For the last few days I've been working and welcoming members of the organisation I work for who have come to France for our AGM. It's riveting to hear the diversity of their experiences, coming from as far afield as Peru to Philippines and Dublin to Dar Es Salam.
One of the main themes discussed was that of the right of people living in extreme poverty to participate and have a place at the table on discussions that directly affect them at the local, national and international level. We were fortunate to be able to attend a seminar on a French project concerning "Working, Learning and Living Together." A particularly dynamic expression of participation came from 3 women who are neighbours in an inner-city housing estate in the Parisian suburbs. Two were rehoused there with their families from having lived in bed and breakfasts and hostels. One chose to live there, as part of her commitment as a "full-time volunteer" to share and better understand the lives of people living in long-term poverty.
What was so interesting about this exchange was how genuine it was - an expression of the encounter between 3 women from diverse backgrounds but with a shared commitment to overcome extreme poverty. A positive expression of what the French call "le vivre ensemble" (poorly translated as "community relations"). The mums who'd previously been homeless before arriving at this housing project spoke of how initially they were just relieved to finally have a place to call their own. "Even if there had been a huge hole in the floor, I was just so happy to have my own front-door key and not have to worry about where we could cook a meal, what the social workers were thinking and whether they'd come to take the kids away." This was then a first step to getting involved in the community and having the courage to attend local participatory forums to speak out about issues that affect their lives - schooling, parenting, but also wider issues such as work or the environment.
Eradicating poverty doesn't only have to be about time-limited projects with concrete outputs and outcomes. It also passes through a coming together of people willing to learn and spend time to get to know people living in poverty. The local authority in this Paris suburb now wants to pull down the housing estate and build houses for "the poor".
Is the solution to build a new ghetto? Or to find news ways to promote and support efforts for a more sustainable and harmonious "vivre ensemble"?