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Brazilian Dialogue

Worldwide gathering of NGOs brings hope

The current worldwide gathering of NGOs in Porto Alegre, Brazil, brings us a ray of hope in perilous times.

Porto Alegre means "happy port." The city is capital of the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, "great river of the south." This is the second such world gathering of NGOs in Porto Alegre in a few short months. It indicates the maturity of the NGOs, their seriousness of purpose, their determination to find solutions to the problems that threaten all societies and the planet itself. Who's there? Thousands of church-sponsored groups, social justice groups, environmental groups, including such globally recognized organizations as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace.

Civil society is finding its Thomas Mores of the third millennium. The NGOs are seeking ways to humanize globalization, ways that we had always thought our national governments could exercise. Unfortunately, our national governments are proving ever less able to protect society's weak members, and equally unable to protect the environment. Johannes Rau, president of the German Republic, writes in the September 2002 issue of Deutschland, "We all know how difficult it is to politically influence economic globalization in its onward march, and how difficult it is to preserve local culture."

If this is true for Germany, the engine of growth for the seemingly strong European Union, what chance will nation states of Africa and Latin America have in the face of this economic global juggernaut? In this same issue of Deutschland (the whole issue is devoted to globalization), Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaeker cites the NGOs as a third pillar holding up our world (alongside "democratization" and "private enterprise").

Globalization, now a universally recognized term, emerged as a word in the world's lexicon only in 1993. What it describes had of course begun earlier. And how much did liberalized economics promise the world: the good life for everybody. What a swindle it's been. In the '90s, the planet's wealth grew 2.5 per cent annually. But it was garnered into the hands of a steadily growing billionaire class, although pockets of wealth accumulated also among their collaborators. But the bulk of the world's population not only did not gain ground, it actually lost ground. Twenty-five years ago the 20 per cent of the world's richest people were 30 times richer than the bottom 20 per cent. Now they are 75 times as rich!

What a blessing NGOs are turning out to be at this juncture of history. And how important is this second Porto Alegre conference. The members of these NGOs are moved for the most part by visions expressed so well in Psalm 33: "The Lord loves justice and right. And fills the earth with his love."

And even more practically expressed in Psalm 85: "Mercy and faithfulness have met, justice and peace have embraced." Viva, NGOs!

Al Gerwing