WASHINGTON, May 8 (OneWorld) - More than 800 development and human rights activists are gathering here this week, developing and calling on Congress to implement new strategies to tackle world poverty and hunger.
The InterAction Forum represents a "growing momentum among U.S.-based NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) working internationally, congressional offices, executive agencies, and a number of other individuals working on global development to bring U.S. foreign assistance into the 21st century," said Sarah Jane Staats of the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
The Forum is unique in bringing together an extremely diverse group of nonprofit workers -- from Capitol Hill lobbyists to African field workers -- to not only discuss but also take action on a new, holistic approach to international development.
"New Visions to End Poverty" is the theme of this year's Forum, organized by InterAction, the largest coalition of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations focused on the world's poor.
In addition to attending three days of speeches and workshops, more than 200 Forum attendees went to Congress Wednesday to lobby lawmakers for policies more attuned to the needs of poor people around the world. The attendees represented over 80 U.S. and international nonprofit groups, corporations, think tanks, universities, governments, and foundations.
"Our interest is to deal with the root causes [of poverty], to partner with institutions on the ground to make a greater difference; ultimately, this [Forum] is a recognition of a need for the greatest reform of U.S. foreign assistance since the Kennedy administration," InterAction CEO Sam Worthington told OneWorld Wednesday.
The reform the InterAction community seeks is a reorganization of the rules and procedures by which the United States commits money abroad -- "streamlining, consolidating, and elevating into a more powerful agency" the 20 different government bodies currently involved in foreign assistance, according to Worthington.
This kind of foreign assistance reform would in turn facilitate the explicit goal of the Forum, which is to build "a more integrated, holistic approach" to alleviating poverty from the grassroots level up, said Suzanne Kindervatter, director of public affairs at InterAction.
With 165 member organizations working in every developing country of the world, added Kindervatter, InterAction addresses an extremely wide variety of issues, including "hot topics" like climate change and the ongoing food crisis. However, poor peoples' lives are not segmented into issue-categories, and so one of the main objectives of the Forum is to develop a more integral way to empower people in terms of environmental challenges, hunger, health, and education.
To this extent, the inaugural event of the three-day conference focused on the central role that two very broad concepts -- human rights and gender equality -- play in the global struggle against poverty.
The first step to securing one's fundamental human rights is knowing them, said Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Recognizing that 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Robinson emphasized that it is imperative for underprivileged and marginalized communities to know their rights so that they can hold their governments and others accountable to ensure and protect them.
Ela Bhatt, founder of the India-based Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), added that working at the grassroots level with poor laborers in India taught her that "poverty and the loss of freedom are not separate."
For women -- who constitute 70 percent of the world's poor -- the right to decent work serves as a basis for other rights, said Bhatt. If a woman is able to earn her livelihood through fair and dignified means, she will then gain the access needed to fulfill other rights due to her, including decent living standards, health care, and education for herself or her children.
Logistically speaking, the Forum also stands out in a crowd of similar conferences organized around the topics of global development and poverty alleviation. The Forum is "grounded in the voices, and the experiences, and the perspectives, and the recommendations that people on the ground make about how they want to see their lives transformed," said Dr. Patricia Morris of Women for Women International.
And it could not come at a more opportune time, noted Mercy Corps' Joshua Bloom, referencing the extreme global food shortages and the devastating cyclone that hit Burma over the weekend. The Forum, he said, is a "tremendously important juncture because of the crises that are happening" as it brings organizations together "to find ways to speak with a unified voice and come up with solutions together."
"When we bring together our organizations and convene a dialogue," added Barbara Wallace of InterAction, "it's an informed dialogue about what's real -- not necessarily what the media says, not necessarily what politicians say, but what's actually happening....[The Forum] is always designed to make a difference."
VOICES FROM THE FORUM
Mary Maguire, Senior Vice President and Director of Communications, Academy for Educational Development: "I see this conference as really being about ideas, a lot of different points of view and perspectives on foreign aid have been expressed at different sessions, as well as a sense of practical applications, which affects everything from technology to working in a crisis. So I find there's a very good mix of practical applications, as well as ideas, to make [development] work better."
Aubrey Winterbottom, Business Development Manager, Lutheran World Relief: "I think what's always helpful for me when I attend the Forum is the opportunity to network with both peer organizations and representatives from the U.S. government, representatives from foundations, and every element of the international development community.
"[For example,] here we are right now, my colleague and I are meeting with a representative of the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation and we're talking about a really innovative project that we would like to propose in East and West Africa. So that type of opportunity to sit down and talk over coffee or tea is what I find most beneficial."
Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): "I was able to bring the InterAction message and the [AFSC] message to the Hill, Senator Reid's office, and a couple of Congress persons -- that we are very, very concerned about the shrinking of space for civilian oversight of those humanitarian systems of development.
"And this comes in a number of ways, including the military getting more and more involved in humanitarian assistance and development, by USAID moving forward on what they call a partner vetting system, which means that everybody who takes USAID money -- which is not [AFSC], we did not take U.S. government funding, but some of my colleagues here do -- every board member, every staff member, every partner on the ground will have to give [the U.S. government] their name, their social security number, passport number, e-mail, and voicemail so [the government] can run it through their terrorist watch lists. And there's an enormous backlash [to this]. So I've been able to be a voice about that.
"I've also been able to be a voice that we who work for civil society organizations do not believe that there's a role for the military [in development]....
"We have brought our regional directors from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and what they have said to me and what I have been able to observe, about the networking they have been able to do on many issues, has been phenomenal. In fact, at 3 o'clock on Friday when this is all over our Asia director is going to go to a special meeting on Burma -- the situation in Burma -- to try to give some political perspectives to some of these big organizations that might just flood in there with volunteers if it opens up, or with money. You've got to be very sensitive in these cases. So that's been very good.
"I've connected an NGO leader from Burundi with our Africa regional director and they didn't know each other, so that's great....
"There are some challenges for InterAction, and I want to be on the inside helping to reform. I want them to think about that, when you take U.S. government money -- and there are some mega-organizations here that have $500-600 million budgets and they've got contracts with USAID to do that -- I don't think that gives you much room to challenge U.S. government policies. And I'm in an organization that's decided not to take U.S. government funding so that we could criticize the government when we think it needs to be criticized. So I'm going to be a kind of internal voice here. I don't know if they understand what they've got -- so we'll see how it goes."
Michael Carson, Regional Director, Africa Operations, CHF International: "We're introducing ourselves to the larger community, but also trying to keep up with trends related to humanitarian relief. Our Senior VP, Judith Hermanson, presented earlier about transitioning from emergency response to development, which is a big [focus] of CHF.
"And also learning about donors. We're participating in the Bill and Melinda Gates' CEO meeting, also the USAID CEO meetings, and also interacting with other NGOs, both national and international."
Ahmad El Bendary, Founder and Senior Advisor, Islamic Relief: "The purpose of us being here is basically to communicate and contact all other relief and nonprofit organizations and to get in touch with them to see what kind of practices they have and to try to implement these practices -- if possible -- in our organization.
Robert G. Zachritz, Director of Advocacy and Government Relations, World Vision: "One of the key aspects for me is the lobby day, because it shows all the people up here [on Capitol Hill] how Americans will give their own resources to organizations like World Vision....
"For private givers, corporations, to meet up here to say, 'No, U.S. government investment in foreign assistance is not only in our national interest, people care about it because it shows the moral values that we [hold] as a country."
© 2008 One World