Poverty: Words are not enough

Panicked emails bounced from Blackberry to Blackberry in the world’s wealthiest countries last week. But when the smoke clears, traders and bankers will still get their big bonuses this year in London, New York and Tokyo, while the rest of the population faces recession and rising unemployment. But what about the rest of the world? What about South Africa?

In the last fortnight, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank meetings in Washington, all the right rhetoric was doing the rounds, but political will was noticeably absent.

In the same period $700-billion was pledged for a financial bail-out in the United States while governments and donors were unable to find the $18-billion a year we need to realise the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. In fact, they were unable to find even the amount needed for one year—$16-billion was all that was pledged until 2015.

To put this into perspective, let’s compare outcomes: $700-billion would clear the accumulated debts of the 49 poorest countries in the world twice over. It is about 44 times as much as the annual cost of getting every child into school and more than it would cost to give basic healthcare to every man, woman and child on the planet for an entire decade.

While current comparisons with spending on poverty are shocking, they are only going to get worse. Even in good times many governments were reneging on aid promises; those now facing recession are more likely to follow suit.

And other international processes may also be threatened—governments hunkered down against recession are less likely to have the political imagination and courage to reach the kind of agreements required on climate change.

Negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol are scheduled to climax in Copenhagen late next year. East Africa is already suffering the onset of climate change, in the shape of unpredictable and devastating combinations of floods and drought.

While attention remains fixed on Wall Street and the City of London to see what markets will do amid the biggest financial meltdown in decades, the economies and livelihoods of people in the majority of the world remain as they have for too long: fragile.

This is something on which to take a stand.

We have heard the first-hand accounts of people living in poverty in today’s South Africa, at the African Monitor’s Poverty Hearings. They tell us that this country is in crisis, that they cannot afford basic food, that they cannot treat their sick children and that they feel they have no rights—and they offer real solutions.

On Friday, as part of the global Stand Up Against Poverty campaign, South Africans will march to the Union Buildings in Tshwane to demand President Kgalema Motlanthe’s administration take measures that will immediately alleviate the suffering of thousands of families.

The South African economy under former president Thabo Mbeki was a period of relative growth; but this hasn’t meant that the poor in South Africa are better off.

The incomes of the rich have increased faster than the incomes of the poor and higher inequality, with inflation, the food crisis and a continuing lag in real progress towards social services for the poor has meant that the pro-poor rhetoric hasn’t been followed by actions. A white paper was drafted on social welfare, but it was not adopted. Basic services and even child support and other grants continue to be out of reach for many of the poor. 

Thousands in Tshwane, led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the South Africa Council of Churches (SACC) and the South African Non-Govermental Organisation Coalition (Sangoco), will ask for child support grants to cover all children under the age of 18.

They will ask for value-added tax to be cut on basic foodstuffs and water user fees to be abolished. They want the existing 1997 White Paper for Social Welfare to be adopted and the UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified. This is clear, this is concrete and this will save lives. 

October 17 is what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called a “historic day that calls for a historic generation”. If South Africans take part in the worldwide Stand Up and Take Action campaign, it will be the biggest mobilisation in history. We will see the power of taking action, at the same time, on one issue. We will become a generation that refuses to stay seated and silent in the face of the greatest injustice of our time: poverty.

In 2006 we called on the world to Stand Up. In 2007 we asked the world to Stand Up and Speak Out. This year in 2008 we ask you to Stand Up and Take Action—because words are not enough.

The current focus on propping up the rich needs to be balanced by honouring long-term commitments to helping every man, woman and child exercise his/her right to a life free from the indignity of poverty. We need to see concrete action on these commitments. We will be the ones holding these leaders to account and we will not be ignored.

Kumi Naidoo is co-chairperson of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty Alliance and honorary president of World Alliance for Citizen Participation

Kumi Naidoo

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