Poverty a political problem, needs political will for solution

Roberto Bissio

Stresa, Italy, 23 October. "We all agreed that poverty is the key problem of our times, and it is a political problem," said former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev at the closing of the assembly of the World Political Forum in this tourist town on the shores of Lago Maggiore on the slopes of the Alps.

"It is a political problem because the world has resources enough to solve it if the decisions to solve it are taken, but the problem has not been solved. It is becoming more acute and political will is needed," Gorbachev added.

"The present model of economic globalization is generating poverty at a global level,"and based on that diagnosis, former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev had convened the meeting of many of the political leaders from around the world that had shaped globalization to find the solutions.

The World Political Forum was created by Gorbachev in 2002, to fill the gap between the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Social Forum (WSF) of Porto Alegre. The forum was his reply to the challenges posed by the Davos WEF and the Port Alegre WSF.

The Stresa meeting was attended by some twenty former presidents and prime ministers, including Mr. Lionel Jospin of France, Malaysia's Dr. Mahathir Mohammad and Mrs.

Benazir Bhutto from Pakistan, the former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former head of the WTO Mr. Mike Moore, key economic and social scholars and NGO representatives.

The participants discussed for two days how to combat poverty in the present world.

"There was an illusion in the nineties that market mechanism would solve the problems" said Gorbachev in his welcome speech, "but now we realize that the problem is above all political. Free trade and good governance are important, as well as more aid and debt alleviation, but there is a need of a comprehensive approach".

"At the end of the Cold War we acted too late in trying to shape a new world order. We missed the opportunities and globalization has resulted in many negative consequences, widening gaps and instability" said the former Soviet president.

"I believe change is possible. I believe there is an alternative. I share the slogan of the World Social Forum that a different world is possible," said Gorbachev, urging the top world politicians that are members of the World Political Forum to agree on recommendations to be submitted next year to the UN General Assembly meeting five years after the solemn promises of the Millennium Declaration to fight against poverty.

"The basis should be the democratic principles. It is totally unacceptable to build a new world order on diktat and unilateral imposition. Who should take the initiative? This is the question we should discuss," Gorbachev said.

Former Portuguese prime minister and president Mario Soares agreed that "the neoliberal model imposed by the World Bank, IMF and WTO seems now finished". Soares endorsed the proposal by Presidents Lula (Brazil), Chirac (France), Lagos (Chile) and Zapatero (Spain) to create world taxes to fund the fight against hunger and poverty and argued for "sustainable development", since "present consumption patterns of rich countries are unsustainable and cannot be generalized".

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto linked poverty with governance issues, and argued, "authoritarianism failed to provide prosperity." She mentioned the paradox that "while generous loans were given to dictators for political reasons, when democracy returns, the international financial institutions insist on responsibilities and structural adjustment conditionalities that destabilize democracy."

Mrs. Bhutto demanded "democracy, debt relief and equitable trade".

On this, her views coincided entirely with those of Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, the UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, who demanded total cancellation of the debt of the poorest countries, more aid and "fair trade".

In order to make trade possible, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad demanded the construction of infrastructure in poor countries.

"We need money," he elaborated. "We need funds. Where do they come from? We need to impose some kind of international tax on those people and countries that have benefited from trade. Those who benefit by removal of border restrictions, deregulations, lowering of taxes, do not contribute towards any improvement in the international arena. They should pay some tax, for they are the ones benefiting from globalization. The tax we need is a tax for development of poorest countries."

But the money will not be easy to find.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former German foreign minister, lamented that "the peace dividend that we expected at the end of Cold War has not been produced". And former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu talked about sending young Japanese volunteers abroad to help developing countries and promised training for a hundred thousand foreign students in Japan; but he did not mention at all aid or debt cancellation.

Former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said that "we need to rebalance globalization, and universalize diversity, not impose a single system".

Democratic values were emphasized by many.

Former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral argued that "it is not just growth that matters for poverty eradication... most of the success stories are based on participation of the affected people".

Yet, not every panellist was agreeing with each other, as was to be expected of a meeting of politicians. Milos Zeman, former Czech Prime Minister, compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler and argued in favour of "preventive war against dictators," even as he insisted that it shouldn't be "unilateral." Federico Mayor Zaragoza, former head of UNESCO, immediately reacted that "there is no such thing as preventive war" and demanded a "culture of peace" instead. Federico Mayor rejected "imposition of models" and the current aid or grant "conditionalities that lead to privatization and poverty".

"Streamlining the state (now) basically means reducing the number of teachers" he argued.

In the corridors of the meeting the last communist prime minister of Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski was seen talking animatedly with Jeffrey Sachs, who was the main foreign advisor in the design of the market economy for Poland.

Currently Director of the Millennium Project of the UN, Sachs asked people "to be practical about the problems and not ideological". Yet, he explained "to be practical implies that donor countries have to give more aid money".

Mr. Mike Moore, former WTO director general said that the money should come from the elimination of agricultural subsidies in rich countries. These subsidies, he noted, now amount to over a billion dollars a day.

In closing the Assembly on Saturday, Gorbachev said: "We all agreed that poverty is the key problem of our times, and it is a political problem."

"It is a political problem because the world has resources enough to solve it, if the decisions to solve it are taken, but the problem has not been solved. It is becoming more acute and political will is needed," Gorbachev added.

Among those around the table listening to Gorbachev's closing speech were many of the heads of State that in the year 2000 had signed the Millennium Declaration promising to reduce poverty by half by 2015, as well as legislators, former ministers, advisors and a few nonprofit organizations.

Gorbachev had nice words for the World Social Forum. "We share their slogan that a different world is possible" he said. He was tough on the World Economic Forum that meets not far away from Stresa, in the Swiss town of Davos. The WEF has become a forum of the rich. They go to ski whereas the WSF and the WPF are attempts to create real tools.

The former head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union proclaimed himself a social democrat and supported democracy within nations but also in international relations Yet, democracy cannot be imposed by force or preventive war.

Gorbachev said that the war in Iraq was a mistake, a blow to international laws and to democracy and "I think the people in the US are starting to understand that."

"We need democracy to fight poverty and also to control and monitor the process. A lot of money allocated to fighting poverty went to pockets of some few people in Russia, and the Russians are living now in poverty as a result of that."

Gorbachev welcomed to the World Political Forum representatives of NGOs, since politics will change very slowly without the emergence of a powerful civil society in a global way.

He summarized the substantial issue of the assembly thus:

"Our discussion also confirmed that there is no single panacea. No magic solution. A comprehensive approach needs to take into account the laws of market economy but also the responsibilities of state. A lot depends on government and policies.

The temptation to find easy, authoritarian solutions, simple solutions, as well as the temptation of the invisible hand of the market are untenable.

"We know what the Washington Consensus resulted in. In real politics we cannot ignore social and environmental responsibilities. We cannot ignore business either. We need to strike a balance. Nothing can replace the ability of politicians to search solutions, to listen to the people."

Gorbachev promised to present a report to the international community about the meeting, including the need for better global governance, debt, taxing financial flows, corporations and weapons trade.

The need to tax or otherwise limit the weapons trade was raised previously by General Jaruzelski, former president of Poland, and by Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia. Dr. Mahathir emphasized the need for limiting intellectual property rights to facilitate development. He denounced the cost of brain drain to poor countries. He was backed by former Indian Prime Minister Inder Gujral in that "we need to modify the patent laws and agreements imposed by the WTO."

The need for international taxes was also supported by former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

France and the other European countries had been asked by Sylvia Borren, head of the Dutch NGO Oxfam-Novib to get rid of agricultural subsidies that harm poor people and meet the goals on ODA formulated 30 years ago.

But Rocard vaguely replied that subsidies have been reduced already in France and that Africa needs to protect itself from the brutality of market forces since free trade is only for the strong.

Jacob Zuma, South African Deputy President, reminded the audience that the scars of slavery have not healed yet in the African continent and that attempts to nationalize resources and protect the African economies in the past were confronted with sanctions and neo-colonialist interventions.

Former Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn and Frei Betto, personal advisor to Brazilian president Lula, talked about the problems of poverty in middle-income countries of Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Frei Betto asked for a global campaign against hunger, but said that sending food aid to the poor was a bad idea, as it justifies agricultural subsidies, destroys local cultures, creates dependency and creates corruption. There is no lack of food in Brazil or in the planet, he said, "but we do lack justice." According to Frei Betto, the Zero Hunger plan is currently reaching 4.6 million people with economic assistance, of a total of 11 million persons living with less than one dollar per day.