Saying the unsayable in 2015

It’s 2015, a year where global debate on development will be loud and active, with the new global sustainable development goals, the conference on how to finance them, and the important climate summit. However, having now been part of development debates for longer than I like to remember, I wonder whether these will be as broad and open as in the past, or whether they will be restricted to the issues more palatable to those who hold power, with a whole range of areas where the powerful also constrain development rendered unsayable.

2015 is also the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, the massive concert-fundraiser that placed a lasting spotlight on global poverty. A popular event not a policy prescription, the development of the Live Aid phenomenon perhaps mirrors the wider world.

The original Live Aid in 1985 responded to the famine in Ethiopia by raising money. It did not set out to look at the local or global causes of the famine – the musicians that heralded Live Aid were even called ‘Band Aid’, a brand of sticking plaster. Live Aid was much criticised for this (although my personal story is that it succeeded in propelling me from my teens onto a lifelong road of campaigning for global justice).

In 2005, opened with Paul McCartney singing “It was twenty years ago today…” came the even bigger follow up, Live Eight. By now things were different. The star-studded concert was explicitly not about raising funds – it was about putting public and political pressure on the forthcoming G8 meeting in Scotland to act on global poverty. The focus was not only on the role of developed countries in contributing aid, but also on how they could remove barriers to development, for example by cancelling unsustainable debts and by making trade rules fairer. It was about tackling problems underlying underdevelopment, rather than sticking a band aid over them.

And then, in 2014, came the Ebola epidemic – and a re-release of the original Band Aid track from 1985. The massive emergency response to Ebola is literally vital, of course. But there has so far been surprisingly little spotlight either on the reasons why the preventable Ebola epidemic happened, or on ensuring the same never happens again.

There is a similar trend in the wider development discussions. It is now generally assumed that developing countries must be in the driving seat of their own development, which represents enormous progress from the hung-over colonial mindset of the past. But we hear much less about the ways that the more powerful actors – whisper it – can sometimes get in the way of this development. Tax treaties that neuter poor countries’ potential to their fair share of revenue from investors are frequently agreed. Capital enters and leaves fragile countries on a whim. Harmful conditions are still attached to aid. Powerful countries still protect their own markets and block poor countries’ access to technology. Lenders are again allowing dangerous levels of debt to build. The kinds of dramatic actions needed to stem climate change are not even on the table.

These types of issues are barely present in the 2015 debates, let alone meaningful ways to ensure they are put into action. If 2015 is to bring the transformational change that everyone agrees they want, we need to rapidly rebalance the debate, and bring the unsayable back into the conversation.