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The G-8 at Gleneagles

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To use the language of the “new” G-8, I cannot get my head round next month's summit at Gleneagles. Ostensibly it is running true to form. G8 summits have become a cynic's byword for extravagance, platitude and glitz. But since Tony Blair unofficially signed up Bob Geldof as "G-9", the summit's objective seems to have changed. It is no longer to combat world poverty directly but to "raise awareness". Since this can be defined in terms of airtime and column inches, a summit succeeds by doing what it anyway does best. The more it spends on itself the more likely the target is met. The G-8 is the New G-8, with built-in cynicism deflection.

These gatherings are 30 years old this year. They were founded by the French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, in 1975 as "library chats" between the heads of rich first-world governments. There would be no aides present and agendas would be ad hoc. By keeping meetings small and informal the exalted could commune "above the level of petty bureaucratic concerns". Like Giscard's recently doomed exercise in European constitution-building things soon got out of hand. The group of five became eight. Canada was included but China, India and anyone black or brown was kept out.

Today the G-8 outstrips Henry VIII's Field of Cloth of Gold in extravagance and posturing. Informality has vanished. Host nations spend lavishly on hospitality and call it "showcasing". Officials are told to draft statements of stupefying emptiness. Favoured topics include free trade, energy conservation, climate change and, from some sense of shame, poverty. The last has predominated, as George Bush curtly remarks, "as long as I have been president".

Locations have been made ever more inaccessible to protect delegates from infuriated demonstrators. In 2000 the Japanese held a summit "to discuss world poverty" at a cost of $500m on Okinawa. The same theme was proposed for the most outrageous summit, Genoa in 2001, when Silvio Berlusconi regaled delegates with submarine protection, athletic masseurs, three tenors and £10m of security per head. The mob howled on the quayside and were beaten up by the carabinieri.

This so terrified the Canadians that in 2002 they decided to discuss world poverty deep in the Rocky Mountains. It was there that Blair felt the "hand of history" upon him. He had decided to "halve world poverty within a decade" and would start with Africa. When Blair talks about poverty today we should remember that this is his sixth successive bite at the cherry. The exploitation of global misery to justify a politico/celebrity extravaganza is global diplomacy at its most obscene.

Gleneagles is reportedly costing even more than Genoa, £12m a head in security. So paranoid are delegates that £50m is being spent on policingm alone. Nine million pounds is going on moving, feeding and sleeping eight delegates "informally" for just three days. You need not be a rabid left-winger to find these sums of money inexcusable.

This year's gimmick is that the G-8 will "incorporate its critics" by half-welcoming Bob Geldof's Glastonbury-style music festival. Blair is now travelling the world on a pre-conference jaunt with celebrity endorsements from Madonna, Sting, Bono, Elton John, Ms Dynamite, Mariah Carey and a million wrist-bands. He has a backing track being rehearsed in London, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris and Rome. Who says G-8 is not reaching out? Nor does Geldof even mean to raise money, apart from the £1.6m he must give Prince Charles for evicting his charities from Hyde Park on July 2. He need only show air time to meet his awareness target. Never say the British cannot do chutzpah.

The rich world has thus attained nirvana. The Good Samaritan need no longer cross the road. He need only be “aware" and cry "Hey man, wow, right on!" The G-8 and Geldof have finally accepted Margaret Thatcher's exegesis, that the real point of the biblical parable is that the Samaritan had to get rich in the first place.

The meat in this beanfeast is supposedly supplied by Gordon Brown. His contribution is to repackage the familiar summit trio of aid, debt relief and trade preference. But which? The classic test of any discussion of world poverty is which of these policies takes centre stage.

Aid - Geldof's "just give us the fogging money" - has become increasingly discredited, for reasons that run through Blair’s own mostly admirable Commission for Africa report. The Americans have balked at offering more since they already give $7.5 billion and claim to prefer outcomes to inputs. I have some sympathy with them. The days are gone when the west sees any point in pouring money into Africa with no way of ensuring it is well spent. Blair's pledge to "double aid in ten years" is meaningless targetry. Nor have decades of bellyaching about corruption done any good. Why should an African leader promise elections in return for aid to his poor? Elections merely give someone else the Geneva bank account.

Debt relief is more complex. Brown's idea of waiving it for tsunami states vanished when the states realised they might lose credit thereby. His pet International Finance Facility has been scaled down but remains debt by another name. Nor has anyone come up with a way of ensuring that relieving debt really helps Africa’s poor rather than its rich. Debt certainly cripples the so-called Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, but Gleneagles is not needed to progress the existing British/American relief plan. The best way to help these states is not to press them into further debt, which is what Brown seems to propose. It is to help Africans repay their borrowing themselves.

Which brings us to trade. If the G-8 really cares about world poverty it will avoid Gleneagles and meet instead on a Glasgow dockside. There delegates will watch the unloading of a cargo of sugar, rice, fruit, cotton and coal from the third world. Afterwards they will sail out into the Clyde and witness the ceremonial sinking of a ship crammed with their own surpluses, about to be dumped on African markets. That is not dumb awareness-raising. It is really tackling world poverty.

For the past six years the G-8 has been preaching relief yet maintaining vicious trade sanctions against Africa and Asia. It has denied them markets for their produce and flooded them with surpluses. At this very moment, millions of tons of subsidised European and American sugar and cotton are being dumped on Africa, destroying local industries and impoverishing populations. This has nothing to do with corruption or lethargy or "ungovernable Africa". It is economic warfare by the G-8 against the poor.

The best thing Gleneagles could do is announce not another fancy aid package but a revival of Britain's old imperial preference. This means more than debating the EU's partnership agreements, promising to buy specific goods from specific poor countries, and not dump on them in return. It means actually implementing such agreements. Yet I see from the pre-Gleneagles spin that Britain is downplaying trade in favour of yet more aid and debt relief. The reason, I fear, is simple. Pledging taxpayers' money costs politicians nothing. Since the pledge is seldom honoured, it also barely costs the taxpayer.

Trade is a different matter. It means confronting lobbies, upsetting producers, withdrawing subsidies. It means doing, not talking. Its benefits are seen not on western television but in the markets of Lagos, Accra, Abidjan, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam. That is why trade reform has no purchase on the White House, Brussels or the Blair/Geldof agenda. Aid is sexy. It makes its recipients dependent and its donors feel good. There is neo-imperialist streak in the Make Poverty History movement. Trade is mercantile and often “unfair”. It is always scrutinised for a juicy boycott.

If Blair is serious about "tackling world poverty" he would devote his present junketing to one objective, to a crash programme of preferential, bilateral trade deals with poor countries. This is the only action that offers a robust and lasting cure to world poverty. If, as seems certain, Blair finds all ears deaf to this demand, he has one recourse. He should cancel Gleneagles as pointless. He should send the £100m it will cost straight to Oxfam and present a urgent trade preference bill to parliament. If he and Bob Geldof really need to bask in each other's glory, they can stage an annual rally in Trafalgar Square naming and shaming the countries that refused, at Gleneagles in 2005, to take poverty seriously. All else is flam.