NEW YORK - This weekend, thousands of people around the world will literally "Stand Up Against Poverty" as part of campaign organized by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) to lobby for government action on fair trade and the set of pledges known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
IPS spoke with Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and one of the spokespersons for GCAP, an alliance of 112 national campaigning coalitions, faith groups, trade unions, community groups and individuals.
IPS: Can you explain how the "Stand Up" campaign was conceived? And more generally, how do we judge the real-world impact of such a symbolic gesture?
KUMI NAIDOO: After building on last year's "White Band Days" [wearing a white band to raise awareness about global poverty] -- one around the G8 meeting, one around the UN Millennium Summit and one around the World Trade Organisation meeting -- we thought it was very important to keep up the pressure on governments to deliver on the half-baked commitments they made at the G8 [Group of Eight most industrialised nations].
The idea is to set a Guinness record as a way to get media attention, to get people to feel they are part of doing something innovative. But overall, the purpose really is to start rebuilding global public opinion in favour of the demands to rich countries: debt cancellation, improving the quality of aid and increasing the quantity of aid.
IPS: On your website, you note that GCAP supporters have taken over 30 million actions against poverty since 2005. That's an incredible number. A year later, are you satisfied with the action on debt and poverty alleviation, the MDGs for example, of the G8 -- whose summit in Scotland was the focus of many of the activities?
NAIDOO: It's worth remembering that in GCAP's assessment of what the G8 put on the table, in a one-liner we said that the people roared and the G8 whispered. What was put on the table and what was implemented last year was much less than the global public opinion that we had mobilised. We had anxieties about the conditionalities, about how the aid was being handled, and we wanted many more countries included in that effort, at least about 65 that met our targets. And the G8 did commit to adding additional countries, but that has not yet happened.
In terms of aid, they said that they will increase aid to 50 billion dollars a year by 2010 -- 25 billion for Africa, 25 billion for the rest of the world. But the operative word is "by". It is like responding to the tsunami five years after it happened. And sadly, in the aftermath of the G8, we found that the amount of money being committed for debt cancellation was also being included in the aid money.
The biggest disappointment last year was the total, total absence of movement on trade justice. If we look at the two issues of aid and debt cancellation, it is really about remedial work, remedying the historical injustices of colonialism and so on, whereas trade justice is more forward-looking and gives countries a chance to escape the aid trap. It was supposed to be the "development round" of the trade negotiations, and rich countries, particularly the European Union and the United States, totally violated the spirit of what that trade round was supposed to be about. So that's been a big, big betrayal.
IPS: You note that GCAP is a diverse group, socially and geographically. In terms of activists in developing versus developed countries, are there differences in the message they should be sending to their respective governments -- for example, on questions of debt forgiveness and fair trade?
NAIDOO: In developed countries, the focus is primarily to encourage governments to meet their international commitments on the quantity of aid, which are 35-year-old commitments on percentage of gross national income that were made back in the 1970s when the world was a very different place and countries were still coming out of colonialism. At that time, even though it was never acknowledged by the North, developing countries understood that was part of redressing the crimes of colonialism. And what we've been saying is that more than 35 years is a long time to wait for less than one percent.
In fact, there are only five countries that meet their obligation -- Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. And even the UK government, for example, which supposedly led the fight against poverty last year at the G8, they are only talking about meeting that commitment in 2013, which reflects a lack of understanding of the urgency of the tragedy of poverty and that people are dying every day of preventable causes.
But our demands to the governments of rich countries are also about the quality of aid, because the problem is also the conditionalities that are attached to aid which actually deprive developing countries of economic sovereignty and so on. There are certain demands that are legitimate in terms of good governance. But often it is going beyond in trying to structure aid packages so that a lot of the benefits accrue back to the donors themselves.
To look at some really petty examples, the U.S. says that if you have to fly internationally in the course of your work, you must use U.S. airlines, that kind of thing, all the way up to much more serious structural things like trying to open up market access and getting consultancies for citizens of the donor country.
The other demand of rich countries is on trade justice, and the huge immorality of subsidies. Just to give an example, the EU subsidises the European cow to the tune of two euros a day. Most of the people on the rest of the planet have to survive on less than that. But the implication is that developing countries cannot be in a position to export into developed country markets. And rich countries will then "dump" their goods in developing countries. In Ghana, for example, farmers cannot even sell produce at a reasonable price to make it worth their while in their own markets.
On debt cancellation, it's making the point that for every one dollar in aid rich countries give to poor countries, they're extracting seven dollars in debt repayments. The important thing is to understand that some of these loans were given consciously by institutions like the World Bank knowing that they were giving these loans to governments, during the Cold War period for example, for political advantage, and were giving them to regimes that could hardly make a claim for being democracies. So why should a new generation of citizens, and in come cases much more improved governments, have to carry the burden of debts incurred? And most of these countries have actually paid back the principle of the debts, and it is merely the interest that they continue to have to pay.
In the South, what we are saying to our governments is that listen, we do understand at a macro level that a lot of the things that stand in your way are related to the structural injustices of trade and global economics, and that lots of responsibility lies with rich country governments. However, there cannot be any excuse for not making progress around things that are within their immediate control. So you cannot blame colonialism and an unjust trading system for failing to make progress in the following areas -- that is movement toward a stronger human rights culture, effective democracy, gender equality and anti-corruption. And overall, if those things are addressed, then we would hope the end result would be greater development effectiveness in addressing the different MDGs.
IPS: So you're trying to set a Guinness World Record on Sunday and Monday -- how does that actually work? Who does the counting?
NAIDOO: To set the record, we have to have at least 10,000 people to participate. Even if there is not an event near where you live, you can do it as an individual, you can do it with your family or a group of friends. All you have to do is go onto the whiteband.org website and there are very simple instructions how you can register the number of people who actually participated in your home or your community or your religious congregation and so on.
IPS: Are there other mass GCAP mobilisations on the horizon?
NAIDOO: We will be participating in the World Social Forum next year in Nairobi, and one idea is on Jul. 7, 2007, we will reach the halfway mark to the MDGs and that may be a major global mobilsation moment.
I think the importance of these mobilisation events is to connect with people who are working under very difficult circumstances on a daily basis, under really lonely circumstances quite often. Right now as I speak to you, the two leaders of GCAP in Ethiopia, Daniel Bekele and Netsanet Demissie, have been imprisoned for a year and are standing trial for treason and genocide solely because of a peaceful demonstration that they were part of organising to protest the fact that there were irregularities in the election.
And so I visited them in prison in April, and you want to talk about loneliness and having your rights taken away, people are paying a price for their involvement. So for them and others to know that you are part of something that is bigger than your community, your country, your region is important, and it is important to give people a sense that we are moving forward. Yes, this is a difficult struggle, but you are not acting on your own, and even if things are looking bleak in your country, there's a reason to be optimistic.
© Copyright 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service