Global Policy Forum

Anti-Poverty Fight Needs More Than Money


By Suzanne Hoeksema

October 19, 2009

"Investing in children and securing their rights is one of the surest ways to ending poverty," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told 1,500 students at the United Nations International School in New York City Friday as part of the Stand Up Take Action Campaign organized by the UN Millennium Campaign.

Over the weekend of Oct. 16 to 18, millions of people around the globe used the occasions of World Food Day and World Anti-Poverty Day to push their leaders harder to meet longstanding pledges for every human being to have the essentials of a decent life, such as housing and clean drinking water.

In a bitter irony, World Food Day should be called 'No Food Day' for almost one of every six people in the world this year, said World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

With just six years left until the deadline by which heads of state have pledged to reduce extreme poverty by half, Salil Shetty, director of the UN Millennium Campaign, says that Stand Up is a stark reminder that citizens "do not accept excuses for governments breaking promises to the world's poorest and most vulnerable citizens".

Last year, more than 116 million people participated in the Stand Up action, breaking the Guinness World Record for the largest mobilization of human beings in recorded history.

Facilitated by Skype and Upstream to connect global citizens in the campaign, this year organizers aimed to exceed that number.

In India, campaigners took the streets to demand functional health centres in every village, town and county; in Nigeria, thousands of people at music concerts by Sarah Mitaru and Femi Kuti signed a petition demanding accountability and transparency from their government in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In South Korea, thousands demonstrated calling on their government to increase overseas aid; in Egypt, worshipers in more than 5,000 mosques and churches stood up during Friday sermons and Sunday Masses.

In South Africa, thousands of rugby fans showed their solidarity at the beginning of each match in Johannesburg with anti-poverty activists; and in Palestine, all children between the ages of 5-18 in schools administered by the UN Relief and Works Agency read the pledge, crouched, and stood up, just as the children did at UNIS in New York.

In Manhattan, customers a G-STAR brand clothing store could chat directly with Kenyan schoolchildren, in an event attended by the actor Tyson Beckford.

Still, at several Stand Up events in New York, the turnout was disappointing. In general, awareness in the United States of the MDGs lags far behind the European Union and other western states.

Agreed to in 2000, the goals include a 50 percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a North-South global partnership for development.

Part of the reason for the campaign's lower profile here is that under the previous George W. Bush administration, little priority was placed on the MDGs, said Anita Sharma, director of the UN Millennium Goal Campaign North America. /

"We have been helped by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN ambassador for the U.S. Susan Rice, who have said that these goals were also American goals," she told IPS.

With a charged domestic battle over health care reform, the war in Afghanistan and the financial crisis dominating newspaper headlines, little room is left for global poverty - especially with many people facing their own financial struggles, Sharma said.

"It is true that the financial crisis has brought home to the U.S. the fact that poverty can affect everybody, but what we are talking about is extreme poverty, about those 1.4 billion people who live on 1.25 dollars a day," she added.

The Stand Up Campaign hopes to convince U.S. citizens, as well as their government, that meeting the MDGs is in their own and everyone's interest for moral, economic and security reasons.

"It is the hardest part," Sharma admitted. "We have to explain to people what are the MDGs, why they matter, what the relation to Stand Up is, and how people can take action. So it is a delicate, multi-step process."

So far, faith-based organizations and student groups in the U.S. have been among the most active in the Stand Up Campaign.

Another challenge is explaining to people what poverty really is and what are its deeper causes, as "achieving the MDG's will require much more than just development aid", Sharma said.

While new figures show that rich countries will deliver 33 billion U.S. dollars less in aid to developing countries than promised, the root causes of poverty are not solved by giving more food or money, which will only put a band-aid on the problem, she said.

To understand why people are discriminated against and how they get trapped in the cycle of poverty, Sharma said that the MDGs should be viewed through the lens of human rights, since structural poverty is, ultimately, a human rights issue.

Progress has been particularly minimal in areas with indigenous populations and minority groups, because they are not only poor, but also marginalized.

The same goes for women, who are in some countries deprived of land and property rights and have less access to education than their male counterparts, thereby creating a feminization of poverty.

"People who are not educated, and therefore illiterate, do not know their rights to begin with, so they cannot have a voice in how their lives are changed," Sharma said.

While the MDGs are focused on socioeconomic issues such as reducing hunger, ensuring maternal health care and primary education, human rights experts have argued that the MDGs lack a human rights perspective - without which, the goals will never be reached over the longer term, they say.

A paradoxical point in case is Rwanda, a country that is doing very well on the MDG checklist, especially in terms of impressive gender equality in government, but that is not considered a democracy because of its restrictions on freedom of expression and association.

On the flip side, a country that meets the MDGs will likely provide a more viable foundation for future democratization.


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