Strategies of War Against Global Poverty
by Paul J. Dejillas, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology
Never before has the war against poverty reached serious global concerns than it is today. Here in New York, from January 31 to February 5, 2002 at least two renowned international players convened separately to address the worsening conditions of global poverty: the World Economic Forum (WEF) which met at the plush Waldorf-Astoria hotel; and the United Nations (UN) Conference participated in by government representatives from across the world and which convened just a few blocks east from where the WEF gathered. Another international actor, the World Social Forum (WSF)---the youngest but highly militant and vocal---is holding its annual gathering far down South at a Catholic University in Porto Alegre, Brazil on the same dates.
The huge resources that these international bodies have been investing to combat global poverty are only indicative of how widespread and serious poverty conditions have become today. Yet, in spite of their annual gatherings the condition of the world’s population continues to deteriorate, even as the views, strategies, and programs adopted to arrest global poverty continue to compete and to be at loggerheads with each other. At its worst, poverty conditions have escalated into global tensions, conflicts, violence, and even war. This is what is happening today … continuing poverty amidst competing and differing strategies each vying for world power and dominance that manifest itself in the form of global conflicts, tensions, war, and terrorism.
As it is staged in the open arena today, the fight against global poverty has become an unfolding of a tumultuous saga played by prominent actors, each trying to win the confidence of the spectators that are comprised of a populace whose welfare the stage players claim to protect and uplift. The turbulent effects that the drama impresses on the public do not augur well for a happy ending. Many fear that the future appears much more ominous and gloomy than it is today.
Poverty is Multifaceted
As there is no commonly accepted definition of what global poverty means, people as well as organizations vary differently in their understanding of its meanings.[i] The World Bank came up with a definition to mean one U.S. dollar per day, which is widely accepted because it can be used very easily to measure poverty levels and is easily understandable to the layman when used to compare poverty conditions of several countries all over the world. On the part of the government, it can also be used for planning and setting poverty-reduction strategies as well as for assessing their performances both at the national and international levels.
Poverty condition at the global level is quite bleak: 1.3 billion people all over the world are living on less than $1 a day.[ii] The UNDP reports that during the 1990s the incidence of extreme poverty actually increased in Eastern and Central Asia, while the number of people struggling to survive on less than $1 per day continued to rise in South Asia and in Latin America and the Carribean.[iii]
The widening income disparity between the rich and the poor aggravates this gloomy picture. In 1960, the 20 per cent of the world's population in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20 per cent. In 1997, this soared up to 74 times as much.[iv] In addition, 20 per cent of the population in the developed nations consumed 86 per cent of the world’s goods.[v] Unless world governments redouble their efforts at combating poverty, it is feared that poverty and inequality may still get worse in the years to come.
But poverty is not only about money. As one observer aptly notes, “it is about access … access to the basic rights of food, clothes and shelter, education, proper health care, clean water - rights which most of us take for granted.”[vi] Measured in these terms, global poverty conditions become even gloomier. Approximately 1.2 billion people in various parts of the globe suffer from hunger and deficiency of calories and protein; some two to 3.5 billion people have micronutrient deficiency, i.e., deficiency of vitamins and minerals, yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity.[vii] Around 790 million people in the developing world are still chronically undernourished, almost two-thirds of which reside in Asia and the Pacific.[viii] According to one internationally renowned research agency, “the lives of 1.7 million children will be needlessly lost this year  because world governments have failed to reduce poverty levels."[ix] Meanwhile, 1.3 billion have no access to clean water; three billion have no access to sanitation; and two billion have no access to electricity.[x]
The highly depressing picture of the world’s poverty conditions no doubt needs to be arrested and this is the great challenge which international organizations and world governments have in fact been struggling to respond to for several decades now. But today’s continuing deterioration of the world’s conditions only points to the failure of existing poverty-alleviation strategies. Propagated by organizations and governments that espouse competing ideologies, these strategies have only brought about tensions and conflicts that ignite violence and war at the local, national, regional, and international levels. Poverty has become not only an economic phenomenon, but has become firmly embedded in politics. Many observers note that international political interests have diverted the world’s rich resources in favor of a few domestic---characteristically Western and developed---markets, resulting in the deprivation by the majority---typically the Eastern and developing economies---of the basic access to food, water, health, education, and other important social services. Policy-making and lobbying on issues relating to international trade, foreign investments, and finance have become powerful tools for amassing more wealth for those who are already rich, even as these become effective instruments for controlling the economies and governments of the developing countries. Rather than becoming a solution, politics has become one major obstacle to overcoming poverty.
Violence and war are both real and potential. More than a quarter of the world’s scientific research and development budget is spent on defense and over half a million scientists are currently engaged in the development of new military weapons.[xi] The Strategic Defense Initiative research program spends $3.900 billion a year, while one average nuclear weapon test costs $12 million.[xii] As stated elsewhere in my work, arms build-up is reflective of the people’s culture of aggression, violence, fear, suspicion, and mistrust, manifesting itself both nationally and internationally in the form of ethnic disputes, religious war, cross-border conflicts, and terrorism.[xiii] Deep behind the world’s worsening poverty is a culture of mistrust, aggression, and violence. In the end, poverty has degenerated into conflicts of faiths; people question their own faith and become highly vulnerable to other religious beliefs claiming to be more responsive to existing poverty conditions. The problem of global poverty has not only an economic and political face, but a cultural and religious one as well. It has become a moral issue.
Poverty in the Philippines is a mere reflection of the global picture. In the midst of an unsettling economic downturn, the ordinary Filipino wonders what has happened to the various government poverty-alleviation programs introduced in the past. Are the poor of yesterday no longer poor today as a result of these programs? Or, can we say that the Filipino today are much better off than they were before the introduction of these programs?
Reality is multifaceted and today’s approaches to eliminate either global or domestic poverty are barely scratching the surface. If these approaches and strategies as well as their attendant philosophies and programs are to become more relevant or meaningful, these need to go deeper into the core and roots of each of the multi-dimensional aspects of global poverty. In this respect, the words of one UNDP official are still appropriate: “The problem is not the scale of poverty but rather the lack of solutions.”
This in brief is the plot of the drama on global poverty … disproportionate distribution and sharing of the world’s produce and resources triggered by unfair competition, exploitation, and manipulation that in turn give birth to world-wide tensions, rampant human-rights violations, and death escalating into global terrorism and wars. It is this grim scenario that characterizes the economic, political, social, cultural, and even religious lives of peoples and societies today. What the future may bring remains uncertain.
Let us allow today’s saga of war strategies against global poverty to unfold.
The WEF Strategy
The WEF, organized in 1971 and whose headquarters is in Geneva, is an annual gathering of the world’s richest multinational corporations and corporate leaders which used to meet until this year (2002) in Davos, Switzerland. Its official documents say that it is an independent and non-profit organization financed by the $30,000 (and upwards) annual membership dues and cost contributions coming from the top 1000 corporations in the world.[xiv]
As an organization of the world’s wealthiest businessmen and corporate leaders, the WEF is recognized as today’s leader in setting global economic and trade agendas that are now influencing the lives of peoples in the entire world. It is more widely recognized as the vanguard and leading setter of today’s globalization, a process that has been interfering---either for good or bad---the activities and programs of governments across the world over the past decades. The WEF adheres to the belief that the major problems confronting the world today---including poverty and inequity---can only be addressed if these countries embrace globalization. This belief is supported by facts. Towards the end of 2001, the World Bank released one finding of its study showing that only those developing economies that embraced globalization---Mexico, Uganda, China, and Vietnam---have done better at combating poverty. But it is good to know that to us---ordinary readers who are unemployed, working for somebody, or engaged in some sort of small-sized, off-and-on entrepreneurial undertaking, or social-services activity---the WEF speaks of a distinct type of globalization that is characteristically exclusive and discriminating.
First and foremost, the WEF talks of a kind of globalization that relies primarily on the business sector---particularly profit-oriented and giant multinational corporations---in leading the course and direction of today’s global change, an understandable feature by virtue of the affiliation of its membership. It has become the primordial concern of the business sector to utilize its enormous resources just to advance the kind of change it dreams to realize in the global market. It is this same concern that guides it when instituting policies on those sectors of the economy found to have strategic advantage in influencing world conditions, especially global poverty and income inequity. These strategic sectors are identified in the areas of international trade, foreign investments, and agriculture.
The identification of these strategic sectors is not without any basis. Agriculture employs over 65 percent of the labor force in the low-income countries as against 28 percent in middle-income countries and only five percent in high-income countries. An Oxfam Report says that “trade helped to lift more than 370 million people out of poverty in East Asia.”[xv] But the WEF argues that it is not just advancing globalization for its own sake. Based on the documents prepared as part of the background information for this year’s annual gathering, it is greatly mindful of today’s disproportionate sharing in the benefits of the world’s resources and benefits, with the highly developed countries grabbing the greatest share. The USA, EU, Japan, and Canada was reported to have accounted for around 60 percent of the world’s trade, whereas the 49 least-developed countries accounted for less than 0.5 percent and is even declining over the years (ibid.). Uneven distribution in foreign investments have also been noted: 12 major developed countries take 75 percent of the capital and 140 developing countries, including the poorest ones, share only five percent. Needless to say, some of the negative effects of today’s brand of globalization are the marginalization and exclusion of many.
It is probably these grim statistics that triggered WEF spokesman Charles McLean to declare that the WEF is not committed to globalization for its own sake. "There are positive and negative sides to globalization, and I think most thoughtful people would agree that the important thing to do is to enhance the positive aspects, and mitigate the negative aspects. And it is forum like the one we have in Davos where discussions can take place and thoughtful people can gather and hopefully find better solutions to the world's problems."[xvi]
To make globalization work for all and to prevent the disproportionate sharing in the benefits of international trade and foreign investments from getting worse, the WEF calls for the institutionalization of more equitable policies that would guarantee substantial benefits to the developing countries, especially the poorest.[xvii] For this year’s annual gathering, the WEF delegates examined six major themes upon which global reforms on poverty alleviation are to be instituted, viz.: advancing security and addressing vulnerability; redefining business challenges; reducing poverty and improving equity; re-evaluating leadership and governance; restoring sustained growth; and sharing values and respecting differences. The theme on “reducing global poverty and improving equity” is striking. Under this theme are seven poverty-related issues that, according to the organizers, are prerequisites for narrowing down the widening gaps between the rich and the poor. These issues are: [xviii]
1. Strengthening key drivers of growth and social progress;
2. Increasing well-directed overseas development aid, international financial investment and philanthropic and private capital;
3. Facilitating foreign direct investment flows;
4. Promoting social entrepreneurship;
5. Improving domestic governance;
6. Improving global governance to integrate economic with social and environmental objectives; and
7. Making technology work for society.
Very clearly, the above themes underscore the active and direct role of the business sector, i.e., multinational corporations and giant financial institutions, in the struggle to reduce or eliminate global poverty. But the role of the government in realizing the WEF’s goal of eradicating global poverty has also been long recognized and acknowledged. In fact, the world’s most powerful and influential political leaders, including heads of states and governments, have always been invited either as delegates---presidential or ministerial---or as speakers to influence or be influenced in the WEF annual gatherings. According to the WEF, each year "1,000 top business leaders, 250 political leaders, 250 foremost academic experts in every domain and some 250 media leaders come together to shape the global agenda."[xix] In the past, the following world leaders have attended the WEF: President Bill Clinton; First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton; Vice President Al Gore; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; the prime ministers of Greece and Turkey, among others.[xx]
In its discussions with the world’s influential political leaders, the WEF frequently emphasized the need “to foster strong public-private relationships in promoting economic development with social equity” in order to “increase efficiently deployed resources for infrastructure, basic health and education, public institutional capacity and private sector development.” But, in the view of WEF, the government’s role in globalization is always subordinated to that of the business sector. Its function has been relegated in fact mainly to creating “the legal, economic and especially social infrastructure necessary to enable the rural poor to become active beneficiaries of the global economy rather than passive participants.” In this context, I would advance that government and political leaders of the world also come to join in the discussions of the annual WEF. The strong influence of the business sector on the government is demonstrated here in Seattle recently---almost at the same time that the WEF was meeting in New York---when Boeing threatened to pull out of Washington if the state could not solve the worsening traffic in the area that, according to Boeing officials, has already cost them millions of dollars in losses because of delays. The case of Enron, which implicated high officials in the White House in a cover-up issue, is another example apparently showing the strong, though non-transparent, tie-up between business and government with the latter succumbing to private interests.
In addition, to provide a more stable foundation and broader perspective to its annual gatherings, the WEF makes it a point recently to invite religious leaders from around the world. In the past, one of the most influential religious leaders attending the WEF was His Excellency Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace of the Vatican, who after his stint with the WEF---I should add---was the guest speaker of the Asian Social Institute during the latter’s Francis Senden Memorial Lecture in October 2000 and where he spoke about globalization from the perspective of the developing countries.
The other spiritual leaders invited to the WEF in the past were: Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel; His Grace Archbishop Njongonkujlu Ndungane, Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa; Sri Ravi Shankar, Founder, The Art Of Living Foundation, India; Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Leader, France; and His Excellency Sheikh Zafzaf, President, Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue with the Monotheistic Religions, Egypt.
By the very nature of their affiliation and as a result of their participation and involvement in the WEF, these Church leaders have issued a joint statement emphasizing commitment to “inner transformation and human values and to explore the possibility of creating a council of religious leaders that offers religious, ethical and spiritual guidance to International Organizations.”[xxi] I surmise that it is most probably because of the presence of the Church that the WEF has begun to seriously consider “corporate values and corporate responsibility” as well as “sharing values and respecting differences” as one of this year’s major themes. Thus, while the presence of the religious and spiritual leaders in the WEF could be simply dismissed as an appendage, there is no denying the fact that the WEF have also provided the different religious denominations the opportunity to come together and drive home “to a captive audience of business and political leaders the urgency of the need to tackle global poverty” from all angles. In fact, as one WEF participant observes, separate talks done with the religious leaders have “reinforced the message that tackling the enormous inequality between the world’s wealthiest one percent and the poorest, which account for almost half the global population must also be a priority.”
But in all these annual gatherings of the WEF, the business sector takes the center stage and the prominent role, even as it controls the production of the script and the play. The poor and its organization---the civil society---have been excluded from the real-life drama. This is the main reason why the World Social Forum (WSF) strategy to combat global poverty was born. Unlike the WEF, the WSF gives heavy emphasis on the role of civil societies in influencing and directing today’s process of globalization.
The WSF Strategy
The WSF was organized in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 as a counter summit to the WEF annual meeting. It arose “as a consequence of a growing international movement that advocates for greater participation of civil societies in international (affairs).” Its membership includes women and men, farmers, workers, unemployed, professionals, students, blacks and indigenous peoples, coming from the South and from unions and NGOs, movements, organizations, intellectuals, and artists coming from both developed and developing countries (Asia, included). Among its first major concrete accomplishment is providing “a space for … exchanging experiences and for strengthening South-North alliances between NGOs, unions and social movements.” In spite of its infancy, the WSF is today becoming known as the “Global Movement of Civil Society.”
But the WSF is more than just a gathering of civil societies all over the world. Its emergence in January 25, 2001 was motivated by the desire of the founding members to offer an alternative strategy to what it calls “the neo-liberalist” approach of the WEF” to global poverty.[xxii] In its first annual forum, poverty issues were traced to several factors, the major ones of which include: the rising wave of unfettered world capitalism or what it calls “neo-liberalism” which, according to it, is “a mixture of unbridled free-market economics, liberal trade, and the breakdown of national borders;” control of multinational corporations over the world’s economy; and huge external debts by the developing countries.
Its participants espouse varying tendencies and orientations, ranging from extreme socialism to democratic socialism and social-welfare capitalism. Their views are not only divergent; at times they also conflict with each other. For example, in campaigning against corporate domination, some participants choose to target specific firms while “others emphasize the need for a broader denunciation of the structural excess of corporatism.” On other issues, the interests of environmentalists or human-rights movements are sometimes in contradiction with the interests of workers and trade unions. But in spite of these differences, the general views of the delegates during their annual meetings exhibit great similarities and commonality. This is understandable because many of the participants attending these forums come from countries that share common experiences --- poor, heavily indebted, victims of the negative effects of globalization, and economies controlled by giant global corporations and financial institutions.
The WSF is the most vocal and militant organization that openly calls for the abolition of the WEF, including other international agencies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (WB), since, as it contends, the WEF only “serves as an informal rendezvous of the economic lobby and the political management” of these big world bodies. Before the world, it presents itself as a “new global authority needed to curb the power of multinationals.” It advances that the global capitalism, also neo-liberalist brand of globalization, that the WEF, IMF, WB, and WTO propagate are “directly or indirectly responsible for war, misery, dispossession and hunger.” Within this perspective, it raises its views on many poverty-related issues such as privatization, international trade, foreign investments, foreign debt, sustainable development, etc., which in many respects are diametrically opposed to those of the WEF.
In view of its vehement opposition to corporate, control the participants---during its Conference on Transnational Corporations---proposed to make a list of “10 socially most irresponsible transnational corporations” and to pick out one of them as the object of a global boycott. Some narrowing down of targets has already been done. According to the document prepared for the debate, 99 of the 1000 biggest companies in the world originated in industrialized countries. Many of them have financial capital bigger than some big countries. Shell, for example, is financially bigger than Venezuela, one of the biggest oil producers in the world. New Zealand, Hungary, and Ireland equal General Motors.[xxiii]
The WSF, while vehemently calling for the destruction of the international capitalist structure and its attendant institutions, also engages itself in the construction of an alternative program to, what it labels as, the neo-liberalist character of globalization. As one of its sympathizers notes: “We have to be ready with replacement policies which restore power to communities and democratic States while working to institute democracy, the rule of law and fair distribution at the international level.”[xxiv] Such an alternative, however, still needs to be formulated and expressed in great detail by the body. Pending its formulation, the WSF satisfies itself with some motherhood statements by propagating for an alternative strategy which---as clearly enunciated in its Charter of Principles---broadly “aims to establish a kind of communitarian globalization that observes universal human rights for men and women throughout all nations and protects the environment, backed by international democratic systems and institutions serving social justice, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”[xxv]
In the latest forum in Brazil on January 31 to February 5, 2002, the WSF broached the idea of a more “humanizing globalization” founded on the principle of “solidarity economy” as an alternative to neo-liberal globalization. While the participants were not able to lay down the details of this concept, some generalities of its economic and political landscapes have already been raised. Jean Louis Laville of France expressed one input. According to him, “The first condition for solidarity economy to become the foundation of a humanizing globalization is to dismantle the idea that economy is just a market.“ He argued that it is not only the market that produces wealth, as the neo-liberalists would like us to believe, and advanced the idea that “solidarity (also) creates material wealth as well as cultural richness”.[xxvi] Another delegate explained that the principle of solidarity economy is not an anti-market proposal since, as he clarified, “we need the market because the elementary exchanges can only be achieved through regulated and free interchange.”
Another advocate to “solidarity economy,” Argentinean professor José Luis Coraggio, added that “a key-factor of the proposal for a solidarity economy is to institutionalize moral rules that can define a functioning for all economy …” He argued that “this is not an anti-State proposal, but it demands that the public economy may be embedded with values of a moral economy, through democratization of the representative system, serving the majorities it is intended to represent” (ibid.). The term “solidarity” could have emerged from their perception and belief that the economy, being diverse and complex, requires civil initiative to complement public action. According to Coraggio, “it may be a lever for the construction of the Social State, and a lever for the re-democratization of the public State” (ibid.)
All in the WSF love to invoke such highly universal concepts as democracy, freedom, people’s representation and participation in the political affairs of government and society, social justice and equity, popular or people sovereignty, human rights, sustainable development, whatever these mean to each of the delegates to the annual forum. This could be one of the main reasons why non-government organizations (NGOs), social movements, women’s organizations, workers’ and peasants organizations, professional associations, academicians, Church leaders, and sympathetic business groups, among others---despite their varying persuasions and tendencies---are continually attracted and drawn to participate in the annual summit of the WSF in Brazil even if it means going there at their own expense.
During its summit meeting this year, the discussions revolved around the above commonly invoked concepts that were expressed as four major themes: production of wealth and the social reproduction; access to wealth and sustainability; civil society and the public arena; and democracy and citizen's power. Since its founding, several views have already been publicly released and re-echoed in subsequent gatherings. While the delegates are not bound to come up with a common position for the WSF as a body nor are they bound to abide by any views raised in the discussions, the positions expressed on several poverty-related issues are strikingly similar, e.g.: unconditional cancellation of Third World debts; “no” to privatization of natural resources and public services; “no” to corporate domination, authoritarianism, and discrimination.
On the issue of international trade, one idea raised in the WSF conference in 2002 is that trade must be considered not as an end but a means for achieving the socio-economic development of every country. In order to achieve this, says one delegate from South Africa, reforms need to be introduced in the WTO that “would remove certain agreements such as the rules on intellectual property, and to reduce the WTO’s punitive power that transformed it into the most important international organisation for the oppression of poor people.”[xxvii] The broad consensus reached by the delegates is that “free trade does not guarantee wealth and development for nations and people” and that international trade agreements should not be negotiated within the WTO since the latter, as the delegates contend, is controlled by rich states which have too much authority and power over weak nations.
Many of the proposals advanced by the WSF-2000 delegates are still in generalities, which at best only serve as broad guidelines for the participants to influence policies in their respective countries of origin.[xxviii] Even then, these broad proposals express the divergent orientations of the delegates, especially those that relate to the WTO, e.g.:
1. The development of nations should be based on production and not on commerce.
2. States should focus on diversification of their economies and avoid a rush towards exportation.
3. The rules that govern the WTO and free trade have to change fundamentally; the nature and role of the WTO should be reformed and be subordinated to the UN.
4. To delegitimize the WTO and condemn the conduct of the United States and the European Union in the latest WTO-meetings in Doha, and to sign the Declaration of the NGOs that refuses the Doha Declaration.
5. To do everything possible not to allow the WTO to open negotiations to liberalize the agreements on investments and competition, services and public markets.
6. The NGOs of the rich countries should force their governments to pull back.
7. To create a “Universal Right on Food Sovereignty” that would contain the following:
· The right to develop an agricultural policy in order to be able to feed the population of every country (food self-sufficiency policy).
· Develop a policy to protect local markets.
· The right to have access to productive resources (water, land and grains).
· Rights of consumers to decide what type of product they want to consume (anti-GMO).
· Remove the agricultural chapter from the authority of the WTO.
· Question the current rules of international trade concerning agriculture and propose a system with regional food prices
As a young international forum, the WSF has already come a long way in terms of providing a movement where civil societies can gather together, exchange ideas, and undertake collective action at the global level. But it still has to formulate in great detail and translate its views and beliefs into concrete programs or projects---both at national and international levels---that can provide a viable alternative to the WEF’s programs, especially on those issues relating to international trade, foreign investments, finance, foreign debt, global poverty, etc. There is no doubt that the continuous annual gatherings of the WSF would eventually lead to the detailed formulation of this viable alternative to, what it says as, the narrow vision given by global business at the World Economic Forum in New York.
In the WSF version of the drama, the civil societies take the center stage and the lead role, with the business sector, in particular the WEF, presented almost as the villain and antagonist. But at this stage of its development and before the eyes of the spectators, its strategy and story still suffer from too much generalization that often leads to ambiguities and vagueness of its views and positions. The spectators are not yet too clear about the narrative it wishes to convey. For those who are not totally in favor of the WEF approach and are not convinced or are still wary of the WSF version, the UN strategy may yet provide another alternative.
The UN Strategy
Like the WEF and the WSF, the United Nations (UN) meets in the form of global conferences or summits. But unlike the other two world bodies, the UN puts the responsibility of addressing the problem of global poverty primarily on the hands of governments, in particular political leaders. It draws its membership by countries---181 as of the latest count---that send their heads of governments regularly to UN Conferences. But while heads of states and governments predominate its periodic gatherings, it also draws representations from the private sector and civil societies. It is during these conferences that declarations and commitments on specific global issues are made by the member countries of the UN. Declarations are formulated on the level of principles and action, which in turn become the guideline of the delegates when instituting changes in their respective countries.
According to UN itself, these global gatherings have their long-term positive impact by:
· Mobilizing national and local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take action on a major global problem;
· Establishing international standards and guidelines for national policy;
· Serving as a forum where new proposals can be debated and consensus sought; and
· Setting in motion a process whereby governments make commitments and report back regularly to the United Nations.
In between conferences and summits, the UN strategy consists of providing assistance to national governments to ensure the implementation of the latter’s commitments. This assistance is provided in terms of conducting household surveys and extending technical services. Assessment studies are made by the UN to monitor poverty trends at the national, regional, and international levels, on the basis of which long-plan strategies may be formulated.
This was the process when the UN addressed the problem of global poverty. Its approach to reduce global poverty was conceived as a response to the Declaration and the Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development held on 6-12 March 1995 in Copenhagen.[xxix] This gathering brought together 117 heads of states that committed their governments to eradicating global poverty. In particular, the delegates vowed to formulate and strengthen national policies and strategies aimed at reducing poverty and inequalities in their respective countries.[xxx] It listed 10 broad commitments, the major ones of which include the following:
1. Creating an environment aimed at promoting more equitable access for all to income, resources and social services;
2. Eradicating poverty in the world through decisive national actions and international cooperation;
3. Promoting full employment; and
4. Promoting social integration by fostering societies that are stable, safe and just.
To monitor the performance of poverty-eradication plans at the country level and to ensure implementation of the commitments made by the political leaders, the UN offered to extend help and assistance in the form of household and poverty surveys as well as in the form of technical support and advocacy. It was because of this offer that in 1996---also declared as the “International Year for the Eradication of Poverty---the United Nations launched the “Poverty Strategies Initiatives (PSI) program “to assist countries in analysing the extent and determinants of poverty and in formulating national policies and strategies aimed at reducing poverty.”[xxxi] The effects of this program have been favorable. Since 1999, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have made the Poverty Reduction Strategies Papers (PRSP) of the UN the basis for debt forgiveness and new concessional lending.
Five years later, or on June 26-30, 2000, the UN convened another gathering---the World Summit for Social Development in Geneva, Switzerland---to assess the achievements of the Social Summit of Copenhagen. Almost all the UN States and numerous NGOs attended this session. This gathering was significant since, based on the past poverty surveys and country studies, member countries of the UN were able to assess their performances and accomplishments insofar as addressing the problem of poverty in their respective continents, regions, or countries is concerned. For example, it was learned in this gathering that on the whole none of the poverty-related goals spelled out in the Copenhagen summit has been really reached.
Also on the same year, or on 6-8 September 2000, the UN convened the Millennium Summit at its Headquarters in New York, where heads of states and governments renewed their commitment to eradicate global poverty. This time, it became more specific in its target by setting the following specific millennium goals:[xxxii]
1. To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water.
2. To ensure that, by the same date, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education.
3. By the same date, to have reduced maternal mortality by three quarters, and under-five child mortality by two thirds, of their current rates.
4. To have, by then, halted, and begun to reverse, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the scourge of malaria and other major diseases that afflict humanity.
5. To provide special assistance to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
6. By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers as proposed in the "Cities Without Slums" initiative.
In the year 2000, the UNDP, upon whom the task of monitoring the progress of the UN’s poverty-reduction strategies has been placed, released the findings of its study that evaluated the impact of the PSI program. The results of the evaluation were contained in a book titled “Choices for the Poor: Lessons from National Poverty Strategies.”[xxxiii] The major findings show that “there is great variation in the manner in which poverty is being defined and measured in developing countries,” and that there is “a serious lack of capacity in some countries for formulating meaningful strategies for poverty reduction.” In cases where poverty-reduction strategies exist, the study indicates that these strategies were oftentimes interrupted during presidential elections, making poverty-reduction programs deeply embroiled in national politics.
The progress done towards the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been mixed. It has been noted that progress was registered only in countries that have embraced globalization, i.e., integrating themselves into the global world and attracting foreign investments into their economy.[xxxiv] Conversely, those countries that for various reasons resisted or were unable to fully accept globalization have been left behind and excluded from enjoying the benefits of the mainstream global economy. Most of the progress, the report noted, has occurred mainly in East Asia, especially in China. Taking China apart, the overall decline in global poverty in the period 1990-98 was observed to be less than half the rate needed for reaching the 2015 target. Another report confirmed this finding: “Some countries are on track for some goals but none of the MDGs are likely to be reached at the current rate of global progress.”[xxxv] This is not surprising to many of us. The goal of reducing poverty by half in the year 2015 translates to around 22 million per year and a FAO report shows that for the past years poverty declined only by an average of six million annually. The reasons given for the slow progress are varied: insufficient and inefficient public spending; crippling debt burdens; inadequate market access in developed countries; and declining official development assistance” (ibid.).
The UN views the issue of global poverty as both economic and political whose solution, according to it, requires not only increases in incomes or improvements in economic performances but also the democratic participation of all sectors of world societies. Country specific strategies, it says, need international supports even as globally oriented strategies need the support of national governments.
The UN has also addressed several other poverty-related issues that are pressing concerns of the other two world bodies, e.g. globalization, international trade, foreign investments, foreign debt, etc. Its views on these issues are closely similar to that of the WEF. For example, a report by the Secretary-General observes that “the benefits of globalization are obvious: faster growth, higher living standards, new opportunities.”[xxxvi] The report notes that progress in addressing global poverty was made possible only in those countries that have embraced globalization, i.e., integrating themselves into the global world and attracting foreign investments into their economy.[xxxvii] Yet, it goes on, “a backlash has begun, because these benefits are so unequally distributed, and because the global market is not yet underpinned by rules based on shared social objectives.” The challenge, therefore, is to make globalization works for all. This can be done, the UN continues, by introducing socially oriented policies into today’s international trade, foreign investments, etc.
The UN strategy is directed primarily through the governments and their leaders who are expected to take the lead and initiative in addressing the problem of global poverty in their respective countries. The concrete effects of this strategy can be appreciated in the context of its being able to monitor---quantitatively and qualitatively---both national and global poverty trends as well as assist national governments in responding to their respective problems. Financially strapped governments can certainly use these UN studies productively as a basis for formulating corresponding strategies and programs of action. Nonetheless, the sole and primary responsibility of eliminating poverty still rests on the government leaders.
In the UN drama, the government leaders, which in democratic societies may refer to the President (Prime Minister) and his/her Cabinet, the legislative and executive branches, take the lead role, with the rest---business sector and civil societies---given the supporting but vital roles. The script and production of the play are, in the UN version, left entirely on the hands of governments, which are in turn responsible for ensuring the support and assistance of the other sectors in their respective countries. But this is still greatly ideal. In reality, we still find many government leaders and administrations very much influenced or even dictated by either the business or labor sector, or even both, especially in the case where their catapulting into public office is made possible primarily because of the support and assistance provided by the latter sectors. In this case, once in power, the capability of the government leaders to formulate and adopt anti-poverty strategies can be seriously biased in favor of the sector(s) that contributed most to the election-campaign bag. This is one of the reasons why for some observers, the UN strategy is no better than the WEF, since in most instances it is the business sector that contributes most to the winning.
The drama will continue to unfold a kaleidoscope of plot and imagery in the years to come. As the business sector, heads of states and governments, as well as civil societies continue to grapple in their own separate and uncoordinated ways with the problem of poverty, much of the expectations will still focus on the effectivity of their respective strategies and programs to eliminate global poverty. The ultimate outcome will greatly depend on the extent to which all these three sectors are able to work together and come up with a common strategy. This entails working together harmoniously with the end in view of:
1. Coming up with a common definition of the meaning and causes of poverty that is acceptable to all sectors of society at the national and international levels;
2. Formulating and/or strengthening national poverty-reduction strategies based on the commonly accepted definition;
3. Implementing---without interruptions---national poverty-reduction plans that are democratically adopted in spite of foreseen and unforeseen events like national elections, change of administration, civil war or unrest, etc.; and
4. Continually monitoring, reporting, and sharing information on the progress and performance of established national poverty-reduction plans to address international conditions.
Coming up with a commonly accepted definition of the meaning and causes of poverty is challenging both at the national and international levels. At the national level, people belong to different organizations that adhere to competing orientations and ideologies. They belong to different cultures, race, and sectors of society that have their distinct interests to protect and advance. Their perception of the nature and causes of poverty vary differently - differences and variations that in turn give birth to divergent and at times conflicting views even on such issues as poverty. This has been demonstrated not only by the opposing views of the WEF and WSF, but even by the conflicting views espoused within the WSF itself. The delegates to the United Nations suffer from the same fate as evidenced by the UNDP report showing the divergent opinions its member countries have on their understanding of the meaning and causes of poverty. In all this, the WEF is not as deeply affected as the UN and WSF are, understandably because of its common profit-oriented character that in effect subordinates poverty-reduction strategies on the side.
At the international level, the problem can be more complicated to approach. Countries have varying degrees of development or underdevelopment. They have different perceptions of what poverty is. Some countries do not even have a clearly defined national poverty-reduction strategies either because these countries may have other priorities to address, e.g., terrorism, rebellion and insurgency, civil disturbance, or because the political leaders of these countries may be simply engrossed in partisan squabbles. Poverty-reduction plans may exist but these may in fact be only temporary since changes may inevitably appear with the coming in of new political leaders. This is especially true in the case of the Philippines. The most comprehensive and ambitious poverty-reduction plan instituted was during the time of Pres. Fidel V. Ramos, in spite of the fact that it was during his administration also that the meaning of poverty was changed. But this was never carried over, much less implemented, by either the Estrada or Macapagal administration---in spite of the latter’s close party affinity to then Pres. Ramos---because they had other strategies and priorities to confront.
Given this stark reality, the monitoring on the performance of established national-reduction plans, if indeed these exist, can be limited to mere examining changes in numbers and statistics. But, as demonstrated above, poverty is not just economics, as the WEF would have us believe. The UN in fact has declared that it is deeply embedded in politics, while the WSF says it is a moral issue. A more challenging concern then is really coming up with an acceptable understanding on the nature and causes of poverty that is comprehensive enough to include the multifaceted and inter-disciplinary aspects of today’s reality. Equally important is a strong political will, supported by a determined civil service and an active civil society, to formulate---based on a commonly accepted understanding of the nature and causes of poverty---and implement democratically adopted poverty-reduction strategies without any interruptions or regardless of changes in political administration.
Finally, the task of eliminating global poverty is not only a concern of the business sector alone, or civil societies, or even of government leaders alone. The business sector is just overly preoccupied with profit, even as the civil societies still face serious organizational and ideological problems. Meanwhile, as the report of the UN clearly demonstrates, the causes of the non-realization of the MDGs indicate that even world governments are not really serious at all of eradicating global poverty. The three strategies advanced above are by their very nature greatly limiting in scope. The WEF talks of global change engineered primarily by the business sector, understood to mean multinational corporations and giant financial institutions. The WSF and the UN, on the other hand, put the task of leading the direction, process, and content of global change primarily in the hands of civil societies and government leaders respectively.
This is where we part with these organizations. Poverty, both at the international and national levels, needs to be a collective effort and direct involvement of all concerned sectors--- business, governments, civil societies, and even the Churches because of the moral dimension that the concept of poverty connotes. A more meaningful strategy can only come out as a result of an effective and equal participation of all these sectors in the affairs of society at all levels and in all processes of formulation, decision making, and implementation. In this manner, the public spectators, to whom all these strategies are after all directed, can be assured that the still-unfolding drama on global poverty will not will not end in a tragedy.