WASHINGTON - Well over 100 million people around the world are expected to "stand up" this weekend to call governments to action on poverty, hunger, and gender inequalities -- a set of global issues that most Americans say they would like their government to fund much more than it has.
What's the Story?
Last year, some 116 million people worldwide took part in the weekend-long events to "Stand Up, Take Action, End Poverty Now!" That set a new Guinness World Record for largest mobilization of human beings in recorded history. Organizers are aiming to break that record this year.
Participants are calling on their governments to take concrete steps to achieve the so-called Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets to cut extreme poverty and hunger in half, reduce HIV/AIDS and child and maternal mortality, get children into school, and ensure women's equality in society, all while protecting the environment. World leaders agreed at a summit in 2000 to commit the funding and implement the programs necessary to achieve the goals by 2015.
"With just six years left until the deadline ... 'Stand Up' will be a stark reminder that citizens will not accept excuses for governments breaking promises to the world's poorest and most vulnerable citizens," said Salil Shetty, Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, in a statement this week.
"This year's mobilization will place particular emphasis on telling world leaders that their track record on women's rights, maternal mortality, and hunger is unacceptable," Shetty added. "Citizens refuse to accept the fact that 70 percent of the people living in poverty are women and children and 500,000 women continue to die annually in the process of giving life, and they are demanding urgent action from their leaders."
Thousands of "Stand Up" events will be held across the world this weekend, from a lamp-lighting ceremony during India's Festival of Lights to a "poverty hearing" in Peru. Attendees at a college football game in Montreal will be asked to stand up against poverty, and
New Yorkers will "Stand Up and Dance" tonight at a party organized by the humanitarian group Mercy Corps and the ONE Campaign. Across Europe, radio stations will simultaneously play Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" on Saturday.
The latest United Nations progress report shows that, while important advances have been made toward most of the goals, not enough has been done to achieve them by 2015 in all parts of the world.
As of June 2008, for example, South Asia was on track to meet the anti-poverty and universal education goals, but only one of the three women's equality targets and two of the four environmental marks. On the health goals, the region, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal as well as several other less populous nations, was only on track to reverse the spread of tuberculosis; efforts have not been sufficient to meet the child mortality, maternal health, or HIV/AIDS goals, if current trends continue.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, by contrast, poverty and employment rates remain a serious concern, along with school enrollment levels, maternal health and HIV/AIDS. But the hunger, child mortality, and tuberculosis goal are likely to be met, along with three of the four environmental targets and two of the three women's equality goals.
Sub-saharan Africa, however, is not on track to meet a single goal.
The global economic crisis and the impacts of climate change threaten to further stymie progress, warned UN chief Ban Ki-moon in the forward to the UN report, but a renewed commitment from world leaders can still ensure the goals' achievement.
"The right policies and actions, backed by adequate funding and strong political commitment, can yield results," said Ban. "Fewer people today are dying of AIDS, and many countries are implementing proven strategies to combat malaria and measles, two major killers of children. The world is edging closer to universal primary education, and we are well on our way to meeting the target for safe drinking water."
"Our efforts to restore economic growth should be seen as an opportunity to take some of the hard decisions needed to create a more equitable and sustainable future," added Ban.
Finding the Money
There is plenty of money available to reach the goals -- the evidence is in the hundreds of billions of dollars found to bail out banks around the world last year, said Adelaide Sosseh of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, an international umbrella group of organizations that is helping to organize this week's "Stand Up" events.
Education experts believe, for example, that just $11 billion more per year could ensure "education for all" by 2015.
The price tag on ending world hunger is estimated at about $30 billion a year.
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And Americans have said they would be willing to pay their share, as long as other countries did the same.
An October 2008 poll found that 77 percent of people in the United States would be willing to pay their part of the cost -- estimated at about $56 per person per year -- to cut hunger in half and reduce severe poverty by 2015.
The cost was determined by divvying up among the world's industrialized nations the estimated $39 billion needed to reduce extreme poverty and cut hunger in half. Countries were assumed to pay different amounts depending on the size of their own economies.
Similar majorities in six of the seven other industrialized countries polled said they would also be willing to pay their share: $49 per person in Great Britain, $45 in France, $43 in Germany, $39 in Italy, $23 in South Korea, and $10 in Turkey.
A smaller majority -- 54 percent -- of Russians were also in favor of paying their country's share of the costs, about $11 per person per year.
A similar poll in 2005 found that 70 percent of people in the United States were in favor of paying their country's share of up to $80 billion per year to achieve all eight of the Millennium Development Goals.
But according to the nonprofit Center for Global Development, which ranks wealthy countries' commitment to foreign assistance each year, the United States only gives about 28 cents per person per year in aid -- 20 cents per person in government-funded initiatives, and another 8 cents per person in charitable giving to aid organizations working in developing countries.
When considering aid, trade, investment, migration, technology, and a host of other policies impacting people in developing countries, the United States scored 17th out of 22 industrialized nations in its overall "commitment to development," according to researchers at the Center.
Putting the Money to Good Use
Americas have long been skeptical about the effectiveness of aid provided to developing countries whose political and economic systems are often not the most transparent.
Humanitarian workers and analysts say, however, that while those fears are understandable, aid money has done a lot of good worldwide and is increasingly effective.
"These funds need not find themselves in the hands of local warlords or corrupt governments," says Tom Peterson of Heifer International, which provides farm animals to families in developing countries to help build incomes. "[Aid funds] work their way through assistance organizations. Much of the good work going on today is focused on building capacity and scaling up a development network that is both effective and transparent."
Oxfam International's Paul O'Brien agrees. Speaking to OneWorld readers in an online dialogue earlier this year, O'Brien wrote: "Aid is working, but just not as well as it should. In these economically trying times, we can't afford to waste money, but neither can we afford to give up on the global poor or pretend that their problems won't affect us if we ignore them."
O'Brien and Sheila Herrling of the Center for Global Development said that new efforts to "modernize" the way foreign assistance is channeled are starting to ensure more bang for every buck. Both are members of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network of analysts and aid groups calling on the U.S. government to take concrete steps to improve the way it provides international assistance funds, learning from the successes and mistakes of the past.
In recognition of tomorrow's UN-sponsored International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, the student campaigning group Americans for Informed Democracy is calling on its activists to tell Congress to do just that.
"With a new president and a new Congress, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform U.S. foreign assistance," the group's Sarah Frazer wrote to supporters today. "Tell Congress the U.S. needs a fresh approach to global development -- one that streamlines our aid, eliminates long-standing inefficiencies, and increases the impact of our dollars, even in a time of economic hardship."
But despite its shortcomings, foreign assistance dollars have already brought about many remarkable achievements, noted Herrling in the OneWorld dialogue earlier this year.
"Over the past decades, our assistance has: created the capacity for millions of people to feed their families through the green revolution; nearly eradicated river blindness and polio; helped Mozambique, El Salvador, and other countries rebound from civil war; stimulated economic growth in countries around the world; saved millions of lives each year through routine vaccinations and access to basic health care; and put hundreds of thousands of HIV patients on life-saving anti-retroviral treatments. These are not small accomplishments," she said.
But the 100 million people "Standing Up" this weekend are hoping to convince their governments to accomplish even more -- and move faster -- in the years to come.