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24 February 2000

Taking the message into corridors of power:
Ecumenical team prepares for Geneva 2000

An ecumenical team is present in New York to offer a church viewpoint on social development as the United Nations prepares for Geneva 2000. To be held 26-30 June, Geneva 2000 will assess results of the World Summit on Social Development, held in Copenhagen in 1995."

Team members have been following debates in the UN Commission on Social Development just concluded and in the inter-sessional meeting 21-25 February. They talk with government representatives in the hallways and offices, make recommendations as UN documents and initiatives are prepared, and do whatever they can to keep diplomats and the world from forgetting the neediest and most marginalized people.

In a project coordinated by the UN office of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), team members have been brought to New York for a series of UN meetings which started in 1998 to prepare for Geneva 2000, also called Copenhagen plus five. Team members represent global networks of the WCC, member churches, faith-based groups and partner organizations.

The World Council’s interest in this international effort to face the issues of social development was expressed at the Copenhagen event itself, where WCC General Secretary, Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, addressed a plenary session and pledged the support of the churches for "promoting cultures of solidarity and life".

One member of the team is Esther Camac-Ramirez, a Quechua from Peru who directs the Association IXA CA VAA of Development and Indigenous Information in San Jose, Costa Rica. She is a former Methodist who now works in the tradition of indigenous spirituality.

Representatives of other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also followed the preparatory process for Geneva, but while in New York in February, Camac-Ramirez said that she had not come across any other member of an indigenous community."

"The World Council of Churches has given opportunities for people of all sectors to express our vision, and without them we could not be here," she said. "The effort to guarantee our presence in events like this is very important. If we are not here, some people might bring up our concerns, but they do not know the reality of our problems."

Her hope was that she could carry information about the UN process back to other members of the indigenous community, stimulate more participation by that community and then see the Geneva gathering address indigenous needs in a more serious way.

Gail Lerner, WCC UN representative in New York, said a larger team would come to New York for the second preparatory meeting in April, and go to Geneva when the UN General Assembly convened there for Copenhagen plus five.

In selecting team members "we gave priority to the South, to women and to indigenous people," Lerner said. She emphasized that the team is firmly grounded in "shared ethics and values". As one team member from Canada put it, the purpose of the team is to "put a strong ethical vision forward" as the UN addresses social development issues. All of those brought to New York stay together in the same hotel and eat breakfast together, so they get to know each other and can function more easily as a team.

"We have a way of working that is different from other groups," Lerner said. "The ecumenical team brings expert local voices to the UN." She notes that "many times their expertise comes from lived experience".

African team members call attention to the special needs of their continent
Team members from Africa have called attention to the special needs of their continent. "It is now five years since Copenhagen, and when I look for signs of implementation, I see very little, almost nothing," said Bernardino Mandlate, Methodist bishop from Maputo, Mozambique. "What I hope for in Geneva is a commitment to actually do the thing, so when Copenhagen plus ten comes we can point to the results of Copenhagen plus five."

Mandlate said that at Geneva the ecumenical team would show government representatives "the human faces" of those who continue to suffer from poverty despite the economic advances that benefit other parts of the world’s population.

"I would like for the declarations coming out of Geneva to move from the language of encouraging government action to more binding language," he said. "I would like to see target dates, a monitoring process and greater involvement of civil society."

Africans on the ecumenical team sometimes provided a presence that their own governments could not maintain. Beauty Maenzanise, a United Methodist minister from Zimbabwe, looked for the representatives of her government at the UN preparatory meetings, but found "they’re not there". She was told that Zimbabwe’s mission to the UN had a staff of only three, and so could not cover all the many meetings that are continually going on."

"I try to talk with representatives of all the African governments," she said. One of them told her, "I’m glad you are here and can be our ears." But though Africans on the ecumenical team could make a contribution, to Maenzanise the inability of many African governments to become an effective part of the preparatory process meant a serious loss. When someone needs to be speaking officially about African needs, and to be voting when decisions are made, the presence of ecumenical team members as "ears" does not meet the need, she said.

HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa -- a matter of special urgency
Maenzanise said the high numbers of people with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa was a matter of special urgency, and governments needed to connect this issue with the question of economic development in order to see Africa’s situation as a whole.

Hellen Wangusa, an Anglican based in Kampala, Uganda, who coordinates a network dealing with issues of special concern to African women, said she hoped the Geneva gathering would provide an opportunity to address needs of "the grassroots".

She also expressed hope that Geneva would act effectively on the issue of international debt. "It can be a vehicle to discuss other issues, like structural adjustment," she said.

A Catholic member of the team, Albert Gyan from Ghana, currently works in Brussels with Kairos Europa, a network of church-related agencies dealing with the problems of the marginalized. An economist, he expressed hope that Copenhagen plus five would give a hearing to those suffering from the "neo-liberal model" of economic development. This approach, which leaves questions of development and meeting the needs of the poor up to market forces, has failed, he said. "We have to move forward with something new, or we will not move forward at all," he said.

He hoped to see many representatives of the marginalized present in Geneva to carry out demonstrations comparable to those in Seattle last autumn during the meeting there of the World Trade Organization -- but without the confrontation and violence that occurred among some protesters.

"We need to take the message onto the streets, and then take it into the corridors of power," Gyan said. "I hope we can mobilize a public outcry."

A European member of the ecumenical team was Nicoleta Druta of the Romanian Orthodox Church, who makes her living as an architect but volunteers as coordinator of an ecumenical organization in Bucharest, Partners for Change. She, too, was concerned about "structural adjustment", though she noted that this meant something different in Eastern Europe than in the global South. Eastern European countries are having to restructure their whole society, and this requires special emphasis on the human dimension, she said.

"People cannot be like computers where you just change the programme," she said. And because of that, the economic adjustments require something more complex than just leaving everything to market economics, she said.

John Langmore, director of the UN’s Division of Social Development, said the ecumenical team had an impact just by making governments aware that someone was in the room watching and listening. One government would even have liked to exclude NGO observers like them if it could, he reported.

An Anglican from Australia, Langmore serves on the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. And he observed that social justice, which many people preparing for the Geneva meeting hope will become a central organizing concept, had a biblical basis. At odds with this, he said, was a "market fundamentalism" that saw the answer to all problems in just leaving everything to free markets.

"I hope the churches as organizations concerned about humanity and social justice will be advocates in this context," he said. "They should not get deeply into the technical issues, but they should express what the goals and values are, and keep on arguing for the vision."

"For the churches, this is as good an opportunity as they are likely to get to advocate for the justice dimension of their faith."

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.