World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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DEVELOPMENT: Democracy, and Poverty, on the Rise Worldwide

By Marcela Valente

STOCKHOLM, Jun 6 (IPS) - In the last 25 years, the portion of countries worldwide with some form of democratic government more than doubled from 28 to 62 percent, but the number of people subsisting on less than one dollar a day also grew - from 1.2 to 1.5 billion - in that same period.
This apparent discrepancy is most evident in the former socialist bloc - the now-defunct Soviet Union and the nations of Eastern Europe - which saw the number of poor grow by 150 million people in the 1990s, according to data from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Some 80 political leaders, academics and UN representatives are to gather in the Swedish capital Thursday to discuss ways poverty relief programmes in developing countries can promote sustainable democracies.

The debate will take place as part of the fifth Democracy Forum, an annual event held in Stockholm, organised by the international Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in collaboration with the World Bank and the UNDP.

The two-day conference will give participants from around the world a chance to discuss and draft recommendations related to the theme, ''Democracy and Poverty: A Missing Link.'' They will attempt to find ways to more efficiently put international aid resources in the hands of the poorest countries.

The organisers are not saying that democracy is the panacea for all problems related to poverty, but that this system's values allow greater efforts to be made on behalf of the poor, said IDEA secretary-general Bengt Save-Soderbergh.

Another IDEA leader, Patrick Molutsi, agreed, adding that ''promoting democracy is a strategy to alleviate poverty because it realises the rights and participation of all citizens.''

The forum participants met first in four regional conferences held in April and May in Armenia, Ethiopia, Nepal and Ecuador. At each of the meetings, leaders from the area discussed specific issues and drafted regional reports to be presented in Stockholm.

According to the forum organisers, this week's sessions will involve questions such as how a poverty relief programme can be successful in a society that continues to reproduce the same policies and the same institutions that perpetuate poverty.

The conference-goers will also study whether democracy as a system is a ''missing link'' in the fight against poverty and social exclusion, and how poverty alleviation programmes can work with democracy-building projects to reinforce each other.

IDEA was created in 1995 by political leaders from 14 countries to promote sustainable democracy, working to improve and consolidate electoral processes around the world.

At the forums of the last five years, participants have taken on issues such as democratic culture, electoral processes and the political participation of the young. Each meeting concludes with recommendations for governments and civil society organisations.

This year, IDEA proposed that the forum study why poverty is on the rise in a world context where democracy is expanding: a record number of countries now hold free elections, including many that have done so for the first time after long dictatorships.

''In the last decade, the number of democratically elected governments rose dramatically,'' commented World Bank representative Deepa Narayan, but even if it is a good start, ''it is not enough'' to eradicate poverty.

''We must focus our efforts on bringing democracy to all, particularly to the poorest men and women,'' which means shifting the principles of democracy to the grassroots, said Narayan.

Even though governments, non-governmental and international organisations have made poverty reduction and democratisation top priorities, rarely do they connect the two issues, say the forum organisers.

As a poverty alleviation method, democracy has a poor record when it comes to improving the distribution of rights and resources among people in developing countries, they point out, and warn that the donors of assistance funds do not always find out the real needs of the poor communities they are trying to help.

The director of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus - who founded a programme of micro-credits as a way to help people escape poverty through low interest loans to start a community or family business - will be in Stockholm to participate in the forum.

Also planning to take part are the president of Mauritius, Cassam Uteem, Guatemala's Culture Minister, Otilia Lux, and former Ecuadoran president Osvaldo Hurtado.

One of the forum's goals is to contribute to identifying the poverty alleviation programmes financed by industrialised countries that could include efforts to promote democracy and human development.

In doing so, participants will closely study the issues of government responsibility, the role of non-governmental organisations, corruption, political participation and rights, especially those of the poor and of minorities. (END/IPS/tra-so/mv/ag/ld/00)



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