Wallpaper in Doha?

I’m huddled in a corner of the swank Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar.  Around me, workers are carrying massive rows of theater chairs, and rolls of wallpaper.

Why am I here at the most famous hotel in Doha, in this tiny and extremely wealthy Gulf country? (Obviously not where I hang out on an average day)  And what on earth are they doing to this place?

In fact, the workers are constructing a rather surreal replica of the UN General Assembly hall in the cavernous hotel ballroom. The government of Qatar has been pouring money into hosting this event, where UN governments are meeting to figure out how to channel enough money to poor countries so they can develop their economies and pull themselves out of poverty.  In policy speak, this is called “financing for development.”

I am here with a small team from Oxfam, working behind the scenes to lobby rich governments to do the right thing and live up to their promises to put a modest amount of money on the table to fight global poverty.  With the other world governments here at the conference, they also have the chance to finally fix the broken and skewed global financial system that cripples poor countries as they try to develop.  Poor countries miss out on around $160 billion in tax revenues each year - according to the World Bank this is more than half of what is needed annually to lift the poorest people in the world out of poverty.

This money is urgently needed to pay for teachers and health care workers – the everyday heroes in developing countries who can do more than anyone else to put an end to poverty. Their work – along with strong health and education systems – allows children to grow up healthy and put their minds to work to make our world a better place.

As we’ve seen in the last few weeks with the financial crisis, wealthy countries have no problem finding the money when they really want to. They have already spent over a trillion dollars bailing out their banks from the financial crisis.

But will they feel the same urgency for the poor of the world? Will they make the ambitious commitments here in Doha that are needed to protect the world’s poorest people from getting steamrolled by a financial crisis they did not create? 

As I looked on, some hotel workers rolled out massive sheets of wallpaper and began plastering it on the walls of the “mini UN”.  The wallpaper was emblazoned with colorful logos about the importance of financing for development. 

For me, this was a vivid image. I can picture world leaders wallpapering over their commitments at the end of this meeting in a similar way, with sleek words and vague agreements. They have a lot of problems at home, and it is more convenient to avoid these difficult questions. But there is no use in pretty pictures and nice words in a communiqué (or fancy hotel conferences) if they don’t lead to real action. 

The Oxfam team will be working tirelessly here in Doha to make sure they come up with real solutions, not just wallpaper.

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