Solidarity goes international
Survey written by Anver Versi
The 7th of November is a date of significant importance to Tunisians. It was on this day, 13 years ago, that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took power and ushered in the era of The Change. It is a day of celebration, ceremony and feasting throughout this North African nation of nine million people.
It is also a day of reflection to review the momentous events that have led to such radical changes in their individual lives. Over this short period, Tunisia has been transformed from a struggling, conflict-ridden Third World country into a thriving, middle class economic dynamo. By 2006, the transformation will be complete and Tunisia will take its proud place among the developed nations of the world.
But as Tunisians enjoy their holiday, there will be constant reminders, on posters, television programmes and ceremonies, that not all their citizens share in the good life. There are those who are poor, marginalised and despondent. But they are not forgotten. On every December 8 - National Solidarity Day-delegations, laden with gifts, scour the country to bring a little sunshine to gloomy lives and assure them that their plight is the concern of all.
Every year, the pool of the poor and marginalised shrinks. Every year the number of people, including children, who can afford to give is on the increase; while the total number of people in need of assistance decreases. Over the past decade, the number of those living in poverty has been beaten back from over 22% of the population to just around 6%. The aim, over the next five to six years, is to wipe the scourge of poverty off the face of Tunisia.
This is in sharp contrast to the global situation today. Poverty is increasing alarmingly. A quarter of the world’s population lives on less than one dollar a day. While globalisation is bringing unprecedented wealth to the few, it is pushing ever larger numbers deeper into poverty. Efforts by international organisations to alleviate poverty have not only failed, they have created even greater poverty.
So why is Tunisia succeeding in its battle against poverty while the rest of the world is failing? “Vision and commitment,” says Malta’s President, Professor Guido de Marco during a seminar on international solidarity held in Tunis in November. “Ben Ali is truly a man of vision. He declared war on poverty in his country and then planned and executed the campaign with single-minded determination. “He and Tunisia have demonstrated that if the will is there, poverty can be rolled back remarkably quickly.”
President Ben Ali’s chief weapon against poverty is the National Solidarity Fund. He set it up in 1992 when, after touring the country extensively, he was appalled at the level of poverty and marginalisation he saw in pockets of the nation. He instituted the 2626 fund and encouraged civil society to contribute to it. His masterstoke was to involve all members of society in the battle. Alleviation of poverty was no longer the sole preserve of the government or of international organisations-it was something everybody could participate in. The response has been overwhelming. (see following story).
There was scepticism, both inside Tunisia and outside, when the programme was first launched. It seemed another of those fine sounding gestures that in the end would deliver little or nothing. But this time the sceptics got it wrong. Eight years later, National Solidarity in Tunisia has not only proved a resounding success it has become an essential segment of Tunisian culture.
Its reputation began to grow outside the country. A number of delegations from various African and Arab states began arriving to study how the programme worked and if they could implement it in their own countries.
New global dynamics
In the meanwhile, the ramifications of the end of the Cold War were beginning to be felt in the developing world. The technologically endowed nations began an unprecedented era of prosperity but the poorer nations became poorer still. A downward spiral of poverty leading to internal conflicts leading to even greater poverty seized scores of developing nations. International organisations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, found their strategies outdated and outmoded. To compound the situation, natural disasters, perhaps brought on by global warming, caused havoc on a gigantic scale.
World Fund for solidarity
It was against this nightmarish backdrop that the United Nations called for a Millennium Summit in September in an attempt to chart out a new global strategy to halt the march of poverty and alienation over more than half the world.
During the summit, Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took the initiative and put forward a proposal which was stark in its directness. He called for an International Solidarity Fund to be modelled on the one in Tunisia which had proved so effective.
He said: “Though globalisation has provided new economic opportunities, accompanied by amazing scientific and technological advances, this situation has not prevented the worsening of the gap among states as regards the pace of development, or the deepening and widening of disparities between rich and poor. This has indeed aroused fears and prompted most observers to call for the establishment of a joint area of prosperity which would ensure a balanced and sustainable development for all nations of the world, without any exclusion or marginalisation.”
He continued: “We have also proposed the creation of a ‘worlds fund for solidarity and poverty eradication’ to serve as an instrument for strengthening the mechanisms of humanitarian intervention, and as a means to fight poverty in the most destitute parts of the world.
“While this proposal stems from our firm belief that solidarity among states and peoples is a humanitarian duty and a moral obligation,” President Ben Ali told the rapt audience, “it is essentially based on our conviction that human rights constitute an indivisible whole, and will only be complete by safeguarding human dignity and providing man, wherever he may be, with the wherewithal to lead a decent life.”
Delegates at the Millennium Summit loudly applauded President Ben Ali speech and 12 international organisations pledged their support to the proposal. The OAU, the Group of 77 and non-aligned organisations also threw their weight behind the proposal.
But, characteristically, the Tunisian president was not content with making fine speeches. He wanted action. As a consequence, the theme for the 12th International Symposium organised by Tunisia’s Democratic Constitutional Rally in November was International Solidarity and the challenges of development in the next century. (See following story).
In less than eight years, Tunisia’s National Solidarity has driven endemic poverty almost to the point of extinction; will International Solidarity do the same for the rest of the world?
Solidarity for all
Democratic Constitutional Rally
12th International Symposium — Tunis, 3-4 November 2000
President Ben Ali set the tone for the seminar when he told a distinguished international gathering in Tunis: “The New York Millenium Summit, held last September, has identified poverty as the most important challenge facing mankind...The various reports on human development prepared by the United Nations Development Programme and by various other specialist organisations and bodies clearly show the limits of international efforts to eradicate poverty. Existing instruments in this field, notably development programmes and international assistance, do not meet the urgent needs required by the current situation.”
President Ben Ali spelt out the extent of the crisis: 1.2bn individuals still live below the poverty line, earning less than $1 a day and a further 3bn people live on less than $2.
He then referred to the 1996 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development where developed nations had pledged to contribute 0.7% of their GDP to fight poverty. In practice, however, most developed nations have been contributing only 0.2% of GDP and the figure has been declining.
During the Copenhagen Summit, President Ben Ali had called for a partnership agreement to be signed between developing nations and advanced countries. He had asked for the development of a charter in which social development would have its rightful place and the terms of the charter would serve as a reference and framework for all major international bodies, “thus providing a clarification of the principles of democracy and human rights on a sound basis.”
“It is within this context,” he told the seminar, “that we made our proposal to set up a world fund for solidarity and poverty eradication.”
The meaning given to the word ‘solidarity’, he continued, “allows for cooperation between countries in the North and countries in the South to take a course leading to increased efficiency. While this fund will assist in developing the countries of the South economically and socially, it will also enable them to become real partners and effective associates, rather than mere markets for consumption.”
This concept of development with a human face was picked up by other key speakers at the seminar. Prince Talal Ibn Abdelaziz, president of the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organisation said development could no longer be measured simply in terms of GDP and per capita incomes. “People have been turned into figures,” he said. “The new concept of development sees people as a whole and takes in all their needs nutritional, physical and psychological health, social integration and individual dignity. The unprecedented world economic growth, fuelled by technology, has not reached the poor” He added:” The Millenium Summit saw slogans but little attempt to tackle causes or find solutions.
“The North must take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their companies. To blame everything on the South — corruption, inefficiency etc, is to shy away from the problem,” he said to warm applause. “There is an urgent need for an International Solidarity Fund”, he continued “since, at present, Northern intervention is limited to slogans, blame and conditionalities, none of which have made a dent in the enormous problem of poverty eradication”.
Edward Gardener, the executive officer of the Middle East department of the IMF, whose organisation had come under fire from several speakers, admitted that there could be no sustainable development without poverty eradication. He told delegates that the IMF was now more willing to listen to both the civil society and the authorities than to make decisions from a distance.
The OAU’s Assistant Secretary-General, Vijay Makhan lamented the fact that despite pledges made at the Copenhagen Summit to reduce poverty by half by 2015, so far, nothing had been done. “One’s heart bleeds when one contrasts the suffering of Africa with the extravagances around the world. We have been hearing a lot of talk about poverty elimination but the means have not been forthcoming. With solidarity, we now have the liefmotif with which to change our condition.”
Rounding up the seminar, the President of Malta, Professor Guido de Marco referring to international solidarity warned: “Far too often, short-term political gains have been made at the expense of fuelling divides. Far too often, the lessons of history have been left in the drawer. Far too many times have opportunities been lost to shortsightedness.” He told the audience that when he served as president of the 45th session of the UN General Assembly, “I referred to the fact that the triumph we proclaimed with the lifting of the Iron Curtain should not lead to complacency, lest it be replaced by a poverty curtain.”
Paying tribute to the success of the National Solidarity Fund in Tunisia, President de Marco added: “On an international level, President Ben Ali’s initiative of setting up the World Solidarity Fund is most laudable in that it aims at supporting the development of the least developed and developing countries. It is indeed a proposal which is a sign of its time. President Ben Ali has based his initiative on the concept of the fundamental right of every human being to a decent life and is calling for an aggregation of international solidarity towards the eradication of poverty.”
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