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From Dhaka to the World: A Challenge to Leave Poverty Behind

By Michael Switow

Speaking at a meeting of parliamentarians and civil society activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, GCAP co-chair Amitabh Behar has challenged anti-poverty campaigners to think beyond the Millennium Development Goals and to actively place the world's most marginalised at the centre of any development conversation.

"Are we OK to just add a couple more goals to the MDGs?" Behar asked an audience of parliamentarians, activists and development partners from some twenty central and south Asian countries from Bhutan to Tajikistan. "Do we want to just simply tweak the MDGs or extend the goals for another 3 -5 years?"

"We have often ended up with very pragmatic approaches (to development). If we don't bring back dreams to our narratives, it is unlikely we will have a fair and just world."

Parliamentarian and CSO Forums

The Dhaka meeting - one of two in Asia bringing together campaigners and parliamentarians - was held to influence the formulation of a new post-2015 UN-endorsed development agenda as well as to discuss ways to accelerate the achievement of the MDGs. An earlier forum for East Asia was held in Manila.

"I hope that your deliberations here in Dhaka will help shape a new world where justice, peace and equity will be the core of development," Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the gathering. "In contrast, absence of democracy causes social injustice, poverty, inequality, deprivation, marginalisation and leads to extremism and terrorism."

"Peace will only happen where there is trust and justice," adds Heru Prasetyo, secretary of the Indonesian government's Commission on Post 2015. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is one of three co-chairs of the UN High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, which is expected to present its recommendations in May 2013. "To leave poverty behind, global collaboration is a must. At the end of the day, it is about human dignity, it is everybody's right."

No More Marginalisation

"As civil society, we are delighted to work with the parliamentarians," says Behar. "This is a great step to work together on our collective future. It is important that the poorest of the poor and the marginalised groups be at the centre of this debate. Their voices should be the loudest."

"But I still have not seen enough initiatives in civil society or the United Nations to do this. This post-2015 conversation is moving very quickly. At this pace, it is very difficult for southern and marginalised groups to react and engage. It's important to move beyond summiteering and anchor our conversations with excluded communities."

One member of GCAP's Global Council who is working to do just that is Ashok Bharti, the head of the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR) in India.

"If we are to achieve the MDGs, the world needs to focus where the MDGs matter most: on the socially excluded," says Bharti, who addressed a breakout session about inequality at the Dhaka forum.

India, for example, with an official poverty rate of 21.6 percent, is on track to halve poverty over the past two decades. But among two marginalised communities, Dalits and Tribals, the poverty rate is at 29 and 33 percent respectively. Similarly, while India has officially attained universal school enrolment, the percentage of Muslim girls who have never attended school is more than 25 percent

"Are our processes designed to include the excluded?," asks Bharti, who is also convenor of GCAP's Global Task Force on Social Exclusion. "We want poverty and hunger to be eradicated from this world. Focusing on inequalities alone is not likely to address this issue. We need to keep exclusion at its centre. The agenda of inequality in post-2015 needs to be focused on exclusion."

Gender Equality to End Poverty

No group has been excluded globally more than women, who comprise the majority of the world's impoverished. Yet Bangladesh sets an example for the world in this area when it comes to political leadership. It is one of about twenty countries globally with a female head of state, but more than that, several of its most powerful ministers are women, including those with portfolios for agriculture, foreign affairs, labour, women & children and until recently, home affairs.

Delegates at the Dhaka forum lamented meanwhile that violence against women is all too prevalent in many of their communities and that national and international goals related to sexual and reproductive rights are largely unfulfilled.

While global attention has focused on maternal health, thanks in large part to MDG#5 which aims to reduce maternal deaths by three-quarters, policy-makers have neglected other essential issues like high levels of sexually transmitted diseases, unmet needs for contraception, unsafe abortions and gynaecological conditions like fistula.

"I was guilty of this as a parliamentarian too," says Carol Kidu, a former minister in Papua New Guinea, "as we focused on maternal mortality indicators. Will sexual and reproductive health and rights be given prominence in post-2015 or will it be too sensitive for politicians? We don't talk about sex, but we're still having babies. We need to talk about it."

And the conversation must take place at the grassroots.

"Since the Millennium Declaration was drafted in 2000, our world has changed dramatically," says Behar. "You can see the anger in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the anti-corruption movement in India . . . unless we are able to bridge this disconnect, it is very unlikely we will have a new set of goals that have legitimacy across a broad section of people. Our push to the global system is to request a bolder narrative that responds to the aspirations of citizens."

GCAP Asia representatives at the Dhaka Forum