Wednesday, 24 September 2008
'We shall overcome' - singing in the aisles, 23rd September
As a socially awkward Brit keen on avoiding public emotion, taking part in a rousing chorus of 'we shall overcome', that great anthem of the civil rights movement, in a packed chapel is not something experienced on a daily basis. Yet that's exactly what I found myself doing today - admittedly maybe humming more than roaring, shuffling rather than dancing - at the finale of today's civil society 'poverty hearing'.
At the event, organised by the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP), representatives from social movements all across the global south stood up on behalf of their communities, testified to their experience of poverty and spoke out to send messages to heads of state assembled at the UN. Speakers included a young girl from India enchanting the audience about how education gave her an escape from exploitative labour, a Masai woman speaking on the twin challenges of climate change and the food crisis on pastoral communities in Kenya, and Jamillah Mwanjisi, Coordinator of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW), speaking on the global sanitation and water crisis.
Eloquently outlining the fundamental importance of providing safe sanitation and water in order to achieve the MDG targets on poverty, education, gender equality and child mortality, Jamillah asked of the audience 'who is prepared to wait 100 years for a safe place to use the toilet?'. She called on leaders to empower the voices of citizens to drive social progress, and to support the development and financing of national water and sanitation plans. Leaders of north and south have the duty, she said, of implementing the promises made in the International Year of Sanitation to make a breakthrough in the provision of sanitation and water.
With the testimonies being collected by a prestigious panel of elders including Mary Robinson (former UN Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland) and Ela Bhatt (one of the worlds most remarkable pioneers in grassroots development), the recommendations are meant to be fed into the formal proceedings being concluded this Thursday. Certainly the themes outlined by Jamillah were recognised - with Mary Robinson berating the injustice of lacking access to water and sanitation, and fellow elder Serigne Mansour Sy (Co-President of Religions for Peace) stressing how providing access to clean water helps girls get into school and allows women to spend time productively earning an income, working their way out of poverty.
Above all the key messages from this event were the central role of respecting human rights and promoting empowerment, the simple need for all to inject an urgency in the keeping of promises made but never kept, and the criticality of - as Archbishop Winston Ndungane (Archbishop of Cape Town who was imprisoned in Robben Island during the struggle against apartheid), put it - "stiffening our spines and taking the voices of the poor to the corridors of power".
Tomorrow we will ourselves be taking these voices to the corridors of power - first by presenting a petition of over 960,000 actions to the Dutch Prime Minister Jan Balkenende (who has been one of the more progressive leaders in this process), and secondly by participating in the 'partnership event' being organised by the Governments of Germany, Japan, Netherlands and Tajikistan.
So a powerful show from civil society, but it remains to be seen whether leaders will respond. An ambitious deal still seems hampered by a number of countries reluctant to grasp the opportunity ahead of them, happier to put their head in the sand than act with vision and conscience. I'm not sure we will be singing in the aisles tomorrow, but I will be the first to clear my throat in the event that we should.