. Connect with democracy and globalisation campaigns, she said; think of the war in terms of the familiar agenda of world financial institutions, albeit the “most brutal aspect of supercharged capitalism”.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

Limits to growth: managing the politics

People, Planet and Politics: Is economic growth compatible with sustainability?

Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence
Jonathon Porritt, Chair of Sustainable Development Commission
Michael Meacher, former Minister for the Environment

Remember 1971 and The Limits to Growth? The book came up with some strange answers but the underlying question remains as potent as ever. The panel of speakers assembled for this Resurgence event were unequivocal: there are limits to growth and if you live to 2050 you are going to experience them.

Satish Kumar suggested that the key failure of the industrial age lies in the reversal of values attributed to poverty and wealth. The work of St Francis of Assisi reflects a culture of recognition for choice of a “poor” way of life, satisfied with sufficiency. Now, “growth has become such an addiction” that agrarian and craft communities are perceived as poor in a negative sense. Satish challenged us with the concept of the “elegance of poverty” and questioned whether the people of Africa really want “growth” and the disruption of culture that follows in its wake. Is growth like a cellphone – a consumer product that we don’t really need but which becomes a necessity?

Alas such ideas were somewhat off agenda and the remainder of the evening concentrated on the inelegance of politics. Jonathon Porritt stuck to his unenviable brief of explaining why the Blair government has failed to deliver the expectations of the 1999 report “A better quality of life: a strategy for sustainable development”. Porritt’s finger pointed very firmly in the direction of the “wizards and intellectuals” residing in the “bowels of the Treasury”, whose weasel words neutered the objectives of the strategy by imposing “simultaneous” pursuit of economic growth and full employment. Despite government concern that human happiness stubbornly refuses to follow the ever-rising graphs of economic growth, research designed to find quality of life indicators has been quietly buried. Porritt reminded us that the Chancellor will always argue passionately that growth is the path out of poverty, at home and in developing countries. The challenge is to move beyond this prevailing orthodoxy.

Michael Meacher was more explicit: any proposal to the current cabinet which might compromise growth targets for environmental reasons “would be treated with derision”. Instead he concedes reluctantly that only “the earth will drive change” triggered ultimately by one or other of the extreme risk factors building up, notably oil, water, land, and population. The political “dodge” of pursuing simultaneous growth and sustainability is itself unsustainable. In finding a transition, Meacher advocates greater use of existing frameworks – Kyoto, the Clean Development Mechanism, more Commissions like IPCC to explain the limits of resources, and more imaginative use of WTO principles that could result in the EU enforcing sanctions against U.S. as climate change offenders.

At the end a young man in a grey stripy suit stood up and bravely announced that he works in those condemned bowels of the Treasury – so would the panel kindly suggest a policy change that he could recommend to his masters without losing his job? The panel was admirably unanimous. Introduce environmental costs into pricing of goods and services. Follow existing Brown principles that subsidise things that are good for the economy and tax things that are bad. Just change “economy” to “environment”.

The Treasury man would be fired.

And herein lies the problem, further betrayed in a hundred anxious and unheard questioners at the end. What political action can we take? Where is the creative argument that really would dissolve the realpolitik?

Satish Kumar inspires us to think the impossible with no pretence to the political. Michael Meacher has found the freedom to express his pessimism – which noone wants to hear; and Jonathon Porritt seems drawn like a bear to the constraining honey pot of serious politics. Maybe the absent Caroline Lucas would have supplied an answer, as might more well-organised and promoted events such as this.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

The language of volunteering – a time for vigilance

An Introduction to Volunteering

Volunteering is work without pay; the branch of philanthropy in which time replaces cheque book. But what type of work? Herein lies much confusion. In the UK, volunteering opportunities range from “defence of the realm” to chauffering tennis superstars to Wimbledon. The word “volunteer” is a victim of the slippery english language, its meaning changing over time at ever-increasing speed as politicians borrow its virtues and as Americans grapple with its unpoetic derivative forms.

The evolving volunteer

The english language volunteer began life as an opportunist soldier in a medieval army, maturing slowly over the centuries into the good citizen we know and love. The linguistic and conceptual legacy can be confusing; the “Voluntary Sector” is increasingly managed by professionals, and many “volunteers” working overseas do receive payment, albeit on local scales, whilst others are required to pay handsomely for the privilege.

Fortunately the global image of volunteering has flourished despite these variations in its interpretation; volunteers are widely attributed with the cohesion of local communities, papering over the cracks in national welfare programmes, and even cementing the success of the Sydney Olympics. There are indeed grounds for optimism that the exciting new field of “online” volunteering has the potential to extend these local successes to the global village.

This road has not always run smooth. The mid-19th century English novelist, Charles Dickens, set back the cause of volunteering in Bleak House with the appalling Mrs.Jellyby, a lady so obsessively devoted to the cause of an African charity that her dysfunctional London household receives the full treatment of Dickensian caricature.

When the central character arrives for a night’s lodging, she finds Mrs Jellyby dictating letters pleading the fate of the natives of the lower Niger, oblivious to the screams of one of her children falling down stairs and another with his head stuck in the railings outside.

Volunteering Hijackers

Today the cause of volunteering is possibly more threatened by success than satire. Governments and institutions cannot resist effective grassroots initiatives; volunteering is being shoved through the analytical mincer of policy; how much does it contribute to GDP? what role can it play in achieving the Millennium Development Goals? Kofi Annan has even said that “volunteerism is the ultimate expression of what the United Nations is all about” – these are conceptual leaps for the humble world of civil society’s volunteer coordinators. With the corporate sector muscling in with “employee volunteering” schemes which test the boundaries of conventional volunteering, the linguistic meaning of the word is once again undergoing a degree of upheaval.

If volunteering is indeed tiptoeing around the borderline between informal and formal sectors of the social economy, the eyes of all concerned should perhaps be kept wide open.

Rising expectation of the outcome of volunteer effort is a small step towards over-enthusiastic recruitment, an echo of the military origins of volunteering and a reminder that any degree of coercion subverts the meaning of the word. It is now the custom for civil society groups to lobby UN summits to include “the language of volunteering” in their formal action plans. The intent is admirable but the outcome may pitchfork an essentially grassroots concept into the thresher of UN phrases endlessly repeated and translated. Volunteering needs vigilance for its preservation!


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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