MONTEVIDEO - Combating poverty is more like a long distance race than a sprint, and in the past two years progress has been made that would have been unthinkable decades ago. But much remains to be done, say activists from all over the world who have gathered together in the Uruguayan capital.
Some 150 representatives of social movements and non-governmental organisations are meeting in Montevideo Thursday to Saturday. They belong to the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP), an international coalition of civil society organisations that was launched at the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2005.
Participants are working on strategies to lobby governments to fulfil their commitment to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Our key demands on rich governments are simple: we want fair trade, we want debt cancellation, not just for some small highly indebted countries but for other poor countries as well, and we want more development aid of higher quality, the South African secretary general of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Kumi Naidoo, said at the inauguration of the GCAP meeting.
CIVICUS is a network of civil society institutions that works to strengthen citizen action and participatory governance throughout the world.
Also present at the inaugural session were Uruguayan Vice President Rodolfo Nin Novoa, and the Indian head of the U.N. Millennium Campaign, Salil Shetty.
Activists at the meeting are emphasising that GCAP has been successful because it has managed to place matters such as accountability, democratic participation, human rights, fair trade, cancellation of foreign debt, more and better development aid, equality, and fulfilment of the MDGs, firmly on the agenda of the most powerful nations.
The MDGs, adopted by U.N. member countries in 2000, are halving extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters and infant mortality by two-thirds, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, adopting an environmentally sustainable development model, and building a global partnership for development.
Most of the specific MDGs are to be achieved by 2015, on 1990 levels.
Naidoo told IPS that in his view, important progress had been made in terms of changing the debate on policies for eradicating poverty.
Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable even to talk about debt forgiveness, he said. So getting the Group of Eight (G8) most powerful economies to accept the principle of debt cancellation, even if not quite in the way we would like, is important, he added.
It's too little, too late, but it is definitely a shift in the right direction, said Naidoo.
To keep a sense of perspective we must remember that we are only two years old; the GCAP network was launched in January 2005. We have many faults, but we must keep in mind what we have achieved, which in some ways has been spectacular, he added.
Naidoo said GCAP has contributed two major achievements. One is that the G8 has waived the debt of 14 countries in Africa and four in Latin America, even though that is just a small step. Many other countries should benefit from the same treatment, he said.
He also pointed out that GCAP has created a large, broad base for fighting world poverty.
GCAP says that 30,000 children die every day, one every three seconds, as a result of extreme poverty. Around 500,000 children under five will die this year in southeast Asia and the Pacific from that cause.
Over one billion people are living on less than a dollar a day and do not have access to clean water.
However, significant progress has been made, activists acknowledge. Last year the U.N. reported that in Asia there are 200 million fewer people living in extreme poverty, or indigence, than in 1990. In Africa, the proportion of people living in poverty will be halved, according to U.N. forecasts.
Access to primary education is above 90 percent in Latin America, the Caribbean, a large part of Asia and the republics of the former Soviet Union, bringing the goal of universal primary education by 2015 that much closer.
Hunger has retreated since 1990 all over the world, the activists admit, but not enough for it to be halved by 2015.
Meanwhile, inequality is increasing, and its impact hits women hardest. This is morally unacceptable, Naidoo said.
In Montevideo, the activists are emphasising the need for fair trade to encourage development. GCAP says that an increase of just one percent in developing countries' share of global export trade could rescue 128 million people from poverty.
They are also demanding changes in trade rules that affect the poorest nations. As an illustration, they indicate that cows in Europe receive more in subsidies per day than half the population of Africa.
Shetty, head of the Millennium Campaign, pointed out that progress is still tentative, although the timescale for the MDGs has run half its course.
Taking a global overview, I think a good deal has been done on some of the goals, such as education, he told IPS. It is remarkable that some countries like Mozambique or Ghana, Rwanda and Bangladesh are on track to achieve many of the goals, he added.
If some of the poorest countries can do quite well, why can't others do better? Shetty wondered.
In Mozambique, debt relief has allowed the government to invest 18.5 million dollars in health. The southeast African country provided free vaccines and was able to immunise half a million children against tetanus, whooping cough and diphtheria.
Latin America is generally doing well with respect to the MDGs, with the exception of some of the goals, like those related to poverty and hunger. The major issue in this region is inequality and social exclusion. If better distribution of resources is not achieved, the situation will not change, Shetty warned.
GCAP has several activities planned for this year, including making contacts with G8 leaders in June, reviewing the MDGs in July, and celebrating the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on Oct. 17.
The theme for 2007 is "Stand Up and Speak Out", inspired by the campaign in 2006 which organised 23 million people all over the world to rise to their feet in protest against poverty in an event which set a Guinness world record.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.