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DEVELOPMENT: Poverty – Time to Act

Antonio Marafioti and Miren Gutiérrez

ROME, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - “Our voices must reach the ears of the leaders who govern us,” says Marina Ponti, describing this year’s campaign by the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP).

Referring to the Stand Up and Take Action campaign, Ponti, the United Nations Millennium Campaign Europe director, says that “standing up is a sign of solidarity. By doing so, we are saying that we cannot remain seated in the face of poverty in the world.”

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by the international community in 2000 to set specific targets for reducing poverty and inequality in the world.

“Last year, we strengthened the concept by adding ‘Speak Out’, because our voices had to reach the ears of our leaders. Now it is no longer enough to stand up and shout; we have to demonstrate our efforts by means of concrete actions,” she added.

The number of people who have stood up for each edition of Stand Up has grown every year. In 2006 an estimated 23.5 million people took part in the campaign’s events around the world, setting a Guinness World Record. But last year, the total reached 43.7 million people.

This year’s aim is for 67 million people around the world to stand up and call on their governments to put an end to poverty and inequality, in the activities scheduled for Oct. 17 (the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty) through Oct. 19.

“We are very optimistic,” Ponti told IPS. “Reaching that number of people would be something that governments won’t be able to ignore. It would be proof that people’s consciousness has been raised with respect to this serious problem. I am sure that citizens are much more aware of the problem of poverty than their governments are.”

Italy will be one of the “hot spots” for this weekend’s GCAP activities, said Ponti.

In this southern European country of 60 million, where 7.5 million people were poor in 2007 according to the National Statistics Institute, 756,000 people took part in the events organised in last year’s campaign.

“The success of ‘Stand Up’ was due to the fact that it was organised simultaneously with, and was incorporated into, the Perugia to Assisi Peace March. We also owe the success to organisations that are active at a local and national level,” said Ponti, who is Italian.

According to Sergio Marelli, president of Italy’s association of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), “the Italian coalition is very important within GCAP. But the most important thing is the internal structure of the movement, which is made up of more than 70 NGOs, trade unions, social organisations and other associations. This presence gives us strength at the international level.”

The Stand Up protest in Italy will be focused on the government’s cuts in international development aid. Ponti noted that “Italy announced cuts in development aid long before the financial crisis broke out. Given that it is one of the smallest European providers of development aid, we are calling for more vigorous involvement, because a three-year cut sends out a very negative political message.”

For that reason, the Italian organisers of the campaign are urging people to protest decree-law 112, passed in June, which reduced Italy’s aid to developing countries by 170 million euros (232 million dollars) a year for the 2009-2011 period.

The decree law actually bypassed the 1987 law on Italian aid to developing countries, which establishes that the amount of aid must be set every three years, when the budget is approved.

According to the web site of the Foreign Ministry, which handles the country’s official development aid, the amount set for this year was one billion dollars.

But regardless of how many people make their voices heard this year, it is not clear what the concrete results will be.

Ponti admitted that “the situation is especially worrisome in view of the fact that next year Italy will preside over the G8 (the eight most powerful countries). So many cuts in development aid hurts its credibility.”

The G8 is made up of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

In Marelli’s view, the attitude of governments towards the question of development aid should not be analysed at a global level, but in terms of each country’s individual commitment and stance.

“States are increasingly divided between those that hide behind the justification of the difficult economic situation and those that, by contrast, continue to provide aid,” he told IPS.

“There are countries, like France and Spain, which have increased their development aid, and others, like Germany and Britain, which have maintained their levels. The Nordic countries have even reached 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP),” the commitment assumed decades ago by the world’s wealthy nations.

“But Italy has drastically reduced its aid, and projections for the future are bad. Development aid in proportion to GDP will drop from 0.2 to 0.1 percent,” he added.

In Marelli’s view, “the current economic situation is not sufficient justification to reduce development aid. The government must understand once and for all that investment in the fight against poverty is a safe investment, which supports more rational and orderly economic development.”

“The duty of citizens is to exercise oversight and to monitor whether the government’s decision is in line with the country’s political will,” said Ponti. “We demand that the state comply with its commitments, and we call on people to express their dissent.”

“Our criticism goes beyond whatever party is in power or the political stripes of the parties. Italians are a united people and very sensitive to these questions and willing to mobilise against whatever government is in power at the time,” said Marelli.

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