IPS Director General Mario Lubetkin (L) presents IPS International Achievement Award 2008 to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Credit:Mithre J. Sandrasagra/IPS
Lula a “Tireless Advocate” for the Poor and Landless
By Katherine Stapp
UNITED NATIONS (IPS) – Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who rose from a poor childhood to lead a
growing economic powerhouse that has placed the ideal of inclusive prosperity at the centre of its development policies, received the Inter Press Service (IPS) International Achievement Award 2008 Monday.
“We would like to honour you because you fought side by side with the landless and deprived, and for your efforts in initiating and supporting policies towards social inclusion and peaceful resolution of conflict, and the full exercise of basic human rights and freedoms, not only in Brazil but among sister nations in Latin America,” said IPS Director General Mario Lubetkin.
The Brazilian president, popularly known as Lula, has been deeply involved in international efforts to end poverty and hunger, Lubetkin noted, playing a key role in mobilising support from other world leaders and international organisations.
The award ceremony was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York on the eve of the high-level segment of the 63rd session of the General Assembly, which is expected to be attended by over 150 world leaders.
In his acceptance speech, Lula emphasised the importance of a free and vibrant media in the global fight against poverty and marginalisation.
“As we move toward social justice and pluralism, the independence of sources is fundamental for a democratic dialogue that is enlightened and balanced,” Lula said. “Free access to information is also fundamental in building a world that is more fair and prosperous.”
“We know that one of the pillars of democracy and freedom is a free press,” the Brazilian president noted. “That is one of the lessons I learned during the struggle against repression and authoritarianism.”
“IPS has brought greater pluralism and diversity to the international press. For 44 years, IPS has given voice to the voiceless. IPS is more than crucial than ever in the creation of South-South dialogues and alternatives to the existing alliances,” he said.
Lula was born in 1945, the seventh of eight children, in the small town of Garanhuns, Pernambuco State. He started working at the age of 12 in a dry cleaning shop, later finding jobs as a shoeshine and office boy.
Lula first became involved in Brazil’s labour union movement while working at a factory in Sao Paulo. In 1975, he was elected head of the large Metallurgists’ Trade Union. Four years later, he helped lead a strike of 170,000 steel workers. “His political career is a good demonstration of the virtues of democracy,” said Enrique Iglesias, secretary-general of the Ibero-American Conference, a political, cultural and economic cooperation initiative in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula.
“The virtue of giving the chance of becoming president of one of the biggest nations on Earth to a worker with a long history of leadership in a workers’ union,” said Iglesias, who gave the keynote speech at the ceremony.
In 1980, Brazil’s military dictatorship cracked down on the organised labour movement, using the National Security Law to imprison several prominent leaders, including Lula, who served 30 days in jail.
That same year, Lula founded the Workers’ Party, which would eventually catapult him to the presidency after nearly three decades without direct elections. He came to office in October 2002 with 53 million votes. He was re-elected in October 2006, garnering about 58 million votes.
Lula’s generous social programmes have been widely credited with lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty. For example, to tackle the problem of malnutrition, which affects an estimated 15.6 million Brazilians, the Lula government devised Fome Zero (Zero Hunger).
The fund builds cisterns in Brazil’s semi-arid region, fights child labour, strengthens family agriculture, subsidises food and other essential items for the poor, and many other things. Fome Zero requires families to send their children to school and get regular vaccinations.
Lula’s government has also cancelled more than 1.7 billion dollars in debts owed by the poorest countries, and participates in numerous South-South cooperation projects, including sustainable farming initiatives in Cuba and some African countries.
“This type of information is not always publicised by the big media outlets in Brazil and abroad,” Lula said. “For that reason, we need IPS to be an example for the creation of other similar agencies.”
On the economic front, Brazil has diversified its industrial base and invested in both agriculture and lucrative exports like oil, leading to both a high growth rate — 5.4 percent in 2007 — and a strong domestic market that makes the country less vulnerable to the shocks rattling the rest of the world.
“Brazil today is a very important player in the new generation of emerging economies that are trying to change the rules of the game of trade and finance in order to build a new set of international relations based on a more fair distribution of opportunities among the south and the north in the world,” Iglesias noted.
At the same time, he said, Lula’s government has focused its attention on “areas that directly impact the poorest layers of society. In one generation, Brazil has achieved great improvements in reduction of poverty and elimination of hunger and malnutrition. This is reflected in statistics, but also in the political support of the people for the government’s policies.”
According to the World Bank, Brazil’s income gap has shrunk by six percent since 2001, more than any of its neighbours. In a reversal of the trend in many nations, the poorest 10 percent of Brazilians saw their incomes rise by 58 percent between 2001 and 2006.
“You have proved, by example, that your country’s vibrant economy, achieved during your tenure in office, can go hand in hand with the extension of its benefits to the majority of the population,” Lubetkin said. “And you have proved that economic progress only makes sense if it serves to improve the living conditions of society as a whole.”
The IPS International Award was created in 1985 to honour journalists and world leaders who contributed to peace, human rights, gender empowerment, good governance and social and economic equity. Past winners include First Lady of France Danielle Mitterrand (1991); President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (1994); U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1996); Graca Machel, First Lady of South Africa (1998); and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2006).