9 July 2005

Making history

By Rupert Read

The G8 summit, which finished yesterday, takes place in this country only once every 8 years. That's why, last Saturday, I travelled up to Edinburgh, to play my part in trying to make poverty history.

The atmosphere on the march through Edinburgh – which may well have been the largest march in Scottish history, rivalled only by the enormous anti-war march in Glasgow on 15 February 2003 – was really tremendous. Despite having to wait for hours queuing in the sun – we were queuing to get onto the march route, because there were so many of us! – we remained entirely good-natured. (It felt like, right there and then, we were building some of the sense of community that the world needs, if those who are poor are really to be helped by the richer countries.)

G8 March, EdinburghAnd the thing which really surprised me was just how diverse 'we' were. I had expected that, like me, most of those who turned out to march through Edinburgh would be wearing white, as the march organisers had asked. And so it proved. But I had not expected the banners that we were carrying to be so incredibly varied.

Besides the more obvious participants, like the Tearfund, War on Want, and Save the Children, I saw banners from numerous environmental groups (there was a particularly large Friends of the Earth presence). I walked beside protesters from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and from CND. The Scottish Greens were there, and the Scottish Socialists. And trades unions; and community groups; and so many more…

One World columnists Rupert Read and Andrew Boswell at the G8 March in EdinburghThis made me stop and think. Why, for instance, were Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace taking part in a 'Make Poverty History' march? Were they just jumping on a bandwagon? Or was there more to it than that?

The answer came, in one of the speeches that I heard in Edinburgh Meadows, on that amazing long afternoon. Poverty can't be separated from environmental issues, such as climate change, because it is the world's poor who are bearing the brunt of climate change. While in Britain we can cope relatively easily with the heatwaves and droughts which are growing in frequency as a result of human interference with the climate, very poor countries such as Chad or low-lying Third World countries such as the Maldives find it far harder to do so.

And the anti-war groups? Did they have a good reason to be there? Or were they trying to hijack the Make Poverty History event?

One stark fact makes the answer clear. Last year, for the first time ever, British arms exports to Africa topped £1 billion pounds. How can we hope to make poverty history, while African nations are being encouraged by our government and our corporations to spend such vast quantities of money on weapons?

Most interesting of all, perhaps, were the slogans of groups such as War on Want and Christian Aid. These 'mainstream', anti-Third-World-poverty organisations were not just calling for more aid to go to Third World countries, nor even merely for the cancellation of debt. They were calling for the brakes to be put on economic globalisation. This Christian Aid slogan, on a banner that I picked up myself and carried for an hour or so, made the point very nicely: Trade justice, NOT free trade.

Putting these three things together – the environmental groups calling for serious action to stop climate change, the anti-war groups calling for an end to First World sponsoring of wars in the Third World; and the aid organisations for Third World countries themselves calling not for free trade nor for charity but for trade justice – for allowing African countries to protect their own economies, just as we do – makes up a powerful message.

And so I realised that there was a good reason, after all, for that great diversity of groups and slogans, last Saturday. It was the wisdom of the people that was speaking, on the streets of Edinburgh, in this multi-tongued way.

And after all, it is the people and not their so-called 'leaders' who usually really make history, in the end. It is up to us to keep working so that the goals of the 'make poverty history' campaign are really achieved, long after the posturings of the leaders at the Gleneagles G8 summit are forgotten.

The fact that a week ago today hundreds of thousands, myself among them, marched in Edinburgh to 'make poverty history', and that we did so intelligently - under the banners of stopping climate change, war and unchecked globalisation - gives me hope for our world.