Is there a song for solidarity?

SARAH BRACKING unpicks the liberal agenda behind Live8 and the G8 summit.

The majority of the people attending Live8, and the demonstrations surrounding the G8, wanted no more nor less than to reduce poverty. But helping poor people in other countries raises problems, particularly when the language of benevolence doesn’t explain the structural issues involved.

What emerged from the Live8 stage was a confused message: we are not about charity (although we use the language), we are about social justice (although we have no strategy to get it). There are two problems with this: the first comes from the suggestion that more aid is the answer; the second arises from the lack of political strategy.

Problems of aid

If rich people’s governments (us) give the money to poor people’s governments (them) it is not necessarily used to help the poor. If the money is channeled to charities and voluntary groups to spend on the poor, they may also take a cut, while then choosing between the multitudes of poor people who may be eligible. In this selection process the deserving poor – such as children who attend school, hardworking women farmers, and those able to work – traditionally do better than the undeserving, the ‘chronic’ poor who often can’t work and may also be excluded on grounds of physical disability, mental incapacity or disease.

This is not intended as a criticism of all non-governmental organisations and charities, far from it, since currently they are the last defence against starvation when the state and the market fail poor people. I am merely arguing that it is an unfortunate, if not tragic situation when people do not have access to food by right, but are forced to rely on an insecure or haphazard gift. This leaves those people disempowered and incapable of maintaining human dignity. In short, charity is insufficient.

Although aid keeps people alive, it leaves the recipients dependent on charity and lets their governments, and all the mandated global food providers (see below), off the hook. This may retard the development of political accountability between a government and its citizens. Whichever way you look at it, intergovernmental transfers of aid, money spent by governments on the voluntary sector for poverty reduction, and individual donations all represent a pretty problematic and inefficient way of providing a social safety net for the world’s poor. It would be better to allow poor people to provide livelihoods for themselves, or to rely on rights-based social security provided by their own democratically-elected governments.

Following Live8, much of the general public would probably agree with the slogans of the right-on, 1980s rock stars (plus Ms Dynamite): ‘from charity to social justice!’; let the ‘eight men in a room’ change ‘the system’; and, more and better aid, fair trade and debt reduction. But there are some cataclysmic contradictions of fundamental politics hidden here, not least the racialised belief that ‘we’ are helping ‘them’, which is not only a source of future racism but probably explains some of the popularity of these events to Europeans.

Putting those problems aside for a moment, however, it is important to ask what a democratic socialist has to offer this coalition assembled to help the poor now that development policy has entered the mainstream of public life?

Radical liberals and the unlabelled

If we prise apart the broad coalition brought together by the Live8 concerts and G8 protests, we find some very odd contradictions. It was made up, crudely, of radical liberals, democratic socialists, socialists of the Socialist Worker kind, anti-globalisation campaigners, anarchists ‘good and proper’, and a large number of concerned citizens with no obvious label, who I will call the ‘unlabelled’.

The largest contingent are the radical liberals, whose basic proposition is that there should be a contract between the state and the citizen. Historically, this notion was at its most radical in the decaying days of feudalism and slavery, when the workers’ ‘freedom’ to contract with the factory owner and the state was established. This legally-based contract of obligations and rights is not the same as that between a charity and a beneficiary, and by comparison is still quite radical. The ‘long road from charity to justice’ slogan therefore became the central slogan of the movement, explaining why no money was collected: ‘we don’t want your money, we want you’.

Indeed, the basis of radical liberal assistance for the poor (as with socialist assistance) does not lie in charity at all, but instead in human rights instruments at a global level. An individual might still donate, and civil society could manage and spend money on ‘good causes’, but the state would also have a duty to provide a minimum level of social justice for all.

In fact, the liberals could have been shouting, ‘uphold article 25, general comment 12 of party obligations!’ since the right to food and freedom from chronic poverty and hunger were established way back in 1948, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 25, and also in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). General comment 12 of the UDHR State Party obligations reads (and this is with reference to governments and their own citizens):

‘Whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) that right directly.’

In other words, international treaty law, based in liberal notions of individually held rights, states quite clearly that governments must provide food for their people. The UDHR continues (comment 12) that when financial constraints prevent action, the State Party (that is the government) must seek international assistance, in other words, they must ask other governments and the United Nations to help.

It is fairly well known that some of the worst famines occur because governments don’t ask for assistance in time, either because they hide the problem, such as China in 1961, or because they are too proud to admit failure, such as Sudan in 1985. What is also clear, however, but difficult to reconcile with these rights instruments, is that sometimes governments either don’t want to feed people or don’t care if they die. People sometimes get in the way of the strategies for wealth creation devised by the élites who inhabit governments, such as those in Darfur, Sudan, who sat on a huge underground lake of untapped oil.

And it is here that the weaknesses of liberal human rights law are most obvious. First, it assumes that basically every government wants to be good, whereas we know that this is not necessarily the case (and the majority of the poor live under these more nefarious types of government). Secondly, there are no effective sanctions for these ‘bad apples’ since that would mean infringing the sacred cow of international legal frameworks: the sovereignty of the nation-state (except when George Bush wants to invade).

Other State Parties (governments) who have signed the ICESCR, which is just about everyone including the UK, have agreed to help other state parties in need:

‘State parties should take steps to respect the enjoyment of the right to food in other countries, to protect that right, to facilitate access to food and to provide the necessary aid when required.’

It may well be news to most readers to learn that rich country governments actually agreed back in 1948 to provide food to other countries’ citizens by right, in the event that their own governments are too weak or bankrupt to do so. Several questions arise here:

  • if this is the case, why do we have appeals based on seeing ‘starving children on television’ (witness the current Niger famine)?
  • and why do the current Millennium Development Goals, that the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) promoted, only promise to half the proportion of people in poverty by 2015?

Surely this goal is not only conservative (it leaves about 800 million people just as they are), but also aims for less than the 1948 obligation. Since international law confers a right to food, why do we need musicians to make it seem such a novelty?

There are around 800 million people who are chronically poor (at daily risk of death by disease and hunger), and another one billion people who are generally poor (living on less than US$1 per day) who are the subject of development assistance (Chronic Poverty Report, 2004). Globally, there are enough resources to go round, and mountains of surplus food stack up every year. So, over and above the problems of charity and the logistics of giving help to the poor, there are a few more fundamental questions, such as:

  • why do poor people still exist in the first place?
  • and why has the liberal model of international obligations failed so profoundly to provide a social safety net to the world’s poor?

The knee-jerk suggestion that ‘there is not enough food’ or ‘there are too many people’ does not go far enough. The answer, I would argue, is that liberalism can only provide a limited response to the power of global capitalism. This suggests that democratic socialism has an answer to the problems of hunger where liberalism has failed, an answer that lies in ideas of solidarity and in our fundamental opposition to unregulated market capitalism. This is a very old argument.

Changing the system?

So to the other groups in Scotland. The ‘unlabelled’ are genuinely upset that famines and aid appeals keep appearing on their televisions, and that human degradation and persistent poverty still exists.

My proof for this is a recent post-G8 visit I made to the Manchester studios of the BBC where I was wired into a Radio Wales phone-in on famine in Niger. The question posed to the good people of Wales was whether they would give money to the appeal ‘so soon after Live8’ (it incorrectly suggested that Live8 provided extra resources to the needy). In response, listeners were clear that they didn’t want people to die, but said, variously, that they were on inadequate pensions, gave to charity already, were acutely poor themselves, had excess cows they could send if that would help, thought the G8 had already agreed to send money, or were fed up with appeals and starving Africans who should learn how to farm better and have fewer children.

I pointed out over the line that although Niger is one of the 14 African countries (out of 18) whose debt the G8 had agreed to write off, this would take some considerable time and require another round of ‘adjustment’ negotiations on Niger’s understanding of ‘poverty reduction’. I also pointed out that even in a normal year in some areas of Niger, up to 40 per cent of children under five die of hunger and preventable disease, and that as their public authorities are unable to feed these people (which they had patently failed to do), the people of Wales could usefully help save lives, as a short-term measure.

In fact – I was in a tub-thumping mood – I went so far as to suggest that governments, including our own, had ‘messed up’. Since they have an obligation to help (see above), and since we all pay taxes to DfID, how did they allow it to happen? This proved to be a step too far for a fellow ‘expert’ panelist, from Care International, who quickly responded that no one was to blame and that ‘development took a long time’ (sic).

In fact, after thinking about it some more, I believe I was rather tame. Quite why Niger doesn’t qualify for more timely and adequate measures to reduce its poverty and avoid hunger is beyond any moral compass I can bring to bear on the situation. Put briefly, the Niger government has jumped through every hoop the World Bank and IMF have asked it to in recent years; has made no effort to hide its food shortage problem; has not maliciously caused the situation by ethnic cleansing or civil war; has asked for assistance, just last year; and has not put any unreasonable conditions on how such assistance would be received or distributed. In short, the government of Niger and its people have done nothing that would interfere with its clear right to be viewed as a thoroughly deserving country.

Since a return to multi-party democracy in 2000, the country has produced a Poverty Strategy Paper, a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, an HIPC reporting document, a completion point agreement, performed against the full gamut of conditionalities on privatisation, public sector reform, anti-corruption, and technically-assisted adjustment of everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, and yet hasn’t received debt reduction, despite being the second poorest country in the world. Instead, quite simply, its urgent requests to be relieved of its bankruptcy – technically, all its export earnings are not enough to pay the interest on its debts each year – have been ignored. And now it is too late for those wizened carcasses of humanity who are, technically, children.

In Niger the World Bank is spending US$14.8 million on the ‘Financial Sector Technical Assistance Project’, and US$18.6 million on ‘Privatisation and Regulatory Reform Technical Assistance Project’ – initiatives to privatise the water and make Niger fit for western companies to invest in and exploit. Yet the combined governments which own the World Bank couldn’t find the US$15 million the government of Niger, through the UN, said it needed to feed its people earlier this year (World Bank, 2005). As of 2 August, DfID had provided US$5.25 million matched roughly by the US and EU (DfID, 2005). Too little too late, and not in the same league as the amounts spent on technical assistance to capitalism.

The long road to now

So who else was part of the Edinburgh coalition? Broadly, apart from the ranks of the upset, concerned and ‘unlabelled’, there are those who would nod sagely in response to my Radio Wales experience. Of course, the system as it stands is a conspiracy of interests against the poor, they would say. ‘What did you expect? Smash capitalism! Close the IMF and World Bank!’ They might also add some patronising comments about the ignorance of the ‘proletariat’ and their naivety to think the ‘bosses’ would do any better.

And then there’s us few democratic socialists saying, hang on a minute, isn’t a democratically-governed market economy possible? Can democratically-elected governments not insist that the market be cured of its worst abuses, so that everyone can be fed? Socialists, representing the combined structural strength of the people, have the power to insist on it.

We have come a long way with the ‘revolutionary’ socialists and the anarchists – and yet are still in the same Scottish field. Both Marx and Rousseau argued that capitalist societies are inherently incapable of delivering the ideals of liberalism for the majority of the poor, since economic competition and the realities of class production and economic life under capitalism fatally undermine the equal opportunity to participate and attain all-round wellbeing and a worthwhile existence.

In short, we are not that surprised that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is contravened. Ideals of equal rights and citizenship, civic virtues and the common good are articles of abstracted faith eroded by the brute reality of economic competition, while the ‘umpire’ state of John Locke is, in turn, fatally bound to protect privilege against the interests of the poor because of the necessity to protect private property rights and the resultant inequalities of wealth and power. Given a choice between privatisation and poverty reduction, the companies, not the children, win every time.

Liberalism, even when radical, can do no more than uphold the illusion that human freedom, including freedom from poverty, can be secured by legal rights and obligations, whereas, in reality, these freedoms rely for their real existence on a person’s temporal and spatial position in relation to capitalism. Power shifted historically from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, with wage labour (or unemployment and social exclusion) the impersonal, efficient, daily context of oppression.

Once ‘political liberalism’ – the political discourse of rights, liberty, equality, representation and citizenship – is removed and abstracted from capitalism and markets, it cannot do very much to help the poor. We have all heard the liberal wish list too often, and know that it is like a poor child’s letter to Father Christmas – unlikely to be delivered. Similarly, those parents in Niger will know from experience that such things are for other people.

Of course, those who are critical of liberalism then head off on very different trajectories. The anarchists will have nothing further to do with state authority or capitalist economics, in theory at least, while the anti-globalisers want to close the World Bank and IMF since they support capitalism and are opposed to people’s rights and livelihoods. These are both problematic options for the democratic socialist: we are more pragmatic than the anarchists and understand that it is in democratising institutions that people find improved lives, not by closing them down.

But that is not to say the World Bank and IMF should not be so radically reformed that they would not be recognisable. These institutions are the best approximations we have of the kind of public regulators we need on a global level. We need democratically-regulated liquidity, that is, access to co-operatively-provided money to serve the common good of the poorest people, rather than what we have now, which is institutions acting according to the more capitalist logics derived from their status as private banks. ‘Socialise the global banks!’ could be our slogan. After all, as the governments of some rich countries formally own them, they are ‘ours’. If held accountable, they could join the ‘third sector’ and become part of the alternative economic infrastructure of the democratic market.

Making markets work for us

Live8 was only asking for the ‘eight men in one room’ to tinker with the number of crumbs the world’s poor receive – by altering their levels of debt; by slightly increasing current receipts, that is ‘aid’; by proposing better earnings, through trade; and, perhaps, by letting a few more people ‘sign on’. Taken together this is not nearly enough, although it is all good as far as it goes (leaving aside that it also encourages Europeans to feel superior to Africans).

As any individual in poverty understands, reducing debt pays off the loan sharks for a short while (the dictators and their friends in the World Bank and IMF), but it doesn’t mean you won’t need credit again if your life

doesn’t change. And while an increase in ‘benefits’, in the form of aid, means there’s a bit more to spend every week, it doesn’t affect your social exclusion or the privileges of the rich which are the proximate causes of poverty. Indeed, it is only structural change, starting with fairer trade, which can give the world’s poor a job, their dignity, and some insurance against becoming dirt poor all over again, and this is the where no progress has yet been made.

None of the measures on debt reduction, aid and fairer trade force capitalism to be democratic, or prevent it creating debt bondage for the world’s poor in the future –the Marx/Rousseau critique still stands. After all, fair trade is very similar to a competitive market and we all know that means there will be losers. To change the system we must do more than this. We stand with the radical liberals in our historical mission to make rights a reality for everyone; and with the socialists, because we know that the success of this mission relies not just on legal convention, but on structural collective power.

We are not there yet. But I do know that some governments have definitely messed up if someone in Niger has nothing to eat. I know this because of that age-old instinct we inherit from socialism, called solidarity. Socialist solidarity is what makes charity insufficient. Solidarity is not interested in the nation state as such (witness the Spanish Civil War), or necessarily in adherence with the law (which is skewed more often to capitalist interests), but insists on action to help other human beings when they are in trouble. This is what makes it so fundamental in the human condition, so evident among the ‘unlabelled ’ people, that it will rise like water through the institutions of global capitalism, insisting that they become accountable to us, the little people, insisting that they democratise.


Liberal law lets state élites borrow in the name of their people, use the money for themselves, and make the poor pay it back. Liberal law allows state élites to sell off their people’s assets when the IMF tells them to (if they need telling, that is) in exchange for a small payout in poor relief.

Socialist law would not hold the poor responsible for the follies of the rich merely because they share the same nationality. Our solidarity would instead inspire co-operative trade, accountable to a full environmental and human audit, and protect public finances from private profit – of course, the poor should not be required to pay back the debts of Mobuto, of Abacha, or of Apartheid. The history of savings and loans clubs, funeral societies and co-operative stamps shows that socialists would provide money in times of need, without insisting on indentured labour in return.

Let us insist on these principles of solidarity, co-operative action and political accountability as a basis for reform of global institutions, but also act on those same principles in the living now, until these two prongs of our strategy converge.

Chronic Poverty Report 2004-2005 is available from the Chronic Poverty Research Centre:

Niger latest news and situation reports from Department for International Development:

Projects and Programs (in Niger) World Bank (2005) from