independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Jim Clarken: G8 leaders must side with ordinary people, not the rich

ON the other side of Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh, in a churchyard dotted with the 400-year-old surnames of Irish, Scottish and English settlers, sits an eerie but distinctive site on the Irish landscape.

If G8 leaders do nothing else this month, they should take a ramble from their hotel rooms during their summit and remind themselves of what happens when governments fail.

In a pit 120 feet by 14 feet lie the bodies of 200 people, a small fraction of the one million who died during the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1848.

Ireland's reliance on that crop, and its failure due to blight, was undeniably the initial cause of the last famine in western Europe. But the failure of the then Whig government in Westminster to intervene in the crisis exacerbated what should have been at worst a food shortage.

During the worst year, known as Black '47, when 400,000 people died of starvation and disease, close to 4,000 ships carrying grain and livestock sailed from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, according to Dr Christine Kinealy, a fellow at the University of Liverpool.

But the deference of some members of the British cabinet to London grain merchants and the Irish merchant class during an election year meant that vast quantities of food continued to leave the country's shores.

"I know all the difficulties that arise when you begin to interfere with trade," wrote the Irish Lord Lieutenant at the time, Lord Bessborough, who pleaded unsuccessfully for help from the government in London.

"But it is difficult to persuade a starving population that one class should be permitted to make 50pc profit by the sale of provisions whilst they are dying for want of these."

Belgium, the Netherlands and Prussia, which also depended heavily on the potato, shut their ports to food exports. Ireland did not. The deaths continued.

Ireland's population, at half the 1845 figure of nine million or so, has still not recovered. Governments have shown a greater degree of solidarity with the poor since then.

However, in easing the plight of the hungry, there is still much for G8 leaders to consider when they meet on June 17 and 18 on the shores of Lough Erne in Fermanagh, a county that lost one-quarter of its population to death and emigration 160 years ago.

Take the issue of land. In poor countries, foreign investors bought an area of land 15 times the size of Ireland between 2000 and 2010. Two-thirds of these deals were in developing countries with serious hunger problems. But based on the latest figures, the majority of projects are geared for exporting crops. For example, Ethiopia has leased some 10,000 hectares of land to a Saudi oil billionaire to grow more than a million tonnes of rice a year, while Jordan secured 25,000 hectares in Sudan to grow livestock and crops.

At a time when 870 million people go to bed hungry every night, this is an exceptional injustice.

THE G8 leaders should put the issue of large-scale corporate "land grabs" in developing countries on the agenda, promoting action to help improve their governance, transparency and accountability.

Secondly, governments should use the G8 summit to launch a convention on tax transparency. Statistics released by Oxfam last week showed that lost tax revenue from money stashed offshore is costing governments more than €120bn a year – enough to eliminate extreme poverty across the globe twice over.

At a time when ordinary citizens in Ireland and the rest of the world are shouldering the global economic recovery with higher and new taxes, this hidden money could provide urgent finance for essential public services such as health and education, both at home and in poor countries.

Nations must commit to preventing companies and wealthy individuals from hiding wealth from revenue services. From the US state of Delaware to the Netherlands and UK crown dependencies, governments and administrations have not tightened the tax loopholes that allow incredible amounts of money to slip through the net.

Lasting solutions that lift people out of poverty must be underpinned by the leadership of developing countries and their ability to raise revenues and attract foreign direct investment themselves.

But getting to a point where they can do so means offering a vital leg up. Aid is one of the best tools to do so. It pays for the medication that frees a child to go to school and not look after a sick parent. It helps boost agricultural yields by giving tools, credit and seeds to female farmers so that they are not dependant on food aid. It allows people to live healthy lives and decide how they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Spending 0.7pc of gross national income on aid, which the UK and other rich countries have committed to, would help us do so.

Just as in Black '47, when wagonloads of food were marched under guard by the army to Irish ports, there is enough capacity to feed everyone that is in need.

If we act to ensure that small-scale farmers can hold on to their land to grow food; if we crack down on tax dodgers depriving poor countries of resources to ensure the right to food; if all of this is underpinned by transparency, rule of law and strong institutions, then the world has a chance to end the scandal of hunger that allows 2.3 million children to die from malnutrition every year.

It is time for G8 leaders to take the side of ordinary people, rather than the privileged few.

Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland

Irish Independent

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