Nastasya Tay
Nastasya Tay

Standing up against poverty and living in denial

2008 began as a year of possibility. The second half of this year marks the midpoint of our time allotted to meet the Millennium Development Goals; the midpoint of our quest to make aid more effective through the Paris Declaration; and the review of progress made so far in responsible financing for development since the Monterrey Consensus was signed in 2002. Meetings have and will take place in New York, Accra and Doha respectively, to ponder the way forward.

Three ambitious sets of plans. Three High Level Events, in three cities. Three opportunities to be honest with ourselves about what we have achieved – and where to go from here. Encouragingly, honesty isn’t lacking – a range of organisations, tracking progress on all three fronts, has produced well-researched reports. The devil lies in the denial.

From Ghana in September, to the recent meetings in New York, 2008 has been characterised by inaction.

No clear plans for action emerged from any of the meetings. Amidst a lack of commitment from donors, and the inability of the UN to play an effective role in the implementation of development programmes, blame was pushed onto national governments that reacted defensively, hiding behind excuses and accusations of victimisation. In Accra, on the final day, in frustration, participants began donning stickers on their lapels that read “Action not words”.

On the UN’s MDG progress chart, in Sub-Saharan Africa, none of the boxes are coloured in green. Most are coloured a rather violent shade of red. Red represents: “No progress or [in fact] deterioration”. A damning account of development on the continent.

A colleague called, fresh off the plane from the World Bank & IMF meetings in Washington, dominated by the global financial crisis. He emphasised that the urgent need for massive reform of the system – a system that simply hasn’t worked in terms of effective global economic governance – must be contextualised within today’s financial landscape. How can an institution be taken seriously in its attempts to seemingly push the agenda of the developing world, when it has not yet admitted culpability for its role as an architect of this crisis?

Reports from the Annual Meetings quoted Robert Zoellick, the World Bank President, remarking “the global economic crisis could hurt poor people in developing countries most severely … As governments try to fix economic problems at home, the international community should continue to help poor countries reach the UN Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty.” Encouraging, but misleading words. Continuing to help?

The World Bank estimates that high food and energy prices have pushed another 100 million people into poverty this year alone. The week before the meetings, governments promised USD 16 billion for the MDGs towards 2015, because they said that’s all they could afford. In the same 48-hour period, the US alone found
USD 700-billion to bail out its financial sector. Realisation of the MDGs requires USD 18-billion a year. For that, you get basic healthcare, literacy, education and the eradication of extreme poverty. It’s not a bad deal. It’s a shame we can’t afford it.

Amidst global turmoil from various fronts, we err on the side of cautious, devastating delay. We were warned of an impending global financial crisis for years. Although we had an inkling of the ruinous consequences of its reality, we never allowed ourselves to believe it would happen.

This has terrifying implications for the unhurried approach with which we are pursuing ways to cope with climate change. The food crisis didn’t sneak up on us overnight either. And our approach to the 1.5-billion living in extreme poverty today, especially given the confluence of crises faced by the world’s poorest, can certainly not be excused with ignorance.

We have the knowledge, the technology and the capacity to change things, and yet, it is denial and avoidance that prevents us from taking timely action. Will these elements of human nature prevent us from acting concretely on these issues, before we are confronted with our own child who dies of a preventable disease, or our own bare shelves, or our own backyard slipping into the ocean?

Last year, Moneyweb noted that South Africa’s income distribution, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is approximately 0.593 — making South Africa the sixth most unequal society in the world. The richest 20 per cent of the South African population earn approximately 65% of total income, whereas the poorest 20% earn approximately 3%. The richest do not experience the crippling poverty that many face. And avoidance abounds.

If denial is the Achilles heel of human nature, then is South Africa doomed to regress, despite the onward march of economic growth?

When Thabo Mbeki resigned the Presidency of South Africa, evaluations of his tenure were on everyone’s lips. One of the key criticisms has been his lack of responsiveness to his citizenry and civil society. This lack of engagement has resulted in a lack of ownership of government – a broader disillusionment of the populace, which has lost faith in Government’s ability to deliver on its promises.

This Friday, thousands will gather on the jacaranda-strewn lawns of the Union Buildings to ask Kgalema Motlanthe’s new administration to do better. Surely, when it comes to service delivery, that can’t be difficult. They will ask for the abolition of user fees on water, VAT-free basic food items in the midst of a food crisis, basic child support and a functioning welfare system. The most basic cornerstones of development. But will the new administration listen?

Madiba told us in 2005, “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation.” But that’s a lot of responsibility, particularly when the job is so large and the stakes are so high. Do we have the stomach for it? The most shocking part of all: We have the resources and capacity to eradicate extreme poverty and meet the MDGs. All that is lacking is political will.

It is an indictment on all of us. We can blame decision-makers, powerful governments and international financial institutions – and much of this is well-founded – but there is an extent to which the buck must lie with each of us.

When I first heard about the global “anti-poverty” campaigns, I’ll be the first to admit that I rolled my eyes. Anti-poverty? After all, who’s pro-poverty? But it goes deeper than that. It isn’t just about saying we want to eradicate poverty – it’s an acceptance of responsibility for the state of the world we live in. It is an expression of hope – and in many cases, key policy demands of governments at every level – and of citizen action leading towards concrete change.

We have the power to change things and we need those who we have given the privilege and responsibility to govern to take us seriously. We need to Stand Up and Take Action. We need to re-affirm our individual commitments to acting against poverty in our own lives and communities and take action on all fronts.

This year, the Global Call to Action against Poverty – the coalition of organisations behind the white band campaigns – is expecting to mobilise over 83-million people over the course of this weekend. That represents over 1% of the entire world’s population. One percent who are Standing Up and Taking Action and asking their leaders to do the same.

For South Africa to develop effectively, South Africans need to feel empowered to effect change in their own country and to be listened to by those they have entrusted with leadership.

Much of this is a lesson that must be learned too, in the international, multilateral arena. Responding to the needs of one’s citizens – be it at the national, or more challenging, global level – is key to legitimate and effective governance, especially with the multifaceted challenges we face today.

As we look to Doha, it can only be hoped that civic engagement will be at the heart of the process, for it is the people that civil society represent who will live with the consequences of the decisions made.

And it is those who are asking for “Action, not words”.

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