By Max Lawson

Dear Friends,

I hope this finds you well.

G7 Farce and Failure

It was a summers day in Rostock, a small, rather dilapidated town on the Baltic coast north of Berlin, and all hell was breaking loose.  The march had started peacefully, and Oxfam was ideally placed between the Scouts and the anarchist Black Bloc.  We were chanting, singing, and generally having fun being rude about the G8 (it was still the G8 then as Russia was yet to be expelled).  But then as soon as we came to a halt a full-on riot ensued, with burning cars, paving stones being thrown, police responding with tear gas and water cannons- all in a matter of moments.

M.Buschmann, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This small but surprisingly violent protest at the German G8 in 2007 was nothing compared to earlier protests- notably the long run of protests against globalisation which began at the WTO summit in Seattle in 1999 and culminated in a huge march in Genoa and subsequent protests which were famously and brutally attacked by the Italian police, killing one protester and injuring many more in a series of appalling attacks.  Infamously the police invaded a school where unarmed demonstrators were staying.  People were beaten unconscious; thrown downstairs. One journalist was kicked so hard six ribs were broken and his lung punctured. Those injured were then held in terrible conditions and subjected to torture. The Italian state was eventually found to be guilty of torture by the European Court of Human rights in 2017.

I wasn’t in Genoa- I was living in Malawi at the time and by the time I came to work on the G7 things had calmed down a lot- partly because of 9/11 and partly because the G7 leaders had worked out that it was a better idea to meet in obscure hard to get to places away from large populations.

That said I have seen my fair share of protests- the G20 protests in London in 2009 were particularly spectacular.

Left is Right: One I took at the G20 protests in London

I find the atmosphere at such protests electric and scary- the huge phalanxes of often nervous looking policemen in full riot gear.  The military level of police hardware- armoured cars, water cannon, tear gas.  The bravery of protesters in confronting this power to demand a better world, risking injury and imprisonment.  They do not usually face the same risks as protesters in dictatorships like Myanmar (which makes my respect for those protesters even more profound) but nevertheless they are taking very real risks to protest the incredible inequality of our world.   It is at these summit moments you get to see the naked power of the state in a way that is far more on show in most of the world but carefully obscured normally in western democracies behind a veneer of respectability.

(I should say also that I am a complete coward.  I have never been at the front of a march, never tussled with a policeman, never been arrested- I am happy to be there, to shout and take part, but so far never brave enough to put myself on the frontline.  Maybe one day.)

It has been a while since I attended a summit though, so it was fun last weekend to go down to Cornwall for the G7.  Cornwall is one of the most picturesque but also one of the most unequal parts of the UK, with deep poverty living alongside tremendous wealth.

The G7 if of course a completely illegitimate and unrepresentative body. Yet it remains a gathering of seven of the richest countries in the world. On the rare occasion it decides to do something good, like cancel some of the debts of the poorest countries, it can make a big difference.

This kind of action is extremely rare though for a reason.  This is because these leaders, although very powerful, are first and foremost national politicians, elected by citizens of their own countries.  They are not elected to solve global issues; there are very few votes in saving the world.

Often leaders see a G7 largely like a football or other sporting tournament- and they will often seek to host the G7 in a poor rundown area where they want to build support.  This is definitely the case in Cornwall- although it has now emerged that families were made homeless and put out on the street to free up hotel space for the G7.

Beyond this they see these events primarily as ways to boost their domestic standing; so Boris was of course incredibly keen to bask in the glow of Joe Biden post-Brexit, and pick fights with the EU. That of course is very popular with the right-wing press who still seem to be upset about Napoleon.  His seriousness about achieving progress on development issues at the G7 summit was quite clear when he announced a few months before he was slashing the UK’s own aid budget.

Such parochialism is nothing new.  Even Franklin Roosevelt, the most internationalist of US Presidents, constantly had to see everything through the prism of domestic politics.  He was for example unable to support the republican side in the Spanish Civil War for example because of his fear of upsetting the catholic vote at home.

But I think what is new is the sheer scale of the gap between the crises the G7 is facing and the parochialism and nationalism of our political leaders.  We are facing a once in century global health catastrophe.  Coronavirus is driving global poverty back up again and is likely to lead to inequality rising in almost every country on earth for the first time ever. We have nine years to prevent complete climate breakdown.  Yet Boris Johnson chose instead to use his G7 to pick a fight with France over sausages.

President Biden is of course clearly a huge improvement on his predecessor, and certainly most things of substance on the G7 agenda, whether it was a global minimum tax or lifting patents on vaccines were the result of a newly resurgent US.  But even President Biden failed to step up last weekend in anything like the way he both could and must if we are to vaccinate the world and stop climate breakdown.   

In the absence of any globally elected political leaders, we are forced to look to national leaders to tackle global issues, which is almost guaranteed to disappoint.  Conversely our global institutions are led by unaccountable elites, who are often white men from the global north and very politically tone-deaf.  This is the case with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation for instance, whose director thought it was fine recently to retweet the talking points of Big Pharma.

Outside the summit, the protests in Cornwall were not big, but they were certainly colourful and extremely creative, especially those by Extinction Rebellion which were also very moving.   Avaaz organised an amazing People’s Vaccine sand sculpture- you can watch it being done here.

Source: Avaaz

We contributed our fair share with our G7 Big Heads- a traditional fixture of the G7 summits now.  Without fail for years the Italians change their Prime Minister at the last-minute necessitating some frantic head-making.  I remember the year that Tony Blair’s head was dropped and cracked on the eve of the summit, and we had to buy him a sun-visor to cover up the crack.  It felt quite symbolic at the time. This year I did not get the chance to put one on- in the past I have been Bush, Brown and a range of other now forgotten leaders.  It is fun but you really can’t see anything, so it is very weird.

Our role at such summits is largely to try and counteract the overwhelming power of seven sets of spin doctors coming together and get some semblance of criticism into the global media.  The UK in particular is very good at public relations; it is one of our biggest industries, together with tax avoidance and arms sales; so we had our work cut out.

I am not sure how well we did, and no doubt the public will primarily remember the #sausagegate but I think at least on the vaccines and climate issues we were able to show that what the G7 agreed to do was shamefully small, and what a clear opportunity was squandered.

The G7 will continue to meet, the circus will continue, and we will continue to protest.  But right now it is hard to feel optimistic. Many people will suffer as a result of their profound inadequacy and inability to rise to the challenges of the moment.

I got to show Boris how I feel about his stance on Pharma patents

Jeff Bezos staying in space

I remember when I first started at Oxfam, being in the pub with the then head of research. On the table was a copy of the Sun newspaper- our most widely read and very right-wing tabloid.  He told me to look at the editorial page- where they have 200 word editorials on the issues of the day.  He said, ‘Max that is some of the best, most concise, most powerful and persuasive writing in the UK today’. 

This headline from another tabloid last week, the Daily Star, I think has to be one of the funniest tabloid headlines of all time.

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is about to fulfil his dream and blast off into space.   He said famously that he could not think of anything to spend his billions on on earth, so he was going to splash his fortune in space instead.  He is in competition with Richard Branson to set up the first space tourism service.

Meanwhile, down here on earth, we could vaccinate the developing world for $25 billion dollars, which is about 1/8th of his current worth of nearly $200 billion dollars.

Not just one but a series of petitions have been started calling for him to be prevented from re-entering the atmosphere (thanks to Alex for sharing).  I leave it up to you whether you want to sign.

Have great weekends everyone.

Cheers, Max.

Max is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Chair of the global Peoples Vaccine Alliance.