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POVERTY: Governments Still Don’t Do Enough

Zahira Kharsany

JOHNNESBURG, Oct 29 2008 (IPS) - More than 116 million people in 131 countries across the world participated in the global "Stand Up and Take Action" campaign that became the biggest mass mobilisation on a single issue. Activists criticised the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to increase, while governments refused to make poverty alleviation a priority.

The Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP) and the United Nations Millennium Campaign said the Oct. 17-19 initiative sent a message to world leaders that citizens will not stay seated if promises to end poverty remain unfulfilled.

"[The campaign] is a wonderful statement of global determination and commitment to end the injustice of extreme poverty," said Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and chairman of The Elders – a group of former heads of state, Nobel laureates, leading entrepreneurs and philanthropists who contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's problems.

"116 million people demanded the right to food, water, health care, education and a life of dignified work for all. 116 million people have stood together to end extreme poverty. This message must be heard by leaders everywhere – it cannot be ignored," he added.

Kumi Naidoo, co-chair of GCAP and honorary president of CIVICUS, a World Alliance for Civic Participation, said it was important to make "common people" realise that they can play a role in improving their livelihoods.

"In virtually every single country across the world the gap between the rich and the poor is growing at an unsustainable and horrendous pace and the gap between rich and poor countries is growing quite considerably too," Naidoo told IPS.


This needed to change, Naidoo said, demanding more commitment from governments around the world, who he said were more interested in spending money on boosting their countries’ economies than on poverty relief. The recent collapse of global financial markets "showed that when there is a will, governments will mobilise," he explained, suggesting that governments respond to the poverty crisis with the same urgency than to the financial crisis.

Taking action

People’s dissatisfaction with governments became apparent at "Stand Up and Take Action" events across Africa when people asked policy makers to be more pro-active in reaching the MDGs that aim to reduce poverty and child mortality, improve education and maternal health, promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, create environmental sustainability and combat HIV/Aids and other diseases by 2015. In Malawi, for example, 600,000 people asked government for greater transparency and accountability.

In Rwanda, president Kagame joined 10,000 people who stood up against poverty at the Rubavu Stadium, in the country’s Western Province. Kagame called on Rwandans to use their hard-won peace and stability as the foundation to fight poverty, create wealth and drive development for the well-being of the entire population.

Activists not only lobbied governments, but also religious leaders for support in the fight against poverty. In Egypt, millions stood up in mosques, and in Nigeria, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa'ad Abubakar III, joined 20,000 people in the country's poorest state, Jigawa, in their call for the empowerment of women and other marginalised groups through skill acquisition programmes, empowerment schemes and access to micro-financing.

"This is a new kind of action the world is seeing: it's the local influencing the global," said GCAP co-chair Sylvia Borren. "Thousands of actions, pictures and messages show a powerful groundswell of determination and that a new global financial architecture must be about equality and gender justice."

"What we need is transformation of all issues from gender, climate change and education to poverty. We need to start seeing ourselves as a human family. Urgency is the message and it is a democratic challenge for local and national governments and for the global world," she added.

Poverty hearings

In South Africa, mobilisation against poverty already started in August, two months before the "Stand Up" campaign took place. NGO African Monitor, in collaboration with a number of other civil society organisations, held poverty hearings across the country to find out from ordinary South Africans what there needs are.

A report based on the hearings showed that more than half of South Africa’s population is faced by extreme hunger and poverty, and entire rural communities go without food for days. African Monitor researchers also found that poverty in South Africa has deepened during the past ten years.

Kate Lefko-Everett, researcher of Institute for Democracy in South Africa’s (IDASA) political information and monitoring service unit, said that poor people should be at the centre of efforts if governments want to develop appropriate and effective strategies to combat poverty.

"[At one of the poverty hearings in the Western Cape] many of the stories participants shared were poignant and stark, confirming that many people continue to live in extreme poverty 14 years into democracy," she said. "Teenagers told of dropping out of school because they were unable to afford transportation. Farm workers shared stories of land evictions and insecurity of tenure. One participant with a disability discussed his daily experiences of social exclusion and discrimination."

"[There] was a deep sense of frustration and hopelessness, particularly around issues of unemployment, lack of basic services and crime," Lefko-Everett further explained, and that needed to change.

 
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