Toward the goal of: Democratization

There is some truth in the observation that "Corporations Rule the World." Most of the giant transnationals are based in the North, mainly the United States. Through their powerful political lobby they have strong influence on national and global policies. Their financial manipulation of public elections via huge campaign donations--in essence, the bribing of candidates--has so deeply eroded democratic process that most Americans no longer vote.

You may be asking, "What does campaign financing have to do with poor people's health?" I would answer, "At least as much as doctors and hospitals." The biggest crises facing humanity today--which include the widening gap between rich and poor, the role-back of progressive social policies, our inability to curb looming ecological disasters, and the deepening of poverty-related poor health, crime, and violence--are all rooted in the erosion of democracy that results, in part, from the purchase of politicians by those with big money.

Therefore, in working toward a healthier, more participatory democratic process:

Key actions and objectives worth struggling for include:

1. Campaign-financing reforms

2. The democratization of information sharing

Let me explain what I mean by this and why it is crucial.

Numerous NGOs--such as Common Cause in the US--are working hard for election-campaign finance reforms. But so far little headway has been made. Most politicians vote against measures that would reduce their corporate donations.Fig. 14   The balanced budget from the top down

Likewise, at the international level, efforts to democratize the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization through official channels have been largely ineffective. Hence the need for street rallies and protests.

In today's low-intensity democracies, disinformation has become the dominant means of social control. The mass media are owned by the same club of giant corporations that profit from hand-guns, landmines, tobacco, deforestation, petrol-guzzling recreation vehicles, Gulf Wars, Star Wars, and from the globalized economy that puts corporate profits before human needs. Both through its advertizing and control of the mass media, the Corporate Power Structure distorts the news and methodically brainwashes the public. Reality becomes mirage.

To adequately understand and confront the factors that endanger our well-being, democratization of information sharing is essential. To see beyond the forked tongue of the mass media, we need more people-to-people avenues of communication, such as the alternative press, community television and radio, and (for those who can afford it) electronic mail.

E-mail and the Internet already have played a key role in international support of people-centered struggles against poverty-intensifying free-trade agreements. Examples include the Zapatista uprising in Mexico against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the worldwide protest against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).

The need for "people-centered struggles" brings us to our forth goal: Mobilization.

Toward the Goal of: Mobilization

Thomas Jefferson (one of the authors of the United States Constitution), made the observation that to keep democracy alive, Revolutions must be repeated every 20 years.

Indeed, the US Constitution states that when government acts undemocratically against the interests of its people, citizens have the right to rise up in opposition. The same right of active opposition should also apply internationally to undemocratic policies and trade agreements that deepen socioeconomic disparity or endanger the health of humanity and the planet.

Today, in fact, the world is ruled by an undemocratic power structure that wantonly endangers ecosystems and perpetuates poverty and ill-health for a large part of humanity. To realize constructive change in the face of such monumental odds, the mobilization of a critical mass of concerned people is key. The time has come for a social revolution of global proportion. Let us pray that it be as non-violent as possible.

Yet non-violence does not preclude confrontation. When institutionalized democracy fails, people of conscience need to organize extra-mural democracy through demonstrations, rallies, and protests. Such protests both raise public awareness of situations obscured by the mass media, and they put pressure on the ruling elite to be more accountable, transparent, and responsive to human and environmental needs.

Let's look at a couple of examples.

1. The Battle in Seattle. From the perspective of mass mobilization for change, the so-called "Battle in Seattle" was a major breakthrough. Last November tens of thousands of people gathered in Seattle, Washington to protest the anti-people, anti-environment policies of the World Trade Organization. This massive demonstration, accompanied by public lectures and street theater, put vital global issues in the international spotlight, and actually succeeded in blocking (or at least delaying) the introduction of more inequitable policies.

Key to the impact of the Seattle Protest was that diverse groups, including hundreds of NGOs from many sectors and causes, united. The rallying cry, "Teamsters and Turtles!" symbolized how labor unions and environmentalists were able to rise above traditional disputes and join in solidarity over more fundamental concerns. Equally important, the protest was international, with people's movements and progressive NGOs from over 60 countries.

The Battle in Seattle embodied a more direct and confrontational form of democratic action than do official elections. In the long run, by reinvigorating the disillusioned citizenry, such mass rallies may fuel the popular demand for making public elections more truly democratic.

2. The People's Health Assembly. Concerned with equity and health, another seminal grassroots initiative of international dimension is now underway. This is the "People's Health Assembly" or PHA, a broad new movement committed to giving a "voice to the people" in decisions affecting their health and well-being.

For information on the PHA contact:

People's Health Assembly (PHA)
PHA Secretariat, c/o Janet Maychin
CI ROAP, 250-A Jalan Air Itam
10460 Penang, Malaysia
tel: 604-229 1396; fax: 604-228 6506
E-mail: phasec@pha2000.org

The first major international event of the PHA will take place this December (from 4-8 December, 2000) in Bangladesh, with participants from 100 or more countries. It should be emphasized that the People's Health Assembly will be an on-going, long-term process. Regional activities are already gathering momentum, and will be continued through a coordinated series of actions and advocacy long after the December event.

The People's Health Assembly is being organized by diverse progressive NGOs together with community-based health and development movements, networks, and coalitions from around the world. The coordinating team includes The Asian Community Health Action Network (ACHAN), the Third World Network TWN), the International People's Health Council (IPHC), Consumers International (CI), Health Action International (HAI), the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) and the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation (DHF).

One objective of the People's Health Assembly will be to give the strength of popular support to UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, so that they can take a stronger, more effective stand in cases where human needs conflict with the profit motive of big business.

One last, crucial point: The People's Health Assembly is not just for those working in the health field. Recognizing that many crucial determinants of health lie outside the "health sector," the PHA welcomes strong participation of all sectors and initiatives whose activities contribute to sustainable well-being.

 

In conclusion...

Most of us are aware of the cruel inequalities in the world today. Many of us would like to contribute in some way to the creation of a different world founded on social justice, compassion, and balanced co-existence with one another and with the natural world.

Our challenge, individually and collectively, is to do whatever we can--in small ways or large--to achieve that fundamental transition before it is humanly and ecologically too late.

Yet the means must reflect the end. We must try to work for change in ways that are as peaceful, painless, and compassionate as possible. But we must also be confrontational, when necessary.

To quote again from Martin Luther King:

"Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war."

The NGO Forum for Health can work in many ways to help break the grip of globalization on poverty-related ill-health. But we can not do so without taking sides. The world today is more polarized than ever before.

For some of us, the starting point may be to protest the inequitable global economy, as with the Battle in Seattle. For others it may be to join in the struggle for sustainable Health for All, as with the People's Health Assembly.

Whatever our entry point, the coming together of a broad spectrum of sectors, movements, and NGOs concerned with human and environmental well-being is crucially important.

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