The challenge to global market power won't stop with the general election

By Pascale Palmer
April 12, 2010

It feels like we're living in interesting times. Since Obama swept to power last year, it's as though the UK might be getting the message that enfranchisement is a precious right worth acting on. I'm not saying that Brown, Cameron or Clegg carry with them the hope and light of the 'Yes we can' roadshow, but perhaps the apathy of the past UK general elections will be thrown aside in favour of active participation.

And even in the last days, as the horse-trading of the pre-election wash-up promised little more than half-baked legislation or shelf-filling for the next government, a couple of surprises were thrown up to add to the feeling that there is still a lot to play for.

Last week the Debt Relief Bill and Bribery Bill passed into law. There hasn't been a huge hoo-hah in the media but both pieces of legislation make significant strides towards addressing some pernicious obstacles to poverty alleviation in the poorest countries of the world.

The former will act as a control over the ruthless practices of vulture funds - private companies that buy up poor countries' debts and then sue for repayment on inflated terms. The Debt Relief Act now makes it illegal for any vulture fund to take a heavily indebted poor country (HIPC) to court in the UK to gain repayment of debts on any terms different to those previously agreed. Is it not the cruellest idea imaginable that when a nation is down, and its people are struggling to eat, be educated and stay healthy, that those who are rich come to kick them? And those blows from vulture funds - which can force nations to divert debt relief from citizens to legal compensation - can be so brutal that a nation may be winded for a generation or more.

And then came anti-bribery legislation that creates a new offence of bribing foreign public officials, along with a corporate offence for companies that fail to prevent bribery. People living with poverty suffer most as a result of bribery: it undermines effective governance, transparency and public services, and can lead to the loss of foreign investment. In the wake of the UK government's intervention to prevent investigation into the BAE Systems-Al Yamamah military contract with Saudi Arabia, it also goes some way to ensuring there is someone watching the watchmen. The Bribery Act is a solid stride in the right direction.

Dependent on May 6, these may be Gordon Brown's final actions as Prime Minister of the UK, but in putting them in place, he has started rolling a ball that must not be stopped. Both of these pieces of legislation acknowledge that with global market power comes global responsibility.

Their existence in law may be the first steps towards a sea change in the way the richest economies do business with the poorest.


Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's advocacy media officer

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.