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Combating Poverty With The Participation Of The Poor

By Ramesh Jaura

HANOVER, Jul 27 (IPS) - Empowerment of the poor is one major step towards the alleviation of poverty, government officials, representatives of the United Nations and civil society organisations agreed during a three-day discussion concluded Thursday in Hanover at the world exposition, Expo 2000.

'Fighting Poverty' was the focal theme of the fourth in a series of 10 global dialogues, scheduled to be held until the end of October, when the five-month long Expo 2000 ends.

Setting the tone for discussions, organised by the German Agency for Technical Co-operation, Germany's minister for economic co-operation and development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, said: 'The aim of any support provided through development policy must be to empower the poor to take their lives and surroundings into their own hands.'

She listed access to land, credit and the legal system as well as education and training as essential elements of a strategy to combat poverty.

Equally important was it to encourage people to form groups and join together in defending their interests. 'Poverty reduction is not something that is done for the poor, but with them and by them...The poor have an active role in determining the reforms.'

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), some 2.8 billion people around the globe are living on under two US dollars a day. A total of 1.2 billion of them subsist on half that amount or less.

Many of them lack adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation.

'And to make matters worse,' according to UNDP administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, 'HIV/AIDS is now cutting a devastating swathe through Africa and other parts of the world, imposing huge additional costs on over-stretched governments and dropping life expectancy to as low as 30 in the worst affected countries.'

One way in which Germany, and other industrial nations, are responding to the call for the political participation of the poor is through the debt relief initiative for heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC).

The HIPC, in which Germany is playing a leading role, is 'about poverty reduction, participation and strengthening civil society,' Wieczorek-Zeul said.

Brown agreed on the importance of the debt relief measures. But regretted that implementation was taking an enormous amount of time.

'Until the developed world gets serious about following through on promises to provide comprehensive debt relief, dismantling their 300 billion US dollar in annual agricultural subsidies and helping control global diseases from HIV/AIDS to malaria that disproportionately affect developing countries, integrating the poor into the global economy on fair and equitable terms is impossible,' warned the UNDP Administrator.

A 'more inclusive vision of globalisation', he added, could not be translated into reality without 'increased aid at a time when Official Development Assistance has fallen by a third over the past decade' as a proportion of the Gross National Product (GNP) of rich countries.

Industrial countries' official development assistance totalled 56 billion US dollars last year, comprising 0.24 percent of their GNP.

The UN target aims at 0.7 percent of GNP. It was achieved last year only by Denmark (one percent), Norway (0.91 percent), the Netherlands (0.79 percent) and Sweden (0.7 percent).

Against this backdrop, Wangari Maathai, of the renowned Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, criticised the developed countries - 22 of which provide official development assistance.

'They did not shy of supporting dictatorships during the Cold War' between the western industrialised countries and the communist bloc led by the now-defunct Soviet Union, she said.

However, now aid fatigue had crept in - though the argument being deployed was that there would be no aid without recipient countries taking to the path of 'good governance'.

Maathai said, the Greenbelt Movement and other non-governmental organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America were locked in a struggle with their respective governments for the benefit of good governance that would allow for participation of the people in decision-making processes.

But the fact was that developing countries, particularly the 48 least developed and the world's poorest needed capital which they could not obtain on the world financial markets. Official development assistance was the only way for them secure the much- needed financial resources.

The world's poorest countries - most of them in Africa - contain 10 percent of the world's population. Their share in global trade is, however, a scanty 0.5 percent, underscoring their dire need for financial and technical assistance on long-term and almost interest free, if not non-refundable, aid.

All the more so, said Klemens van de Sand, assistant President at the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, because they have found themselves hamstrung by the combination of a long-term decline in commodity prices and the lack of capacity to implement viable export diversification strategies.

The three-day global dialogue was attended by representatives of some 100 NGOs around the world.

The event was preceded by regional conferences in Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to Andreas von Schumann of the German Agency for Technical Co-operation, these were organised by partners from the civil society.

They included Kenya-based African Women's Development and Communications Network (FEMNET), the Association of Latin American Organisations (ALOP - Asociacion Latinoamericana de Organizaciones de Promocion) in Costa Rica, and the South Asian Perspectives Network Association (SAPNA) in Sri Lanka.

SAPNA's Ponna Wignaraja said 'the poor are the problem, but part of the solution'.

He agreed with Greenbelt Movement's Maathai that 'poverty does not just is is desired by political expediency...and it is an instrument of exploitation.' (END/IPS/raj/sm/00)