NGOs try to give poor a voice
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In the North Side warehouse of the Brother's Brother Foundation, relief supplies for nations in crisis have been moved out and tables borrowed from churches have been set up so that international aid groups can use it as a hub during the G-20 summit.
Nearly 50 people from organizations such as World Vision and Oxfam America will work their cell phones and write releases on how decisions of the G-20 might affect the poorest of the poor.
Dubbed NGOs, for "non-governmental organizations," some are high-profile agencies with entree to world leaders. Others, with local kitchen command posts, are scrappy groups that would be happy to influence City Council.
Oxfam is a global organization with "long experience around these summits, in bringing up the question of hunger," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.
- The Brother's Brother Foundation
- World Vision International
- Oxfam International
- Transparency International USA
- Bread for the World
- Center for Global Solutions
- The Thomas Merton Center
- G-6 Billion
- Pittsburgh United
- The People's Summit
The government relations arm of World Vision, a major Christian aid agency, has been in conversation with G-20 advisers to discuss how policies impact the poor.
"The NGO role at these summits is to be a voice for the poor and to hold leaders accountable to promises they have already made," said Geraldine Ryerson-Cruz, a spokeswoman for World Vision.
Both Oxfam, which is secular, and World Vision, which is evangelical, belong to the umbrella group InterAction, which sponsored the hub at Brother's Brother.
The movement against global hunger and oppression "reflects both the right and the left of America. There is a compassion in America that goes across our entire political spectrum," said Samuel Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction.
Their point for the G-20 is that when the poor can participate in the global economy, the whole world becomes safer and more prosperous. Past G-8 and G-20 summits have agreed, and made promises that the NGOs will pressure them to keep.
But in the wake of the recession, "We are sadly witnessing the rollback of the poverty reduction efforts that in many ways have been quite successful around the world," Mr. Worthington said.
Climate change is a top priority for many NGOs, but the focus isn't always on emission control. People in the poorest nations know how to cope with droughts and storms, but both have become more severe and less predictable, Mr. Offenheiser said. Oxfam is pressing for measures such as restoring wetlands as protection from storm surge and investing in better weather warning systems, and for aid to help villagers shift to drought-resistant crops.
"It's not too late to take action," he said. "This will not only save lives, but generate jobs and businesses in the United States and elsewhere."
Ensuring that such aid is used for its intended purpose is the goal of Transparency International USA. Nancy Boswell, its president, is pressing the G-20 to take aim against bribery and theft in recipient nations.
Business leaders support this cause because corruption "costs America contracts," she said.
One NGO with literal rock star status is One, the campaign founded by Bono. He isn't expected in Pittsburgh, but billboards from his organization will be all over town. They feature a globe covered in flags and the slogan, "One world. One Recovery. Africa is part of the solution."
The organization believes that overcoming Africa's cycle of poverty, disease, war and corruption would benefit the whole world. It wants the next G-20 to meet in Africa.
During the summit, One's policy specialists will be in contact with advisers to the G-20 leaders.
"We are backed by the strength of over 2 million members around the world, most of them in the United States," said Helen Palmer, the London-based media relations director for the G-20 team. Although One is based in Washington, D.C., the London office is handling the G-20 due to its prior experience.
At the 2005 Gleneagles G-8 in Scotland, it helped to organize a march of 250,000 people. The summit made impressive commitments to increase development aid, cancel debt and improve opportunities for trade and investment in Africa.
"It hasn't all come through yet. It's a large part of our job to monitor that and keep the pressure up," Ms. Palmer said.
Pittsburgh is an ideal venue from an NGO point of view, said Gary Cook, director of church relations for Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger group.
"For advocacy organizations, one of the real goals is to demonstrate to folks who make decisions that there really is a constituency; folks who elect them and pay attention to what they're doing, who care about issues of global poverty," Mr. Cook said.
"From the very beginning we thought that being in Pittsburgh was a real opportunity. Pittsburgh, more than Washington or New York, is really connected with the grass roots ... of the country."
Grass-roots NGOs will also be present, often with a tilt to the left. But Wanda Guthrie, an organizer with the Thomas Merton Center, said groups with divergent world views have come together. Her G-6 Billion project is sponsoring an interfaith march on Sunday. Groups are sharing speakers and publicizing each other's events.
"We have been doing so well at not stepping on each other's toes. I hope that when this is over, we can still work as cooperatively as we have," she said.
Pittsburgh United is a coalition of local groups ranging from the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee to the Sierra Club. It has funding from national organizations that support labor and push for community benefits agreements when big development takes place in poor neighborhoods.
It has organized events to help Pittsburghers understand how decisions by groups such as the G-20 affect neighborhoods here and around the world.
"We will talk to each other about how to pressure G-20 governments and G-20 corporations to make sure that public investment yields public benefits," said Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United.
"We don't expect any G-20 people Downtown to listen to us. But we expect to get our own act together better so that the mayor and the Allegheny County executive and the governor will listen to us," he said.
The People's Summit is a homegrown effort, dreamed up by college professors, to help people understand the issues at stake in the G-20. NGO representatives and academics will gather starting tomorrow in Oakland and the North Side.
"Some of the people involved are highly critical of the G-20 and the very concept of the G-20. Others are supportive. They will all be involved in these discussions, sharing different points of view," said Paul LeBlanc, who teaches about globalization at La Roche College.
"What all of these groups agree on is that we want to see a world in which there is liberty and justice for all."
First Published September 18, 2009 12:00 am