MONTEVIDEO, Jul 27 - Water used to be carried home, usually by women, in large jugs, as is still the case in many poor countries. But now that many people around the world have piped water, they go to the supermarket to buy bottled water.
Today, water is increasingly privately owned. However, "when talking about infant mortality, we talk about access to water as a human right," said Italian deputy foreign minister Patrizia Sentinelli at a seminar for Latin American journalists on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), held Thursday in Montevideo."Water must be recognised as a human right by the United Nations. Otherwise it is a commodity, and water must not be a source of profits. It is part of the cycle of life itself," she said, stressing the need for the press to report on the progress made towards the MDGs, which include a drinking water and sanitation target.
The eight MDGs adopted by the 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, taking 1990 levels as a reference point.
In Uruguay, which hosted the seminar, poverty has gone down since 2005 but "there are areas in which we are still lagging," such as "climate change, in which we have actually taken steps backwards," Pablo Mandeville, resident U.N. coordinator in this South American country, told IPS.
Juan JosÃƒ© Calvo with the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) noted that a U.N. TV spot in Uruguay on condom use included neither a heterosexual teenage couple nor a homosexual couple. The former, he said, would have been necessary in terms of a campaign against teen pregnancy, and both were essential with regard to preventing the spread of AIDS, which is on the rise in the region.
"These are important conceptual elements that are not even reflected in the UNDP's own communications," he commented, after showing a video aimed at raising awareness on the MDGs.
Some 50 journalists from seven South American countries discussed how to report on the MDGs, in the "Forgotten Social Agenda", a seminar-workshop organised by the UNDP (U.N. Development Programme) and the IPS international news agency, under the auspices of the Montevideo city government and the Italian government.
"The word 'poverty' is like the word 'wall'. It's a problem of segregation, but not only for those who are behind it - for society as a whole," said Montevideo Mayor Ricardo Ehrlich.
Sergio Danishewsky, editor of the Society section in ClarÃƒÂn, one of Argentina's leading daily newspapers, bluntly described how that "wall" works in the press.
"The media are subjected to a series of economic and social pressures that make it difficult to report on poverty," he said.
"Poor people are always 'the other'," he said, observing that those who work for large newspapers "are not poor; our incomes are sufficient to live on." He also pointed out that "we have absolutely no day-to-day experience of poverty," which makes it difficult for reporters and editors to truly understand the phenomenon.
Finally, "the poor do not buy our newspapers, and I'm not sure that those who do buy them are interested in what the poor are going through," he added.
All of which means that "reporting on poverty in large daily newspapers whose readers are not poor and whose owners aren't either is something that is not expected of us (journalists)," he said. "Many reporters feel truly distant from poverty, in the sense that they don't understand what is happening in the world in terms of the concentration of income."
In recent years there has been a connection between civil society and efforts to reduce poverty, he said. But "even non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have problems getting the word out on what they are doing" and "adequately channelling their efforts."
Furthermore, "they get bad press," said Danishewsky.
Many NGOs are not completely reliable as journalistic sources, or are not good at presenting their findings, he argued.
While small media outlets feel pressure that conditions their day-to-day work, because of their dependence on ads, especially official advertising, "this is even more true in the case of the large media," he said.
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The relations between the big media and the powers-that-be tend to influence the way certain issues are covered, he said. And even after reporters have gotten around these barriers, they could touch on some interests that the newspaper does not want to upset, which means their reports on poverty-related issues collapse "like a house of cards."
If poverty issues are approached by narrating specific life stories or case histories, the journalist runs the risk of stigmatising the individual, said Danishewsky. But if a success story is told, he added, everyone is aware that it involves an isolated solution to which the majority of poor people will not have access.
And all of these challenges are faced by reporters at the same time, he observed. Nevertheless, he said, "I still believe that a sensitive journalist has the ability to overcome these obstacles and reach a happy ending, which is to tell people snippets of stories."
Alfonso Lessa, journalistic director for Uruguay's channel 12 TV station, said that "probably most reporters, and even more so politicians, are unfamiliar with the MDGS, which, moreover, are not on the journalistic agenda as such."
However, he attributed the "growing presence of social issues in the media" to the current situation in Uruguay and the election of a leftist government, which has adopted programmes to fight poverty.
The Italian deputy foreign minister made suggestions regarding issues involving the MDGs, which reporters rarely see as related to the goals.
One example is climate change and environmental degradation. The seventh MDG is "Ensure environmental sustainability". "But the discussion rarely goes beyond complaints and protests," said Sentinelli.
In Italy, for example, which is in the middle of a hot summer, the excessive use of air conditioners heats up outside temperatures by five or six degrees, she pointed out.
Sentinelli, who is in charge of Italian development aid, has attended every edition of the World Social Forum, held annually in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil or other cities in the developing world since 2001.
The world of development aid and "cooperation has learned from Latin America the value of participative democracy," she said. "The important thing is to recognise the poor as equals, as partners who can help work for change."
One of the initiatives that has emerged from the social forums was Carta Maior, an on-line newspaper produced in SÃƒÂ£o Paulo, Brazil's biggest city.
The publication's editor-in-chief, Flávio Wolf Aguiar, who was one of the speakers at the Montevideo seminar, said that when governments invest in the poor, it is described as "welfare," "public spending" or even "populism."
But when the same governments shell out money to the rich, the phenomenon is referred to as "productive investment," "economic incentives" and a sign of "modern government."
Poor people are characterised in public rhetoric as chiefly responsible for their own poverty, he asserted.
"The most daring and difficult step" taken by Carta Maior was to attempt to give a voice to the people benefiting from government anti-poverty programmes in Brazil, he said.
The publication has also reported on the progress made by the programmes, and on the problems and limitations they have run into, while attempting to investigate how poverty in Brazil, one of the countries in the world with the biggest gaps between rich and poor, had taken on such dimensions.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service