NGOs score point in fight against poverty at Cancun. News conference launches Social Watch report in Arabic

At a time when the United States, Japan and Germany account for half of the world’s GDP, the prospect of abolishing poverty seems far-fetched. But civil institutions and non-governmental organizations, emerging from the victory scored in the collapse of new trade liberalization talks at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting last month, feel they have gained ammunition.

“Abolishing slavery in the 19th century was an impossible dream that finally became a reality,” said Roberto Bissio, coordinator of the Uruguay-based NGO, Social Watch. Bissio was speaking Wednesday at a news conference that launched the Arabic translation of Social Watch’s 2003 report: The Poor and the Market. “The decision to eradicate poverty is also a political decision which is faced with similar attitudes,” he said.

The news conference is also the opening day of a five-day general assembly of the NGO.

Social Watch and other NGOs have long called for developed countries to narrow the gap between rich and poor nations, who refused to give in to demands at the WTO meeting in the Mexican city of Cancun.

“The collapse of Cancun talks exposed deep flows in the decision-making process of WTO which covered up the rights of weak countries,” said activist Yao Graham of the fifth ministerial meeting.

But he added that developing countries are currently in a quandary that might erode their political victory at Cancun.

“The United States has said it is going to heighten the use of bilateral and regional agreements,” due to the collapse of the Cancun talks, Graham said.

“There is a danger of fragmentation. At the domestic level, what pressures are governments going to face?” he asked.

Adib Naimeh, who worked on the Arabic translation of the 2003 report, said the Arab world, as part of the developing world, is facing its own pressures to open up its economy to foreign investors.

He cited examples from various Arab countries undertaking privatization projects that have not improved public services, the subject of the 2003 report.

“The right to have education, water and other public services should be part and parcel of WTO agreements,” said Naimeh.

He said the sale of state assets to the private sector in a number of Arab countries has often led to an increase in unemployment, the creation of private sector monopolies and increases in the cost of public utilities.