'We've come a long way already'

02 November 2006

HILARY BENN MP, the Secretary of State for International Development, is trying hard not to get too optimistic about the G8 summit. He talks about "progress" and "profound transformation", but his underlying message is clear: look at what we've already achieved, not at what might happen between 6 and 8 July.

This cautionary note seems to jar slightly with the national fervour that, by the end of next week, the world will be a different place, and Africa will be lifted out of poverty. People are walking to Edinburgh; Bob Geldof is hoping for a million at a rally on 6 July; 55,000 more tickets have been made available for this weekend's Live 8 concert in Hyde Park; and more churches than you can shake a stick at are holding prayer vigils, or wrapping their spires and towers in giant white bands.

None the less, Hilary Benn's tone is moderate. "I hope that we can make further progress at Gleneagles," he says, "but look at what's come out of the G8 already. The £55 billion debt cancellation [announced at the G7 finance ministers' meeting] is a huge step forward. It's come out of the UK saying: 'This is our priority.'

"We wouldn't have achieved these things without the G8 focus on Africa and the campaign. It [the G8 summit] is part of a process. People will look to the World Trade Organisation talks in December for more.

"I think we have already seen real progress. Gordon Brown agreed this historic deal with the G7 finance ministers giving £55 billion worth of debt cancellation. Go back a month, and development ministers reached an agreement to double aid to developing countries by 2010. That's two-thirds of the extra £25 billion a year that the Commission for Africa said was needed. Canada will double its aid. America has given more."

Surely it is not possible for Hilary Benn to be entirely positive about the United States? Targets set at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 committed countries to giving 0.7 per cent of their GNP in development aid. Currently the US gives 0.2 per cent. Neither has it signed up to the Kyoto Protocol.

At the Prime Minister's meeting with George Bush on 8 June, it was hoped that Mr Blair would be able to encourage the US to contribute towards a total of £13.5 billion for Africa. Instead, Mr Bush agreed to give £350 million.

"Giving as a proportion of their national wealth makes the US low down the table," says Mr Benn. "But it's increased nearly threefold, and that's very, very important. In 2002, President Bush announced a big increase in American aid. That shows a recognition on the part of the administration that it needs to do more. We are beginning to see progress."

But, he adds: "America has made it very clear that it won't sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. We have to say, 'Let's listen to the scientists. Do we accept their view? Can we use technology and improve energy efficiency?' We must recognise that this is a problem for all of us. China is rapidly coming up the table of emitters as it industrialises. It's fundamentally important to being able to improve the lives of citizens and lift them out of poverty."

WHICH, then, of the main threads of the G8 summit does Mr Benn consider to be most vital to change next week: increased and better aid; debt reduction; fair trade; or global warming? "They are all important in their own way," he says. "They are all part of the solution. It is not just one thing that has to occur."

For all his words of caution about what might come out of the summit, Hilary Benn is encouraged by the mood in the country, and the concentration on debt and development. "I can never remember a time when so much of public time was taken up by talking about poverty and what you can do to make a difference," he says. "Development has moved from the margins to being the great political debate. I welcome that enormously."

When Hilary Benn was last interviewed ( Features, 3 December), he said that the fight for change was: "Not just something we ought to do, but something we have to do." He still holds to that view, and appeals to Britain's churches to continue campaigning for change for the developing world, after the G8 summit is over and Bob Geldof has gone back to being a middle-aged pop star.

"My message to church leaders would be to keep going," he says. "The fact that we have got to this point is as a result of this campaign, and of the Jubilee 2000 campaign. We have moved from an age when it appeared to be impossible ever to do anything about debt, to now, when we reach a multi-national agreement.

"That's a profound transformation. Real change is happening, and churches have played an important role in getting us to that point. As I travel around the country, I see the churches being motivated and encouraged and passionate about the need for this to continue. As I travel around the world, what's so striking is that it's faith that inspires people to look after those in need."

With just days to go before world leaders meet in Gleneagles, Hilary Benn says that there's still time for Christians to have their voice heard. He advises writing to MPs and joining the Make Poverty History campaign (or one run by another charity).

He says: "2005 is a very special year. I can't remember a time when this subject was more at the heart of national and international debate. People can show that there is a growing number of people who feel that now is the time when we can do something about it."

The G8 summit is held in Gleneagles 6-8 July. The Make Poverty History rally takes place in Edinburgh on 2 July.

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