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Parliaments Asked to Do More to Combat Global Poverty

Lawmakers worldwide are not doing enough to reduce global poverty, according to an international organization of parliament members. Terry FitzPatrick reports for VOA from Cape Town that lawmakers from more than 120 countries are attending the Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly this week in South Africa.

The 118th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union began on a somber note. The opening session featured a haunting song and a slide show picturing impoverished African children. Speakers noted the world is behind schedule in meeting the United Nations millennium development goals to reduce poverty and hunger.

South African President Thabo Mbeki told delegates they cannot rely on global economic growth to help the poor.

"To push back the frontiers of poverty requires a significant and sustained resource transfers from the richer to the poorer countries. And these transfers will not happen automatically, driven by the operation of market forces," said Mr. Mbeki.

The millennium goals call for wealthy nations to contribute point-seven percent of their gross national income to international aid. Only a handful of presidents and prime ministers have proposed budgets that meet this target, so parliament members at this conference say it is time for lawmakers step in. Baleka Mbete is the speaker of South Africa's national assembly.

"The view has developed among parliamentarians around the globe that we have deferred foreign policy to the executive and have failed to ensure that the voice of the people we represent is articulated in those policies. We must as parliamentarians claim back our role as overseers of government," said Mbete.

That oversight cuts both ways, according to the secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johnsson. He says this week's global assembly will foster debate on how foreign aid should be raised and spent.

"What you will see here is an effort to make sure that the parliaments put political pressure in the countries in the North that have committed to these goals to make sure that they actually live up to them, and in the receiving countries to make sure that there is an equal scrutiny in parliament of what these funds are being used for," said Johnsson.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union has no authority to force countries to act. It is an institution that promotes dialogue, so lawmakers can learn from each another. But on the issue of poverty, organizers say more than talk is needed.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela told delegates in a videotaped message that overcoming poverty must be seen not as a "gesture of charity, but a collective act of justice."