Fighting poverty at home and ‘over there’

In a recent interview in Le Devoir, a Montreal French daily newspaper, Pierre Sané, the Assistant Director General for UNESCO, emphasized how…

In a recent interview in Le Devoir, a Montreal French daily newspaper, Pierre Sané, the Assistant Director General for UNESCO, emphasized how half the world’s population today lives in poverty.

The world needs to pay more attention to people’s economic, social and cultural rights, he says.

Along the way, he reminds us that the international community recognized different types of rights — for instance, the right to education, food and political expression — through the universal declaration of human rights in 1948.

These rights were supposed to be indivisible — interlinked and not easily separated one from the other. But Sané argues that since the Cold War, two ideologically distinct camps have taken root: the socialist camp, which promotes more social and economic rights, and the capitalist camp, which privileges civil and political rights.

It was hoped that with the end of the Cold War, these rights would become increasingly indivisible, as per their initial design.

Sadly, Sané believes that with the triumph of capitalism (individual rights), over socialism (collective rights), the importance of social, economic and cultural rights have only been further diminished.

Put another way, he believes that political and civil rights took on increasing importance during the latter part of the 20th century, and that the challenge we face as we head into the 21st century is to recognize social, cultural and economic rights.

Sané’s views mirror my personal experience living in Malawi in the late 1990s.

As a World University Service of Canada volunteer working in the small, poverty-stricken sub-Saharan African country, I witnessed, firsthand over two years, how ideologically distinct rights can play themselves out on the ground.

I arrived in Malawi just over a year after the country’s first democratic elections, just one year after the self-proclaimed dictator for life, Kamuzu Banda, was “de-throned.”

With the newly elected president in place, and foreign aid from the West secured to keep him there, I was privy to national colleagues and other Malawians’ expressions of real resentment, not to mention confusion, over the international community’s obsession with freedom over food.

When Banda died soon after my arrival, the spectacle at his funeral alone was testimony to the growing tensions inherent in promoting one set of rights over another.

Many mourners grieved for a leader who they felt had taken good care of them.

They compared their plight under democracy with their past under dictatorship, and the math did not add up when it came to food on the table.

As an onlooker, it seemed to me that the choice of political rights over other basic human rights was symbolic of the kind of high priority the West gave to what is commonly called “good governance.”

This was manifest through funding priorities that sometimes led to a real neglect of getting food, health and basic education to those who needed it most.

It’s ironic that access to these basic needs is also what people need in order to make their own choices about what kind of democracy they want, not to mention how and when it should come about.

What I learned in Malawi is that “democracy” is infused with historical and cultural experience, among other things.

It cannot easily be passed along to just any culture and society, like a one-size-fits-all T-shirt.

Sitting with my Malawian and other supportive ex-pat friends and colleagues, I could not help but wonder at why it was not obvious that people who have their basic needs met are more likely to contribute their own ideas and energy to democracy-building (and defining) in their own homelands.

Movements like Make Poverty History don’t outrightly frame an understanding of poverty in the world today with Sané’s ideas on the existence of two ideological camps on rights.

However, the movement does agree with him on at least one important point: Poverty does not exist because of the poor.

In fact, both Sané and the Make Poverty History movement propose that institutions and social structures that are built and reproduced by our societies and our economic systems — for instance social-welfare systems at home and development aid overseas — actually help to ensure the exclusion and disempowerment of the weakest and most vulnerable.

This exclusion is in and of itself anti-democratic.

How easily we dismiss the misery of so many by choosing to believe, à la Hollywood, that “anyone can follow their dream and make it if they just try hard enough.”

Even Western self-help initiatives, when taken to an extreme, are keen to have us believe that we alone are always responsible for the state of our lives.

Certainly, at least in the West, effort is a big piece of the puzzle.

But our social, economic and cultural institutions and systems need to be on side with our efforts.

It would appear that what we have ended up with is a belief system that largely supports the idea that the poor are poor because they are lazy, or because they support corrupt governments, for instance.

To believe this, though, requires that we disregard many realities that support poverty.

At home, it means we ignore the lack of affordable housing along with the fact that the minimum wage has stayed the same since 1996.

For ‘developing countries,’ it means we have to ignore the effects of debt servicing which results in $3 coming back to us for every $1 that we provide in aid (due to high interest rates and penalties applied to debt).

We are asking people to pull themselves out of impossible situations.

Then we add insult to injury when we blame them for doing so little — or never enough — about the poverty they live in.

It’s interesting but the only other thing that can impact upon an individual not being master of his or her own destiny is an act of God.

Nowhere was this more apparent than with the world’s response to the Tsunami in South East Asia a couple of years ago.

It became clear that a natural disaster can solicit much more support than the HIV/AIDS pandemic can, largely — as was fervently argued by former Globe and Mail columnist Ken Wiwa — because the latter victims are believed to be sick for the same reasons we believe the poor are poor: solely because of the choices they make.

In response to the growing awareness that we all need to work more collectively to abolish the cycles of poverty at home and everywhere, eight of Canada’s volunteer sending agencies have banded together to promote and support the Make Poverty History movement.

Under the moniker Global Citizens for Change they are, and forgive me the acronyms, but their full names are not so important anyways: CUSO, WUSC, VSO, CESO, CCI, Canada World Youth, CECI, and Oxfam Québec.

Sané might say this consortium also reflects the need to look closer at social, cultural and economic rights.

These organizations have pooled resources, and more importantly, are calling on their thousands of alumni from all ages and walks of life, to work with the movement and show their commitment to two main goals:

First, to build awareness around poverty issues, for instance through the United Nations led Millennium Development Goals, and second, to pressure decision-makers who can affect poverty reduction at local, national and international levels (MPs, other elected government officials, policy makers, etc.).

Local networks and associations like the Yukon Development Education Council and the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition are significant in this respect.

Their mandates include pushing forward the agenda to make poverty history. Not just in Africa or South East Asia, but here at home too. Because poverty, like the actions we can take against it, is both local and global.

If you would like more information, go to www.makepovertyhistory.ca and www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.

Digital activism aside, if you are an overseas volunteer alumni or otherwise interested in becoming active locally/globally, contact Angela Walkley with Yukon Development Education Council at 373-4444, and/or Ross Findlater with the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition at 667-7563.

Want to meet other people who are making a difference? Then plan on attending the development education council speaker series, which will runs every Wednesday this fall starting September 27.

Check Whitehorse “coming events” listings for more information.

Local politicians can do a great deal to help us abolish poverty. As we go into this territorial election, don’t forget to ask party representatives how they plan on addressing poverty in our communities.

Suzanne de la Barre is a Whitehorse-based writer and anti-poverty advocate.