Campaigners unite against poverty

March 01, 2005

Campaigners unite against poverty

March 01 2005

by Oliver Balch

In a special feature, former Briefing managing editor Oliver Balch reports from Porto Allegre, Brazil, where he discovers activists are targeting their campaigns against the private sector’s rising collective influence.

President Lula da Silva of Brazil is the first major political figure to give his political backing to a new international poverty reduction campaign launched at the World Social Forum.

Speaking in front of a vocal home crowd in the southern Brazilian town of Porto Alegre, Lula emphasized the importance of debt relief, one of the three core components of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP). The GCAP campaign is demanding that aid budgets be better directed and that governments commit to giving 0.7% of national income in overseas aid.

“We are living in a time at the beginning of the millennium when all the talk is of terrorism and war, but the biggest terror in the world is an empty stomach”, said John Samuel, Asia director of ActionAid, on behalf of GCAP. “A silent tsunami is happening in Africa. Thousands of people are being killed by denying [them] food”.

Of particular interest to the private sector is the campaign’s focus on export dumping and the increased accountability of national and international trade rules.

In an interview with Briefing, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser, Michael Bailey, described how GCAP signaled a growing awareness in the development community of the private sector’s “collective political influence” on trade policy.

“The message of GCAP to big business is that they can and must do more to make sure that, in the management of the economic system, human rights, justice, fairness are paramount”, Bailey said.

The point is an important one as it takes the debate beyond campaigners’ traditional demands for individual companies to ensure the good management of their own operations and activities. The attention of pressure groups and campaign organisations, Bailey argues, is now beginning to focus on how large corporations affect policy considerations, whether through their business associations or other industry-led lobbying mechanisms.

As a case in point, he cited the example of the pharmaceutical companies and the influence they used to exert on patent rules and access to essential medicines in developing countries. “It was governments that decided the rules [on medical patents], but in fact the drivers behind those rules was the international pharmaceutical lobby”, the Oxfam spokesman stated.

He conceded, however, that not all large corporations abuse their political influence. He commended ABB, for example, for considering the impacts of its action on government policy as part of its corporate social responsibility commitment. He also gave the example of companies, such as Unilever, which have come out in support of changes to international trade in agricultural products and the removal of export dumping practices.

United voices: Though it may not be expressed in quite such terms, at the root of the GCAP campaign is a desire to put the breaks on unbridled import liberalisation. The one issue that unites the disparate voices at the World Social Forum is that governments in developing countries should no longer open their doors to investment by multinational companies if it results in harming their domestic industries and other interests.

At present, GCAP’s demands focus mainly on governments in the industrialised world, which World Social Forum participants rightly identify as the rule makers. In additional to the removal of unfair subsidies, one of the other policy ‘sticks’ bandied around the 2,000 workshops and meetings in Porto Alegre is the integration of development goals into trade investment support, such as export credit guarantees and government investment loans.

It will only be a matter of time until the focus also turns to the private sector. The case can be made for trade liberalisation and export-led growth as a way out of poverty for the developing world. Done well, multinational investors can assist the balance of payments, provide a net increase in employment, help with technology transfer, increase incomes and add to public coffers through corporate taxes and royalties.

Open and shut case: Done badly, however, and the opposite scenario is all too evident. For participants at the World Social Forum, it remains an open and shut case, as their road-blocking marches over the first few days clearly testify.

The GCAP alliance plans to take its case against corporate capitalism to the world’s TV screens and airwaves during the course of 2005. GCAP members, drawn from hundreds of campaign groups and development organisations around the world, are encouraging their supporters to wear white armbands as a sign of solidarity. The G8 Summit in the UK on July 1 and the UN Millennium Summit on September 10 have been singled out as days for global action.

President Lula later endorsed the GCAP campaign for a second time in a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos. But industry leaders didn’t greet him with the same flag-waving and samba-dancing that he had enjoyed among Porto Alegre’s left-leaning crowd.

That said, corporate leaders would be mistaken to think that global poverty has nothing to do with them. Poverty reduction represents the best opportunity corporate capitalism has to prove its merits to the world.

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 80 – March, 2005

Oliver Balch is former managing editor of Briefing. He is now working in South America as a freelance journalist and CSR specialist.