The case I want to make today is that the old assumption, that development for the poor means spreading our kind of society across the world, is both fallacious and unattainable. I want to use this opportunity to challenge current thinking and to try to outline a different analysis that could help us prevent the world falling into catastrophe and crisis within the next few decades.

The current consensus on development was demonstrated in the “Make Poverty History” campaign which was backed by the UK government and development NGOs. Its purpose was to influence the G8 meeting at Gleneagles in 2005 to increase aid and debt relief and improve trade rules for developing countries. In support of this campaign very large numbers of good people wore the white armbands. They marched in Edinburgh and attended the free pop concert in Hyde Park and when the meeting finished were told that they had succeeded. More aid was promised and a pledge made to complete the current trade round in a way that would make trade rules fairer for developing countries. Bob Geldof and Bono told us that the campaign was a success. Gordon Brown spoke of “the make poverty history generation”. It all seemed very fine and very simple.

In practice, the Make Poverty History campaign was a demonstration of the strange nature of modern politics and the inadequacy of current thinking about development. The spin was good. It sounded good and felt good. But in fact there was very little substance. The truth is, that even if the promises made had been kept, they would not have made poverty history. And sadly, most of the promises were not kept. The Development Committee of the OECD, last week published its annual report. The report records that the G8 remain well short of the aid pledges they made at Gleneagles in 2005. Programme aid barely shifted from 2002-2006. There was however a recorded increase in global aid from $57.5 bn to $77.8 bn (about £25 bn to £40 bn) but this was largely due to the one-off effects of debt relief for Iraq and Nigeria. This debt relief is cheap, as little if any of it was being paid and it is therefore simply a book keeping exercise, the writing off of an unpaid dept. It counts as aid, but it does not make the people of Iraq and Nigeria better off. What it does do is clear the decks so that these countries can borrow again, hopefully more wisely than last time. Beyond this, the 19 countries that had already performed well and received debt relief under the HIPC initiative received a little more, paid for out of existing aid. And negotiations to take the Doha trade round forward have got nowhere.

I do not bring this disappointing news to your attention in order to depress you. I know that many good people put their hearts and souls into the campaign. But the truth is that the underlying assumptions of that debate about development are fallacious and we will not build a more just and sustainable world if we go on as we are.

In order to adjust our thinking, we need to take stock of the point we have reached in our history because times are changing fast and we need to understand this. So, beginning at the beginning, our species first appeared about 200,000 years ago in Africa. We spread from Africa and gradually populated the world. For most of our history we were hunter gatherers moving about in bands of 25-50 people and spending our time obtaining enough to eat and socialising. About 10,000 years ago we started to settle and developed agriculture, and then we created surplus and therefore government, cities and inequality. We also became literate and started to develop all the gains that civilisation brings. This happened at different times, in different places and some of the earliest civilisations collapsed – often for environmental reasons, but this was the patter of human development.

For most of this time most people were poor and struggled to survive. The rulers lived well and there was constant war between different groups of people in order to control land, natural resources and the ability to impose taxation. So, for example, the growth rate of GDP per capita in Europe between 500 and 1500 was zero for thousands of years, the standard of living was constant and did not differ markedly between countries. Real wages in England were roughly the same in 1800 as 1300. The phenomenon of sustainable growth in living standards is only a few centuries old. Population growth was also nearly zero.

And then, at the end of the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution began to take effect and over the next 100 years transformed Britain and then many other countries from agrarian to industrial societies. Looking back, we can now see that this transformation in the availability of wealth was made possible by the use of fossil fuels – at first coal and later oil. The struggle to share this wealth more fairly took another 100 years and still continues internationally but until recently we did not reflect on the fact that the whole upsurge in wealth creation that has transformed our life opportunities was dependent on the availability of fossil fuels. The world is in fact currently using each year what it took 1 million years to lay down. We will soon reach the point of peak oil where there is no more to be found and as demand continues to increase the price will escalate. But even more urgently, we have begun to realise only recently that this beautiful planet of ours cannot continue to absorb the carbon dioxide that fossil fuels emit without catastrophic change in our climate, weather patterns and agriculture.

Our world is changing fast, as Lester Brown lays out in the latest edition of his book Plan B3.0. Mobilising to Save Civilisation. Two years ago, the data on ice melting was worrying. Now it is frightening. Two years ago, oil was $50 per barrel. Now it hovers around $100. The fear of oil shortages has led the US – up until now a major grain exporter – to devote 20 per cent of its grain to creating fuel for cars. The price of grain is now increasing considerably. In seven of the last 8 years, world grain has fallen short of consumption and world grain stocks are at an all time low, thus driving up the price of food for poor people and reducing the food available to the World Food Programme for humanitarian emergencies. Lester Brown goes on to tell us that:

[T]he backlog of unresolved problems grows, including continuing rapid population growth, spreading water shortages, shrinking forests, eroding soils, and grasslands turning to desert, weaker governments are breaking down under the mounting stress. If we cannot reverse the trends that are driving states to failure, we will not be able to stop the growth in their numbers.

He then points out that China has now overtaken the US in consumption of most basic resources. By 2030 when its income per person is projected to equal what the US has now, if its consumption patterns are the same, it will be consuming twice as much paper as the world currently provides. It will have 1.1 billion cars – more than the current global fleet. It will consume 98 billion barrels of oil per day, which is well above current world productions.

The point of these projections is that they are impossible. We have to conclude that our economic model – the fossil fuel based, car centred, and throwaway economy – is not going to work for China and equally it won’t work for India or the other 3 billion people in the developing world who aspire to live as we do. And in our increasingly integrated global economy which depends on the same grain, steel, oil etc, it will not work for us either.

The challenge for our generation is to build a new economy that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that re-uses and recycles everything, and to do so with unprecedented speed. If we continue with our present way of living, we face untold catastrophe that will hit the poorest countries first, but will endanger our civilisation.

There are four overriding things that we have to do.

  • Stabilise climate.
    This means cutting CO emissions by 80% by 2020.

  • Stabilise population
    This means all girls in school, and all people having access to contraception​

  • Eradicate poverty
    This means applying the lessons we have learned about successful development systematically across the poorer parts of the world.

  • Restore our ecosystems -forests, water use, fish, overgrazing. This means major change.​

All of this is technologically possible, but would require a transformation of the focus of our government’s efforts akin to the mobilisation that took place during the Second World War.

Thus if we are serious about the survival of our civilisation and halting the suffering of the poor of the world, we cannot continue to shrug off the major thrust of UK foreign policy and be bought off by the promise of an increase in aid spending.

In order to face up to this enormous challenge, we need unprecedented global co- operation to agree the 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and to develop and share the renewable technologies that must replace our reliance on fossil fuels. But what we have is a vicious new division in the world. The situation in the Middle East – which is explained by the concentration of oil resources in the region – is causing ever growing division and hatred which is spreading across the world, undermining international law and the authority of the UN. In this Britain is the main ally and supporter of mistaken US foreign policy.

It is notable in addition that when we look at the situation in collapsing states like Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, the poverty and strain on environmental resources is conflating with the geo-political divisions in the world to make the problems more intractable.

More humanitarian aid for Darfur cannot reach those in need without an improvement in security. The UK and other NATO countries devote their sophisticated troops and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan but did not produce adequate funding or equipment to the African Union monitoring mission that, if better resourced and supported, might have prevented the deterioration that has taken place in Darfur. It is easy to blame the Chinese for the situation in Darfur and the threat to the North South peace process in Sudan, but UK and western policy in general has also been wanting. Similarly, although the Moslem/western divide is not a feature of the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, war, disease and malnutrition are killing 45, 000 Congolese every month in a conflict that is a consequence of the collapse of state capacity that has cost the lives of 5.4 million people in a decade. This is the largest loss of life as a consequence of conflict since the Second World War. Belatedly a UN mission has been deployed in Congo but as usual it is largely staffed by troops from the poorer countries of the world and does not have the power or authority to impose order in Eastern Congo.

Thus, although there has been progress in economic growth in Africa in recent years, the situation in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo, Angola ,Nigeria and Zimbabwe remains fragile and worrying. This is also true of Afghanistan. The threat to future security used to be seen as powerful, well armed states that might attack their neighbours. The growing number of fragile, failing states that implode into disorder and instability are now a much greater threat as well as a source of terrible suffering.

My conclusion is that we are living at a major turning point in human history. Jut as the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution ushered in a totally new era which moved from feudalism and the divine right of kings to human rights and industrial development, we need to create a new political and economic settlement. This will involve us governing the world as one equal people and abandoning the greedy, individualised materialism that is destroying the ecosystems necessary to sustain life. There is much that we have to gain from this change. It will mean a more just and peaceful world order and the creation of a world where all have the necessities of life and we find meaning and satisfaction in finer things than individual greed. But how we make the change is yet to be decided. It could be driven by growing catastrophe and suffering. It could mean the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, massive starvation and conflict over water, food and diminishing oil resources. Historical change requires the leadership of people who understand the challenge and spread the ideas that make the management of change possible. This is the debate that those who are concerned with international development must take on and popularise.

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