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
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
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
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
"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.