What were you doing a decade ago? I was dressed as an international banker, dragging a gang of sackcloth-wearing slaves through the streets of Birmingham, occasionally stopping to whip them and demand my money back. Not for fun, you understand (though it was, rather – apart from the fact that my bowler hat itched and my moustache was melting in the sunshine.) We were doing it because the G8 leaders were meeting there, and we were part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel ‘third world’ debt.
Protests at international summits may be passé these days, but in 1998 this was a groundbreaking new way of campaigning, of addressing the political causes of world poverty rather than just mopping up after its horrible consequences. And it gave the men who were running the world an almighty shock.
We had no idea how many people were going to turn up to form a human chain around Birmingham city centre – this hadn’t been tried before. We were flabbergasted when 70,000 people appeared, motivated by a deep outrage at the debt crisis that was squeezing poor countries dry and ensuring that they never had the opportunity to develop. Forming a human chain with so many like-minded people was an extraordinary experience. I think we changed the world a little bit.
Birmingham 1998 put the issue of debt onto the international political agenda in a dramatic and thrilling way. It’s a shame that politicians haven’t lived up to their subsequent promises, and actually dropped it all. Some progress has been made, but actually, when you look at the figures, it’s rather pathetic.
‘Some $88 billion of debt has been cancelled across 25 countries, delivering real benefits for people living in poverty across the world… But the campaign is far from over.
‘The ‘Heavily Indebted Poor Countries’ (HIPC) scheme set up by the rich world to tackle the problem is both too limited and highly undemocratic. Countries like Kenya, Bangladesh and the Philippines, despite high poverty levels and massive debts, are told they don’t ‘qualify’ for debt relief under World Bank criteria, while countries that do qualify are forced to meet harmful and undemocratic economic policy conditions in order to complete the process.
‘At least another $400 billion of unpayable debt must be cancelled if poor countries are to meet their people’s basic needs, yet the existing promises – much-trumpeted since the deal reached at Gleneagles in 2005 – will deliver only a fraction of this.
‘…Lender countries are still stuck in the mindset of ‘forgiving’ poor countries their debts, rather than taking responsibility for their poor lending decisions in the first place.’
So there will be another kind of summit in Birmingham this weekend, to mark the tenth anniversary of the G8’s visit. It will celebrate what the Jubilee 2000 campaign achieved, and demand further action, because despite that heady day a decade ago, the debt crisis is still enslaving millions.
The ‘Journey to Justice’ event this weekend: