Global Policy Forum

People Power Gets to G7


By Sanjay Suri

Inter Press Service
February 3, 2005

Nelson Mandela, 86, needed no support when he walked up to address thousands at Trafalgar Square in London Thursday. He had the support of a cheering crowd, and of one of the most powerful movements ever to gather against world poverty.

Mandela spoke at Trafalgar Square -- London's traditional venue for people to make a political statement -- on the eve of the meeting Friday and Saturday of finance ministers from the G7 countries (the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan). He was carrying a message for that meeting, and succeeded before it began.

Steps to counter poverty are already set to dominate the G7 meeting. Traditionally G7 finance ministers are more given to talk of exchange rates and macro multinational issues. What Mandela says counts, and behind Mandela spoke about 220 British civil society groups who invited him to the Trafalgar Square rally. The British groups came together late last year in a campaign 'Make Poverty History'.

''Many of us realised that 2005 is going to be an important year to campaign against poverty,'' Lysbeth Holdoway from Oxfam who has been working with the Make Poverty History campaign told IPS Thursday. This year Britain has presidency of G8 (which includes also Russia) and will have presidency of the European Union (EU) in the second half of the year. ''So we have come together this year in UK and around the world to put pressure on governments to act,'' she said. The British movement is tied internationally into the Global Campaign for Action Against Poverty.

Mandela was invited to Trafalgar Square ''because he is such an important leader, and we know that if he came people would have to take action,'' Holdoway said. The immediate result was that civil society, backed by all major trade unions and the Church of England, has managed at least in substantial measure to set the agenda for a G7 finance ministers' meeting.

''As you know, I recently formally announced my retirement from public life and should really not be here,'' Mandela said. ''However, as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.'' Mandela linked the new civil society campaign with his own campaign against apartheid. ''The Global Campaign for Action Against Poverty can take its place as a public movement alongside the movement to abolish slavery and the international solidarity against apartheid,'' he said.

Mandela told the wildly cheering crowd: ''I can never thank the people of Britain enough for their support through those days of the struggle against apartheid. . . . Through your will and passion, you assisted in consigning that evil system forever to history. But in this new century, millions of people in the world's poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.''

There was more than emotion to Mandela's appeal. ''The steps that are needed from the developed nations are clear,'' he said. ''The first is ensuring trade justice. The second is an end to the debt crisis for the poorest countries. The third is to deliver much more aid and make sure it is of the highest quality.''

Mandela said finally: ''I say to all those (G7) leaders: do not look the other way; do not hesitate. Recognise that the world is hungry for action, not words. Act with courage and vision.'' Mandela was due to take his message directly to the ministers at a meeting with them Friday. The task will not be easy, Mandela said. ''But not to do this would be a crime against humanity, against which I ask all humanity now to rise up.''

The Mandela-civil society cocktail was made considerably stronger with support from Britain's chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown. Brown wants the ministers to extend a freeze on debt repayment by the tsunami-hit countries, and to take decisions to write off the debt of the poorest nations. At the least Brown wants about 40 billion dollars owed by the poorest countries, most of them in Africa, to be completely written off. He is also looking for radical decisions on more fair trade rules and for a doubling of developmental aid.

Members of the Make Poverty History campaign point out that 2.8 billion people around the world live in poverty, and that 30,000 die from poverty- related causes every day.

Britain last hosted the G8 meeting in Birmingham in 1998. An estimated 70,000 people came together then to form a human chain around the city centre to demand cancellation of unpayable debt. This time the civil society groups who brought those people together are a stronger force -- with stronger allies.

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