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Politicians Called to Account for Failing the Poor

Haidir Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS -- Government leaders across the world are being shamed for failing to keep their words on eliminating extreme poverty.

As the timetable to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has approached the midway point, criticism is mounting against governments for their failures. 0712 06

Last Saturday, demonstrators took to the streets in more than 40 countries around the world accusing governments of not doing enough to achieve the MDGs.

The MDGs are a series of targets set by the international community in 2000 to reduce poverty, illiteracy, diseases, and environmental degradation by 2015.

From Azerbaijan in Asia to Benin in Africa, anti-poverty activists staged rallies and sit-ins to demand that governments take urgent steps to meet the MDG targets.

"We are always reminded that the growth rate of African economies has improved, but the reality shows that poverty is increasing," said Christophe Zoungrana of the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP).

GCAP, an anti-poverty umbrella organization that coordinated the worldwide protests on July 7, holds that official policy makers are directly responsible for the suffering of millions of people who work every day, but remain poor.

According to the UN, more than 1 billion people continue to make their living on less than one dollar a day. In addition to them, another 1 billion have no access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.

Critics say the facts that the number of people dying with AIDS increased to 2.9 million in 2006 and that over half a million women lost their lives during pregnancy demonstrate that governments are falling far behind in achieving the MDGs.

"(It) does not make for happy reading," said Louise Arbour, the top UN human rights official, who agrees with GCAP and other civil society groups that governments have not been honoring their commitments.

Studies show that in order to meet the goals on health, education, and water sanitation, only $47 billion is required, which is not even a small fraction of the $1 trillion the world spends on military allocations each year.


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And what would it take to provide clean water to 1 billion people? By 2015, researchers estimate it would cost no more than $4 billion a year, an amount equivalent to what Europeans spend on bottled water every month.

In Arbour's view, many governments are failing to achieve the MDGs because their policies are not inclusive of internationally recognized human rights standards.

"Poverty is frequently a cause, as well as consequence, of human rights violations," she said. "A focus on global average progress glosses over entrenched patterns of discrimination and inequality that can sentence communities to generations of poverty."

In calling for an end to the continued disparities and patterns of discrimination at the local level, Arbour said achieving the MDGs on time also requires global cooperation, which she believes is not forthcoming despite many commitments made in the past.

Recently, wealthier countries have given some relief to the poor on accumulated debt, but, on the other hand, they have backed out of promises for development aid. Last year, they further reduced the assistance they provide to help poorer countries develop their economies, and more of the same is expected this year.

"Quality and predictability of aid remains problematic, as do distortions in international trade," Arbour said in a veiled criticism of the economic policies pursued by rich, industrialized countries.

For their part, GCAP activists and their allies charged that the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries were mainly responsible for the failure to meet the development goals in many parts of the world.

"They have been strolling towards the MDGs as though there is all the time in the world," said Bono, U2 singer and cofounder of the non-profit group DATA, about the G8 leaders. "But the poorest people don't have all the time in the world."

"Every day that passes means more mothers are losing their children to malaria or diarrhea," he added in a statement. "This is madness. In Europe and America, we give aid, but not enough, and we trade, but only on our own terms."

GCAP leaders said their protests on July 7 were just the beginning and that they would continue to pressure governments throughout the year. They also plan to take part in the "Stand up and Speak Out" activities to be organized by the UN Millennium Campaign on October 17.

"We will be watching every minute through to 2015 and will hold the politicians to account," Bono said.

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