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DEVELOPMENT: South America Fights Poverty Its Own Way

Daniela Estrada*

SANTIAGO, Oct 17 2008 (IPS) - This year, only a few South American nations have responded to the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) and its campaign slogan, “Stand Up and Take Action”. The social organisations grouped in the global network point to a variety of reasons to explain the apparent apathy.

 Credit: GCAP

Credit: GCAP

Activities have been planned in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru, but basically limited to the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, celebrated Friday, Oct. 17. In Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela, by contrast, no actions have been planned.

GCAP, a coalition of hundreds of social organisations, was formed at the World Social Forum in 2005, held in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Later it became associated with the United Nations Millennium Campaign.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), setting targets on poverty reduction, health, education, gender equity, the environment, sustainable development and international trade for 2015, were adopted by the U.N. member countries in 2000.

But in Latin America, GCAP has never caught on like it has in regions like Europe and Africa, even though 35 percent of the Latin American population, or 190 million people, are living below the poverty line, according to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) statistics for 2007.

Moreover, this year ECLAC reports that the surge in inflation caused by soaring food and energy prices may have increased the number of poor people to 200 million, without even taking into account the present financial crisis, which will affect economic growth, job creation and social spending.

This year in Argentina, only one event was held, on Thursday. The non-governmental Citizen’s Forum of Participation for Justice and Human Rights (FOCO) invited reporters to a breakfast, to “talk about the problem of poverty, so they can publish the material the following day,” Cecilia Pon, a member of FOCO, told IPS.

In Chile and Peru, activities focused on inequality and the financial crisis.

The Chilean Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (ACCION) and the indigenous Mapuche Council of All Lands held a political-cultural event Friday in Constitution Square in the capital, which only drew a few hundred participants.

As well as publicly voicing their demands, the activists invited candidates running for mayor and the city council in Santiago on Oct. 26 to publicly sign their petition.

They also delivered a letter to the Chilean Association of Banks and Financial Institutions, urging its members to act responsibly. The groups asked them to rein in indiscriminate consumer credit, and to respect the Ecuador Principles, a set of good practices for managing social and environmental risks that were recently adopted by the financial sector.

In Peru, a public forum was held on Wednesday to analyse how local governments’ budget cuts, a preventive measure taken in view of the international crisis, will affect food security for the poor.

On Thursday the National Federation of Peasant, Artisan, Indigenous, Native and Salaried Women (FEMUCARINAP) held a rally. A market and exhibition on agricultural diversity and fair trade was opened, and a book, “La política de deuda en el Perú” (The Politics of Debt in Peru), about the challenge of the financial crisis in the context of inequality in the country, was launched.

On Friday a round table discussion was held by experts and social organisations, focusing on the fight against poverty and the international context.

“Governments must ensure that the crisis does not affect social spending. Health, housing and education budgets and the different assistance programmes should not be cut back, as is currently happening,” economist Héctor Béjar, the coordinator of GCAP-Peru and the main speaker at the round table discussion, told IPS.

In Colombia, educational and cultural activities in public and private schools took place, including talks by teachers, rock concerts and puppet plays, with messages about poverty and the food crisis.

A popular activity held every week in a street in Bogotá was used as an opportunity to involve the public in reflections on the subject. The organising coalition had the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In Brazil and Uruguay, lack of funding was the reason given for the failure to organise events.

Donors to the participating Brazilian organisations approved funding “two weeks ago,” but the funds would not be available before Oct. 17, Jair Barbosa, communications adviser to the non-governmental Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), based in Brasilia, which is the secretariat for GCAP in Brazil, told IPS.

However, Barbosa acknowledged that there has never been much action related to the GCAP in Brazil, because of “resistance” by the organisations themselves, which take the view that they are already fighting poverty in their day-to-day activities, by defending the rights of women or Afro-Brazilians or lobbying for better public policies.

Because of this, the campaign in Brazil has allied itself with other organisations and networks that are pursuing the same ends, and joins in their actions, such as a march in memory of Zumbi dos Palmares, the hero of the Afrodescendants’ movement, on Nov. 20, National Black Consciousness Day.

In Uruguay, activities have also been few and far between. In 2006 and 2007 the only organisation to take action was the non-governmental National Beijing Follow-up Commission: Women for Democracy, Equity and Citizenship (CNS Mujeres), a coalition which this year “had no funds specifically set aside for the campaign,” it reported.

In Venezuela no GCAP-related events were held. “It’s a question of organisation and the agenda priorities of non-governmental organisations and social movements in the country,” Marino Alvarado, head of the human rights group PROVEA, told IPS.

The cold response of Latin America can be explained by GCAP’s identification with the MDGs, Álvaro Ramis, president of the Chilean association ACCION, told IPS.

The first of the eight MDGs is to halve the proportion of extremely poor people by 2015, with respect to 1990 levels.

“The MDGs have become an agenda that does not necessarily represent the vision of Latin American organisations,” said Ramis. In his view, the MDGs are “less ambitious” than the aspirations of NGOs in the region.

The activist said organisations in the industrialised North that are involved in GCAP are proposing a welfare-based approach to the problem of poverty, while groups in Latin America are seeking to change development models, overcome social inequalities, end trade dependence between countries and transform international financial institutions.

Therefore, organisations in the region are probably more concerned about the fundamental reforms taking place in some countries, such as constitutional reform.

“We have tried to promote this debate at the GCAP Global Council, but we have not yet done enough. However, we think it is possible to form inter-regional alliances. At the last meeting we had a lot of affinity with the positions of Asia, like India and Indonesia, but not with those of Africa,” Ramis said.

ECLAC expert Juan Carlos Feres told IPS he thought Ramis’ proposal was based on a rather superficial view of the MDGs.

Feres said that it has not been easy for the countries of the region to meet the MDGs, even though they regard them as being “not very ambitious.” He also said that the MDGs “cannot be fulfilled merely by administrative measures, but require countries to undergo deep transformations,” of a political, economic, social and cultural nature. “There is nothing ingenuous about the MDGs,” he said.

In April 2009, ACCION will take on the Latin American GCAP secretariat, a role now played by organisations in El Salvador. From that position, they want to broaden the movement’s vision, said Ramis.

*With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Buenos Aires, Mario Osava in Rio de Janeiro, Milagros Salazar in Lima, Helda Martínez in Bogotá, Raúl Pierri in Montevideo and Humberto Márquez in Caracas.

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