A fighting chance

When 23,4million people around the world stood up and spoke out against poverty and inequality on October 17 as part of the Global Call to Action against Poverty campaign, they amplified the silent suffering of the poor into a roar. But what happens after that?

We are witnessing a silent tsunami in the developing world—particularly in Africa—at a time when there is more affluence and wealth than ever before and the availability of scientific and medical knowledge is at its greatest. Daily, 16 000 women, men and children die from HIV/Aids, TB and malaria.
Every three seconds a child in the developing world dies from causes related to poverty.

A month after the campaign, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is taking place in Uganda. Government representatives from 53 countries will discuss climate change, good governance, human rights and HIV/Aids, among other issues. They hope to “agree upon collective policies and initiatives”.

Of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states, 49 are developing countries and 18 of these states are in Africa. Judging by the membership, preventing and treating HIV/Aids, TB and malaria and ending poverty should be at the top of the CHOGM’s agenda.

The few wealthy member states have a tremendous responsibility to their fellow members. They have the power to push for an equitable system of trade, investment and intellectual property agreements. The current system ensures that medicines often remain out of reach.

Poverty is also a political issue. The more engagement civil society and citizens have with their governments, the greater the opportunities for empowering people, ensuring fair and equitable policies and reducing poverty.

While Commonwealth members are obliged to uphold the Harare Principles, including commitment to democratic governance and respect for human right standards, a frightening number continue to violate them. Few countries, especially in Africa, practice democracy on a regular basis.

This weekend, when government representatives meet to discuss governance and human rights issues, they must examine what is meant by democracy and question whether it is truly realised by their people. The CHOGM must press for governments to recognise the current democratic deficit and work towards meaningful democracy: the protection of the rights of citizens to criticise and engage their leaders.

In 1964 Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, argued that the real global issue was the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. More than 40 years later his words still ring true.

The Commonwealth is in a position to help change this. By continuing to encourage industralised nations to drop subsidies and renew the call for affordable medicines and increased aid, the Commonwealth can lend support to poverty reduction in Africa. By demanding responsible governance and respect for human rights, it can ensure that citizens are able empower themselves and their communities.

Kumi Naidoo is secretary general of Civcus: Global Alliance for Citizen Participation, an international NGO based in Johannesburg. He is also chair of the Global Call to Action against Poverty

Kumi Naidoo

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