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Blair's challenge to 'Bourneville Man'

The tsunami disaster highlights the question of debt relief. Are we willing to pay more asks Chris Wearmouth.

2005 is going to be, election victory willing, an historic year for the Labour government. Aside from the expected third term, the second half of the year should see Tony Blair setting the agenda for both the G8 and European Union, unprecedented for a British Prime Minister. The sniff of opportunity has got the development industry salivating in anticipation, no more so than when Bono stole the show in Brighton last September. It was an impassioned and well-received appeal, no, demand that the British government take the initiative during their unique leadership of both the G8 and EU to push forward debt relief and AIDS treatment within the developing world, especially Africa. But despite Bono's call for the membership to hold their leadership to account about their development promises, there is a nagging and underlying feeling that no matter how impassioned, how persuasive, how charismatic an address the speech was, his ongoing battle is, and will be in the foreseeable future, in vain.

For even if the UK manages to set the development agenda during its EU presidency, or instigate G8 initiatives, there is a simple fact within Western democracies that has to be faced. Development issues do not win votes. In fact, they are more likely to lose them, both in rural as well as urban areas of the country.

Reform farm subsides and lose the countryside; reduce tariffs on manufactured goods, and those who rely on what little heavy industry is left won't be likely to forgive you either. It is similar to the problems faced by our politicians regarding taxation. Poll after poll cites the public's desire for greater expenditure on education, security, the health service and so on. Yet, election result after election result would indicate that when push came to shove, they would rather not vote for the party that came clean in its manifesto, saying that, to pay for such increases, there would have to be an incremental rise in taxes. Development issues stimulate a comparable response. The public know that the developing world needs financial assistance from Western governments in order to survive. They donate to NGOs and other organisations, whether out of duty, or conscience, or just a plain old will to make things better for those less well-off than ourselves.

However, say to a man in Bourneville that in order for a country such as Ghana to progress and radically improve its citizens lives, he might have to sacrifice his job, as reduced tariffs on chocolate would encourage Ghanaian companies to build their own factories and export their product with lower costs than their Western counterparts, and you may end up with a punch in the mouth, let alone his vote at the next election.

The challenge, therefore, for governments committed to development is to convince our man in Bourneville that his sacrifice is worthwhile; that the future of the country is partly in his hands. It requires, for want of a better phrase, the development industry to sell itself, not to the people who need it, but to the people who may not ever see or appreciate the benefits that they will receive.

There has been much disparagement of the Bush administration over its 'bull in a china shop' approach to the war on terror. But criticism could be laid at the door of the peaceniks for not arguing their case strongly enough and embedding it in the minds of the electorate. They're not arguing clearly enough that, as Bono and many others have championed, the war on terror is inexorably linked to the war on poverty.

That as long as governments all around the world oppress and denigrate their populations with what those populations perceive as the complicit help of Western governments, then extremism will only flourish. So it logically follows that if you reduce poverty and oppression, you reduce the influence that extremists have, and therefore the security threat that their organisations possess. For to reduce poverty and promote equality is to slow down, if not stop, the stream of suicide bombers getting on the bus out of desperation.

And yet this approach to the security threat is denigrated on the campaign trail as being soft, terrorist-friendly. The portrayed 'way forward' is one that fights the symptoms, not the cause of terrorism. We shouldn't be seeing a war on terror.

A true war on terror involves work being done out of public view: the infiltration of terrorist organisations, the gathering of information, the loosening of trade tariffs, the promotion of genuine economic and political development. In other words the kind of work that doesn't win elections, just friends.