The Despouy Report on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty/Part IV

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The Despouy Report on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty

Part IV - HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ALL AS A UNIVERSAL OBJECTIVE AND AS A MEANS OF ERADICATING EXTREME POVERTY

Source: United Nations Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1996/13 28 June 1996 ENGLISH Original: ENGLISH/FRENCH/SPANISH

adopted by the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities

Official Title : THE REALIZATION OF ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS Final report on human rights and extreme poverty, submitted by the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Leandro Despouy The Despouy Report

Contents[edit]



IV. HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ALL AS A UNIVERSAL OBJECTIVE AND AS A MEANS OF ERADICATING EXTREME POVERTY[edit]

A. Poverty is the new face of apartheid[1][edit]

186. Paradoxical though it may seem, one of the main challenges facing the Special Rapporteur in the course of this study was to ensure that its reliance on description, valuable and irreplaceable as it is, should not misrepresent the message or the experience of people living in extreme poverty. In other words, how can the wretched living conditions, the sufferings and, above all, the degradation poverty produces in human beings be accurately described without suggesting that those who have sunk into poverty are doomed never to escape from it or, worse still, that they have become something less than human, thus unwittingly helping to propagate racist or xenophobic arguments? It is a dilemma: how can the most dreadful aspects of abject poverty be illuminated without pandering to those who look askance at the poor?

187. The Special Rapporteur therefore decided to take as a reference similar situations illustrating how different kinds of discrimination intermesh. Apartheid is one example. What did the racist colonialist regime of South Africa do to justify its policy of social exclusion and immoderate exploitation of coloured people? The means it used to attain its ignoble objectives was deliberately to deny non Whites their economic, social, political, cultural, etc. rights on the racist grounds (frightening as it is to recall) that they did not need the same conditions as other human beings. Slavery did something similar. Beyond the strictly economic and practical considerations underpinning the two systems, the ideological basis was similar: a slave was not regarded as human and therefore had no rights.[2]

188. What makes these situations similar is not just that each involves a flat denial of rights, but that both are so difficult to describe. For example, if we describe the terrible consequences of slavery and the degradation to which it could lead, someone may conclude - as the slavers did - that a human being so degraded was in fact an object, and therefore did not merit the same treatment as a human being. Yet it was the struggles of the slaves themselves and the ideals of humanitarian thought that won recognition of the fact that all human beings were of equal worth, and revealed the human being within the slave. A creature that the slavers had previously regarded as an object could then be seen - in so far as he was able to exercise his rights on an equal footing - to become human in all respects, even by those who denied it. We have also seen how, once the coloured people of South Africa won recognition of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, joined forces with those who had excluded them to set in motion one of the most original and exemplary political processes this century, rapidly leaving all trace of apartheid, that modern form of slavery, far, far behind them.

B. Towards a new understanding of extreme poverty[edit]

The need for a change of viewpoint[edit]

189. The first part of the previous chapter sought to pin down how, and how badly, extreme poverty affects the people and families who must endure it. Here the task is, at first sight, less complicated: analysing how others (i.e. the rich but also the poor, whose views surprisingly are not so different), perceive people who live in extreme poverty.

190. Any objective discussion must, however, start with an admission - the poor are a sector of the population we know nothing about; worse we do not know how little we know. If we are forced to it, we have to acknowledge how hard we have tried not to know. The huge walls around the suburbs in many of the world’s great metropolises (which, by the way, cost far more than the countless dwellings they conceal are worth) show it. Charles Booth, who founded the Salvation Army last century, wrote: "the rich have drawn a curtain over the poor, and on it they have painted monsters".

191. The second thing we must admit is that when we know anything at all about people who live in extreme poverty it is normally very little and usually wrong. The view our societies take of such people is predominantly disparaging and prejudiced: a mixture of fear the contempt. The poor are generally held responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, and believed to be incapable of improvement. They are, people believe, doomed to live in poverty (it is this belief that in fact condemns them), as if becoming or remaining poor were a matter of choice.

192. If we rise above the barriers of ignorance and the prejudices that cloud our understanding and cross the threshold into this highly complex milieu we shall discover a world with which we are unfamiliar, and where most of our answers are wrong - in some cases they may be extremely harmful. This is the conclusion that emerges from the testimony of a well educated person who, having spent many years in poverty stricken areas with extremely poor families, offers a striking list of the inappropriate responses they generally encounter:

"(a) This is an extremely vulnerable population group which should not be subjected to ill considered interference for fear of destroying the fragile balance on which its survival depends. It is more sensitive than others to mistakes and failures.

(b) You must realize that their experience is not like other people’s; the means they use to survive from day to day seem inconsistent to those who can plan for the longer term. But these are all they have to hang on to, and beyond them there is nothing, so they cannot be abandoned in favour of plans they have made no lasting human investment in.

(c) A population group absorbed in the nitty gritty of survival, whose memory and history are fogged by suffering and exhaustion, is offered the same old emergency responses time after time with no regard for consistency, and with no effort to fit them into a time span and a history that might help them get their bearings and illuminate the future.

(d) A population group frittering away its energies in coping with its many hardships is offered piecemeal, ad hoc responses which take no account of its efforts and make it impossible to instil some order into its existence.

(e) A population group which is driven by the inconsistency of life in extreme poverty to act illogically, even hostilely, will be given an illogical response if that suits us.

(f) A population group in which abject poverty all too often breaks family and social links, whose members can have only a fragmented view of their situation, will be dealt with in parts, case by case, problem by problem, individual by individual, thus accentuating the separations and divisions.

(g) A population group trapped in poverty and dependency will be subjected to repeated interference, public supervision and projects designed, implemented and evaluated without it."

Making the most of efforts by the very poor[edit]

193. It is surprising and moving to observe that, even within this world of uncertainty, adversity and misfortune, people make touching gestures of generosity to help conserve family links or assist others in the same situation. In every case these gestures reveal a fighting spirit, albeit one that results in small achievements, occasional triumphs and many defeats. It is these achievements, insignificant though they seem, these many battles lost every day which in their own way show (in the wordless language of those who for the most part have not learned to use words) that there is a fight going on, a challenge, an effort, a struggle silently and imperceptibly perhaps but with an intensity and persistence that allow millions and millions of people to face up every day, throughout their lives, to the terrible grind of poverty.

194. UNICEF, which is intensely active in this area, confirms this: "Those at the sharpest end of the problem of absolute poverty - the poorest quarter of the world’s people - are occupied almost every waking hour of every working day in the struggle to meet the basic needs of their families." It is

essential to support the efforts of the extremely poor, who "will continue to struggle, as they have always done, to meet most of their own needs by their own efforts".[3]

195. Without understanding this struggle, this constant repudiation, it would be impossible to dispel the fatalist view of poverty. Moreover, without making the most of these efforts and, above all, basing our own efforts on them, we will find it hard to help those who live in abject poverty escape from its embrace.

How to reach the poorest[edit]

196. Chapter I showed that the extremely poor are the part of the population least well covered by statistics. Much the same might be said of social policies and other basic services (health, education, family planning, etc.) which the poor generally lack: such services are not directed at them, or are inappropriate or inaccessible. But because extreme poverty and social exclusion are growing worse and traditional social policies, mostly benefits based, have been a chronic flop, rarely reaching the poorest sectors and offering them nothing of lasting value in escaping from their situation, other ways of coming at the problem have begun to gain acceptance.

197. A recent UNICEF publication, "Reaching the Poorest", contains a very interesting assessment of the activities of small local non governmental organizations and of ATD Quart Monde in various poverty stricken areas on different continents. Its importance lies in the fact that, besides discussing seven specific instances, it emphasises the steps that need to be taken and the kind of relationship that needs to be established in order to arrive at a qualitative understanding and the kind of mutual trust that will enable people to join a community project or become involved in some other activity which provides them with a means of escaping from poverty.

198. The watchword in this method of reaching the poorest is that nothing can be done "for" them unless it is "with" them. The poor must be associated in designing, implementing and evaluating programmes. Even before programmes are drawn up, some kind of contact with the field is necessary so that from the start something is known about the poorest groups and the needs of the entire community. Another important element is direct contact with families, essential for forging a bond of trust based on mutual acquaintance, and this must be maintained over time and give some appearance of being likely to last.

199. An important aspect of this approach is how human relations are taken into account in constructing a project with people, families and groups living in great poverty. It may be observed that such persons are particularly sensitive about joining projects which directly concern the family and forge links with the surrounding community.

200. There are two important clarifications to be made here. First of all, in the method presented by UNICEF, the expression "the poorest" is not used to demote the category of population on the extreme outer edge of poverty, even if it often means just that. The expression "the poorest" denotes the hardest people to reach within a poor community. Secondly, rather than being a description, "reaching the poorest" indicates a step to be taken. Who are the poorest? Why are they not reached? How can they be reached? Such a step makes it possible to plan for community development that excludes no one.

201. UNDP, in its remarkable policy paper Poverty Eradication: A Policy Framework for Country Strategies (1995), sets out methodological guidelines and action priorities for eradicating poverty, emphasizing a number of the considerations mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs. It begins by stressing the need to measure poverty and offers methodological advice on how to do so. Measuring poverty involves two separate stages; first of all, people living in poverty must be identified and located. However poverty is measured, the identification exercise should suggest why certain groups and not others suffer from a particular hardship. UNDP believes that drawing up strategies to eradicate poverty requires careful identification of the target population and the inclusion in this "mapping" exercise of people’s own perception of their situation.

202. This participatory approach vis à vis people living in poverty received considerable encouragement at the Copenhagen Summit: "People living in poverty and their organizations should be empowered by: ... encouraging and assisting people living in poverty to organize so that their representatives can participate in economic and social policy making and work more effectively with governmental ... and other relevant institutions to obtain the services and opportunities they need" (Copenhagen Programme of Action, para. 28 (e)).

203. The Secretary General voiced this concern directly to those involved on the opening of the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty: "To those in poverty I send this message. We are listening. We ask you to tell us how we can work to meet your aspirations; not for you, but with you".[4]

204. In conclusion, the fight to eradicate poverty requires not only detailed knowledge of the causes and factors which give rise to, aggravate and perpetuate it, but also of its impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms as a whole. As we have seen, it is essential to set in motion machinery for participation which involves the poorest at every stage of the policies devised to help them. Only thus can concrete and lasting results be achieved. Only as they rediscover their full range of rights and freedoms shall we see emerging in all their splendour the human beings behind the poverty scarred faces.



  1. The subtitle used here comes from President Nelson Mandela's statement to the Copenhagen Conference when he said that poverty was the new face of apartheid, and the new face of slavery.
  2. This shows to what extent individuals are not recognized as human beings until they are identified by their rights. Put another way, they are not identified as human beings until their rights are recognized. Leave aside dignity, which is a value inherent in and common to all individuals whatever the time and circumstances of their life and their social status, and what is a human being deprived of all his rights?
  3. UNICEF, The state of the world's children 1993.
  4. Conclusion of the statement on the occasion of the launching of the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty (Press Release SG/SM/95/327, 15 December 1995).