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Food for a dignity reclaiming thought


Human Rights Reader 315

-The fact that we have so many poor people is sad. But that it always is the same people is definitely unfair.

-Being poor, you do not complain, you are relegated to a position of accepting. (F. Monckeberg)


1. From a human rights (HR) point of view, the real problem we face is not only a concern of unacceptable levels of poverty but, together with it, appalling and morally objectionable levels of excess affluence. We cannot thus end poverty without touching the structures of property and of wealth distribution, i.e., without modifying power relations. I am afraid that policies that are centered around ‘combating poverty’ only attempt to avoid the ultimate fear of the haves, namely entering into a to-them-damaging conflict with the have-nots of this world. (R. Zibeki)


2. This is why I urge readers to rather use the concept of disparity reduction (instead of speaking of poverty alleviation or poverty eradication). Doing so rightly contextualizes poverty in the process of exploitation, of domination and of power imbalances it really is. I also thus agree with those that speak of poverty being a state of ‘ill-being’ (as opposed to well-being).


3. What this implies is that we should not continue measuring poverty just in figures, but rather looking at it as the broader lack of basic capabilities to live in dignity. Poverty is about physical and economic insecurity, about lost opportunities, about fear of the future and about a constant sense, not of being vulnerable, but rather (intentionally) marginalized. It is about a sense of powerlessness.*

*: Persons experiencing extreme poverty live in a vicious cycle of powerlessness, stigmatization, discrimination, exclusion and material deprivation, which all mutually reinforce one another.


4. In that sense, as we know, there is not only a North-South rich/poor divide, but there are also huge inequalities within societies.** Inequality is actually omnipresent and that is where we need to focus our efforts-on and why that focus, in the spirit of HR, has to be on the reduction of disparities.

**: So, who then is poor and who is rich? For consumer society apologists rich is not he who has everything, but he who does not need anything and thus does not consume. For the more liberal-minded: Rich people are people who are so poor that they only have money. (L. Esquivel)


5. In the ‘poverty reduction’ interventions we so often see, the deplorable outcome has been (and is) what has been termed ‘elite capture’, i.e., the process by which the economically better off appropriate for themselves resources that are actually intended for poverty eradication… both at the national and at the international level. (Remember that conservatively estimated, more than 50 cents on the dollar of bilateral foreign aid reverts to the donor country!).


6. What all this boils-down-to is that the problem of poverty is not one of the poor, but rather one of the entire society; and it will persist until the heart of the economic system, i.e., the transfer of wealth from worker to employer, is eliminated. (M. Anderson)


7. From the HR point of view, a truly compelling rationale for disparity reduction is the recognition that, among other, it can make use of existing internationally sanctioned legal obligations. But disparity reduction strategies must further seek to foster an enabling environment for claim holders to get actively involved based on the initiatives and solutions they themselves sanction and endorse. We know that those that happen to be poor are seldom claiming their rights; so the challenge is to set up human rights learning opportunities that contribute to raise their political consciousness so they get organized and start interacting with duty bearers and actually start claiming and demanding.


Pauperization in the context of the current global crisis


-Margaret Thatcher is known to have said: “Class is a communist concept”, “morality is personal” and “poverty is not material, but behavioral.”

-What characterizes the unemployed is not that they have no work, but that they have no money; nobody tells a millionaire that he is an unemployed if he does not work.


8. Regrettably, the human rights toll of the painfully slow economic recovery from the crisis (if any) is underestimated. Take just one example: the high levels of unemployment with record levels in Europe.*** And beware: the mortality rate of laid-off workers is higher and persists 20 years after the job loss leading to 1-1.5 years lower life expectancy. (We are talking human right to life here!) Note: Totally under-utilized (or ignored) is the option of providing unemployment insurance tied to community service.  (F+D, 47:4, Dec.2010)

***: Have you ever heard of the ‘Misery Index’?: It is the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. Would be interesting to use more often.


9. On top of unemployment, 152 million young people were living on less than $1.25 a day in 2008 (28% of all young workers in the world). The rate is most probably higher today –certainly in some countries in Europe. (ILO) Most governments self-servingly care more about production than about distribution. Nothing new here. No wonder desperation and neuroses have been growing much faster than the economy! I have even read that poverty can more easily lead someone to delinquency (or suicide) than to spirituality. In any case, falling back on religion does not seem to help much. (Albino Gomez)


10. Bottom line,

  • poverty is the key determinant of social exclusion;
  • the HR framework focuses on human deprivation and on the mechanisms that produce and reproduce it;
  • the social protection the HR framework seeks **** refers to publicly-mandated policies and programs that address the needs, risks and vulnerabilities of poor and near-poor households.

****: Social protection includes social security, social assistance, labor rights, the right to public services and environmental rights (F. Mestrum)

  • universal social protection is supposed to bring about social inclusion by addressing the main drivers of exclusion;
  • looking at poverty as a social exclusion process gives us an understanding not only about its effects on people’s livelihoods, but is also an eye-opener that exposes the relationship between the income and non-income aspects of well-being;
  • social exclusion makes us focus on the role of income in the  access to essential services and the social participation therein; it also highlights the role of social and institutional fac­tors that result in human deprivation through ongoing economic marginalization. (B. Babajanian, J. Hagen-Zanker)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



In part adapted from The Broker, Issue 23, Dec.2010/Jan2011; The Broker, Issue 24. Feb/March 2011; UNFPA, A HRBA to Programming: Practical implementation manual and training materials, 2010; and  F+D, 47:4, Dec.2010.


Postscript: “Do not smoke, and if you cannot, smoke less; consume a balanced diet, eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, keep physically active; if you drink alcohol, do it in moderation; protect yourself from the sun; practice safe sex…” We all hear these recommendations day-in-day-out. A decade ago, David Gordon, a critical social epidemiologist, came up with a list of alternative recommendations to the aforementioned. A couple examples of his alternative list is the following: “Do not be poor, but if you are, stop being poor and, if you cannot do it, try to be poor for not too long; do not reside in a poor depressed neighborhood, but if you do, move and go live elsewhere; do not work in a stressful, poorly paid, labor intensive job; neither live in a house of poor quality nor be homeless…” Sarcasm at its best, no?

[Perhaps people who are poor better focus on lifting-themselves-out-of- poverty, not on spending time enjoying themselves, watching telenovelas, drinking or having sex…. (quoted by D. Eade)]


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