The annual economic conference of the world's eight richest nations (G-8) opened yesterday in Scotland. But only tomorrow, when the conference ends, will we know whether the biggest rock concert in history, along with the demonstrations around the building where the conference is being held, have convinced the West's leaders to erase the debts of the poorest African countries and give them substantial aid. Only thus would it be possible to end this global disgrace: Thousands of people die in Africa every day of hunger, AIDS and other diseases, while the northern half of the world does not know what to do with its food surpluses, mountains of butter and lakes of wine.
It is easy to be cynical and say that the politicians do not really care what Bono, Madonna, Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney say, nor do violent demonstrations make any impression on them. However, it isn't true. They are influenced. After all, public opinion in their countries will ultimately determine which of them will remain in power and which will be ousted.
Until 1998, poverty in Africa and third-world debt did not even appear on the agenda of international economic conferences. But something happened in November 1999: The delegates who attended the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle were not even able to enter the halls where the meetings were scheduled due to violent demonstrations taking place in the city. This constituted shock therapy. The conference ended early, but the violent demonstrators (some of whom were anarchists) succeeded in getting the issue onto the agenda of every world economic conference since then. Which, incidently, proves that when politicians say that violence does not pay, it is not exactly true.
This does not mean, of course, that the Western world has moved from talk to action, or that the problems of poverty and debt are about to be solved. But talk is a necessary stage in the transition from inaction to sticking their hands deep into their pockets. The fact is that the last conference of G-8 finance ministers, which took place in London a month ago, agreed (under Tony Blair's influence) to erase $2 billion worth of debts owed by the 18 poorest countries, on condition that they implement structural and democratic reforms.
The debt problem affects 38 countries, most in Africa and some in South America, whose gross national product comes to some $300 per capita, and whose debts total $45 billion - a sum that is impossible to repay. These countries do not have enough money for investment, development, health and education, and therefore, they sink deeper into the swamp of poverty every year.
But beyond the grandiose declarations that the world's leaders will issue today, they do not seriously intend to put their hands into their pockets. They are not willing to open their countries' markets to agricultural produce, cotton or minerals from poor African countries, because first and foremost, they protect the powerful agricultural and industrial lobbies breathing down their political necks.
It must also be remembered that this debt forgiveness is not a total write-off, because to date, only international organizations - the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank - have agreed to this step, whereas a large portion of this debt is owed to private commercial banks throughout the world, which are not even considering the possibility of a write-off.
And something else that must be taken into account is that even if the entire $45 billion debt were forgiven immediately, African nations will need another $25 billion in each of the next five years to implement development plans and create jobs that would help them rebuild their ruined economies.
In other words, the bottom line is that despite the impressive performance by Live 8, and despite the fine speeches that will be made in Scotland and a small amount of debt relief, most citizens of the West are not yet willing to lower their own standard of living to help Africa's poor. Ultimately, in the cynical world we inhabit, it's a dog eat dog world - at least, for now.