WASHINGTON - If past United Nations summits are any indication, Manhattan this week will teem with heads of state and government, experts and academics, bureaucrats and activists--in short, all manner of spokesperson and lobbyist for the development industry but none of the poor people for whom they claim to toil and speak.
Enter the charity ActionAid International, which said it spent the past three months interviewing 340,000 villagers in 18 poor countries and compiling a report designed to bring their voices to New York in time for the Sep. 14-16 U.N. summit on poverty and the world body's future.
Most villagers feel they are as badly or even worse off today than they were five years ago, when U.N. member states committed themselves to the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the group said. These include halving extreme poverty, preventing disease, and eradicating illiteracy by 2015.
''For our world's very poorest people, life is getting worse, not better,'' said Ramesh Singh, ActionAid International's chief executive officer.
Whether the villagers' experiences have any impact on world leaders, agency chiefs, and their retinues remains to be seen. Negotiators charged with hammering out an action plan to snatch the millennium goals from the talons of failure worked through Monday night stripping the document of its most ambitious goals in an effort to end bickering among U.N. member states in time for Wednesday's summit opening.
Developing countries remained stymied in demanding that Western powers stop dumping cheap agricultural products on world markets and open their own markets to greater competition from Third World exporters so these countries could reduce their dependence on foreign aid.
Wealthy nations spend $1 billion per day on export subsidies that shield their farmers from competition by enabling them to dump cheap produce on world markets, the U.N. said last week in its latest annual 'Human Development Report'. That sum eclipses the $1 billion per year allocated to helping develop agriculture in poor countries.
ActionAid joined fellow advocates Oxfam International, Eurodad, and Eurostep Tuesday in calling on the European Union (EU) to stop a handful of countries from ''sabotaging the summit'' starting Wednesday, according to a joint statement.
The groups voiced concern that Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, India, and the United States appeared determined to block or water down a draft measure on governments' ''responsibility to protect civilians'' that proponents said could prevent future genocides such as the one in Rwanda.
''More worrying is the position of the United States, which is leading initiatives to weaken commitments to poverty reduction by undermining efforts for more aid, deeper debt relief, and trade justice,'' the groups said.
The administration of President George W. Bush dropped its initial stiff opposition to any mention of the millennium goals, the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, and previous World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements to ensure fair treatment for exporters in rich and poor countries alike.
Instead, U.S. negotiators said they would allow other countries to reaffirm these commitments and a decades-old pledge to donate 0.7 percent of their national economic output to non-military aid--so long as this in no way obliged Washington to join in.
Agreement also eluded negotiators on terrorism, disarmament, and changes needed to make the U.N. more efficient.
All of which will provide no comfort to the afflicted, said ActionAid.
Hunger is a daily fact of life in 64 percent of villages and social services cover only half of all villages, it said.
Four out of five school-age girls have never been inside a classroom and women often get less than half the wages paid to men, according to ActionAid.
Schooling remains too expensive for most families and few communities have school meal programs, meaning that families must shoulder the cost not only of school fees but also of feeding their children while they are at school.
In consequence, most children--including some as young as five years--drop out and are put to work for wages in 71 percent of villages. Even so, seasonal unemployment compounds poverty in 83 percent of the developing world's settlements.
While some countries have pushed the international community to improve political and civil rights, most have neglected the economic and social rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ActionAid said.
''The rights to food, employment, shelter, water, health, education, and enabling the poor to claim them should be the basic requirements for governments,'' said the report, ''Whose Freedom: MDGs As If People Matter.''
Yet, ''in none of the countries were rights to food, water, shelter, employment/work, health outlined as rights guaranteed by the government and which citizens could claim.''
ActionAid said it based its report on the views of villagers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Senegal, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Brazil and Guatemala.