Photo: Gizmodo

Sunday, December 4, 2011

From austerity to sustainability: what future do we want?

The chorus of people warning governments that cuts and austerity are hitting the poorest hardest is becoming ever louder and wider. The UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights calls on States to address without delay the growing inequalities between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ “In several countries,” she warns, “disparities created by the crisis have been exacerbated by austerity measures put in place to facilitate recovery.” Meanwhile the Robert Schuman Foundation warns that austerity measures are affecting the poorest but especially young people who have become a new "lost generation" in Europe. And in the UK, The Institute for Fiscal Studies rasies concerns that the poor will be penalised and the better-off helped by the Chancellor's recent Autumn budget statement that continues the trend of taking away from lower-income families with children, and giving away to those in the middle and top of income distribution.

Three voices, looking at this issue from an international, regional and national perspective, and coming to the same conclusion: those who have least are paying the most in vain attempts to get the world back on what were already wobbly legs. 

So what is needed to provide a more stable base for the world to get back up on its feet? In the lead up to next year's UN Conference on Sustainable Development - better known as Rio+20 - over 600 national governments, international organisations and NGOs have expressed their vision of what a sustainable future for all should look like. A compilation document of these proposals will soon be produced ahead of a preparation meeting for Rio+20 next week at the UN in New York. Whilst few of these will make their way into the summit's final outcome document, there is a broad movement - including the Beyond 2015 campaign -  calling for all countries to adopt sustainable development goals, that puts the eradication of extreme poverty at its heart. 

Even though it's highly likely that the final outcome from Rio+20 will be little more than a collection of vague and non-binding statements, it is interesting to note the link being made by Ban Ki-moon between the effects of the economic crises and a vision for a sustainable development for all: "Global challenges and crises are interconnected. Economic, social and environmental concerns are inseparable. And human rights are integral to them all. That is why we are placing sustainable development at the top of the international agenda[...]Rio+20, will offer a critical opportunity to chart a course to the future we want."

If we continue to chart a course that protects the rights of the haves and disregards the effects on a growing population of have-nots, the future will be anything but sustainable.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Shattered Families

A dramatic report has woken me from my blogging slumber. "Shattered Families" outlines research carried out by the US based Applied Research Center. It found that over 5000 children were currently in foster care after their parents had been either detained or deported by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This despite countering US Immigration and Child Welfare laws and policies, not to say international conventions,  based on the assumption that families will, and should, be united, whether or not parents are deported (NB: the US is alone with Somalia in not having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child).

One mother deported to Mexico and separated from her 9-month old son, waited over a year to be reunited with him - by which time he had spend more time in foster care than with his birth mother. This family was fortunate. After a year, Child Protection Services draft a permanency plan, an outcome of which can be parental rights being terminated and the child being put up for adoption despite the parents possibly being in a position in their country of origin to be reunited with their child.

This is not the first time I have heard of children being separated from their detained parents. Under the UK's previous labour government, social workers were encouraged to remove children into foster care to force undocumented migrant families to return to their country of origin. The policy was overturned, largely because social workers refused to remove children who were not at rosk of harm.

And in my time working with families in chronic poverty in the UK, I saw too often children taken into care due to a lack of commitment, understanding and resources to keep families together. Yet when family-support organisations, such as ATD Fourth World, provided a long-term accompaniment to parents, they were able to demonstrate to social workers and family courts their capacity to care provide a safe and caring environment for their children.

It needs child welfare professionals, family advocacy organisations and also neighbours of these families to speak out against such practices which, as the report and video below state, shatter families.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Let there be light!

How about this for a sustainable way to light your home in the Philippines? Nothing more than a plastic bottle, water, bleach and let there be light! (h/t Duncan Green). Though perhaps the question should be asked of whether a similarly inexpensive solution can be found to prevent people from having to live in windowless shacks in the first place...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Are you a human rights defender?

Just seen this great video produced by the Mexican office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, encouraging people to "Declare yourself, I'm declaring myself" as human rights defenders. If the English subtitles don't show, run your mouse over the red "cc" button underneath the video and check the English subtitles.

Still on the theme of human rights, an attack on NGOs who support a human rights based approach in an essay by Pranab Bardhan featured in a blog post by Chris Blattman. Lots of rebuttals from the NGO community in the post's comments (including from me!). In my opinion, the essay seems to miss the point when it suggests that NGOs lack an understanding of the necessary trade-offs for development to materialise. The arguement goes that democracy should be left to play out in “party forums” and NGOs shouldn't interfere as their involvement can lead to decisions not being taken in the broader interest of society. Yet, one of the basic principles of a human rights based approach is to ensure the rights of the most vulnerable are respected – notably when such trade-offs are on the table, it typically leads to the poorest and most excluded people and populations losing out. This is the positive role NGOs should, and usually do, play in development. If democracy is left to play out in “party forums”, you can be sure that decisions taken in the broader interest of society, will be to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Community Solidarity on Mandela Day

In 4 days time on 18 July 2011, people are encouraged to celebrate Mandela Day by taking responsibility to change the world into a better place, one small step at a time, just as Mr Mandela did for more than 67 years. Once you've done your good turn on 18th July, you're then encouraged to "make every day your Mandela Day by doing some good for others."

Reading about Mandela Day, made me think just how many amazing people exist who are already taking responsibility for changing the world without knowing about the celebration of this Day. Not your much maligned "whites in shining armour," but people from all walks of life, including those who have to fight to provide a livelihood for themselves and their family yet consider it a priority to show solidarity with others in their community which "development" projects risk leaving behind. 

It especially made me think about a short clip I saw recently, from the ATD Fourth World series "Unknown Volunteers" to commemorate International Year of Volunteers +10. 

Do take just a couple of minutes to watch this fantastic portrayal of community solidarity which echoes Nelson Mandela's rallying call when he said that "it is in your hands to make a difference."

The Hills of Hope from ATDENG on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A potential step forward for those who are furthest from claiming their rights

I'm just back from the United Nations in Geneva where over 100 representatives from Members States, United Nations' bodies 2011 discuss ways in which to take forward the work on Draft Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The basis for the meeting's discussion was the progress report produced by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The meeting represented an opportunity for stakeholders to take part in a formal consultation exercise to feed into the drafting process of the Guiding Principles.

The Draft Guiding Principles, set to be adopted by the United Nations in 2012, is the first attempt to bring together accepted human rights norms in one text and offers action-orientated steps for practitioners and policy-makers to follow in order to ensure people in extreme poverty can claim and enjoy equal enjoyment of rights, thus furthering the fight against poverty and exclusion.

I was there re representing ATD Fourth World, alongside Florence Tissières, an activist experiencing poverty herself, who is involved in supporting families in the Geneva area who struggle to have their rights respected. She had been invited by the organisers to take the floor and explained that what was needed from the point of view of people in poverty was to look than only the financial aspects. "All the consequences that emanate from surviving against poverty should be taken into account – illness and poor health, debt, exclusion etc. A comprehensive approach is necessary if we want to fight poverty effectively." In conclusion she stated that, "The global fight against poverty never moves fast enough. We expect States to take this report seriously as its content represents a potential step forward for those who are furthest from claiming their rights."

During the two days discussion, participants discussed what needed to be improved in a final text of the Draft Guiding Principles and what was missing that should be incorporated into a final version. Topics addressed ranged from the right of each country to have the means and resources to develop, the effects of corruption on people in extreme poverty and the conditions to be considered in order for the poorest in society to participate meaningfully in anti-poverty strategies.

These kinds of discussion often risk becoming highly technical and forget who the intended beneficiaries of their work. I was fortunate enough to be able to take the floor and recall the participants present of the words of doña Silvia Velasco from a very poor community in Peru, who after the consultation in Geneva in 2009 stated that, "We have sown a seed in the ground so that in the future, our children no longer live in the same poverty as us and so we can reap the fruits of this seed, because they represent the world's future."

The results of this experts' consultation seminar, as well as the written contributions that have been received, will be submitted for revision to the Human Rights Council in March 2012 and will inform the Special Rapporteur in her submission of a final version of Draft Guiding Principles to the Council for adoption in September 2012. In her closing remarks, the Special Rapporteur recalled that, "The timeline must be looked at from the perspective of people in extreme poverty - we must avoid further delay."

In his closing statement, the Ambassador of Morocco said that, "Wherever there is extreme poverty, dignity is swept aside: it's a black zone, without rights. We have lost enough time – 20 years ago ATD Fourth World introduced this idea, and I thank them for it. It's taken 10 years for us to elaborate these Guiding Principles. The essential has been done, we have to finalise them and put them into practice."

It's up to us as civil society organisations to not let States off the hook and see that his words come to fruition.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Don't blame the poor for our countries' woes

A politician in France, the country of the "droits de l'homme", is questioning the rights afforded to people living in poverty. Europe Minister, Laurent Wauquiez, is proposing to cut benefits to social security claimants, wrongly claiming (and since rebuked by his own party) that it was possible for couples where neither is working can receive more in benefits than a household where there is a person in work. He has also decried the "assistance" culture created through social security benefits as a "cancer on French society".

How easy it is to attack those who are among society's most vulnerable when things get tough. And France is by no means alone in doing this. Take David Cameron's headline grabbing statement last month about disability benfit claimants that led to the Daily Mirror stating,"People who are too fat to work are biting a huge hole in the country's finances." Closer inspection of the Government's own figures of the number of people claiming disability benefits due to obesity puts the figure at a whopping 1800 people, just over 0.001% of total government spending.

It made me think of a new joint publication between ATD Fourth World and the Forum for a New World Governance, entitled "Extreme Poverty and World Governance". One of the most interesting points in it for me is how it is so easily to manipulate opinion and turn it against the poor. "Fear is at the root of the processes operating to make evil and social injustice acceptable. This means that the violence, sometimes in its extreme form, imposed on certain categories of people ends up being seen as normal." (...) "Long-standing prejudices distinguishing the "deserving poor", who have to be helped, from the "undeserving poor", who have to be punished, and encouraging the belief that all societies have a scrapheap, help to legitimize the violence meted out to the groups of people disqualified in this way."

To combat this, the book suggest that this vision of people living in poverty can be turned around when there is "an inner recognition of the suffering, fragility and hopes of the people who endure extreme poverty" (...) "an alliance with those people, a commitment to take action on their behalf."

The fact that 5000 people marched in London today to protest against benefit cuts, added to the hundreds of thousands who marched in March, demonstrates that an alliance does exist which refuses to accept that people living in poverty should be made scapegoats by politicians looking for easy soundbites for front-page headlines.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A day without dignity

"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world," So begins the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948 by the founding member states of the United Nations. 

April 5th has been suggested as "A day without dignity" as a counter to the TOMS campaign  "A Day Without Shoes."

Dignity is central to our sense of wellbeing. Yet it is a concept denied all too often to people living in poverty. When people living in poverty were asked their views on the Draft Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, the demand for equal dignity was central to their vision of how to combat poverty. In the resulting report, what comes through is that extreme poverty cannot be resolved through charity, and aid should not destroy the dignity nor the creativity of recipients:

“We don’t want the local authorities to come into our communities, into our village just to bring us second-hand clothes. We don’t want them to give us gifts. What we want are respectable jobs – work that allows us to live like normal human beings.” (Cusco, Peru)

"Aid must not destroy human dignity and creativity. It requires taking the time to talk with the person in order to understand what they want. We have to avoid repeating the mistakes of donors who decide what people should do." (Dakar, Senegal)

In the 21st Century, surely we can do better than taking off our shoes and giving them to charity. Poverty is  a cause, and a consequence, of violations of human rights. Rather than go without our shoes, we would do better to imagine going without the right to housing, decent work, education, water and sanitation, food, citizenship, legal assistance...and, fundamentally, having your opinion in how to eradicate poverty taken into account. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Guiding a path to a world without poverty

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has just published a consultation to seek views on the Draft Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

Yet another set of guidelines? Allow me to raise my voice to be heard above that of the cynics among you  to reveal how these guiding principles can offer real progress in the fight against extreme poverty.

Firstly, real effort has been made to seek to views of people experiencing poverty. Organisations, including ATD Fourth World, have worked with groups of people living in poverty to ensure the guiding principles correspond to the challenges they face and the solutions they deem effective.

Secondly, they recognise that extreme poverty in itself constitutes a violation of human dignity and that for its effective eradication, priority attention should be given to the poorest and most excluded in society.

And thirdly, these guidelines are not a simple theoretical wishlist. They clearly define the responsibilities of duty bearers (government authorities) and provide a common point of departure for action by all those involved in the fight against poverty, whether from the public, private or NGO sector, based on the realities of the situation of persons living in extreme poverty. 

The consultation will run to June 2011 and a report will be presented to the Human Rights Council in early 2012. The report will be used to finalise the Guiding Principles, which will be presented to the Council for adoption in September 2012. 

The greater the response to this consultation, the more it will persuade the Human Rights Council of the importance of these Guidelines to the fight against poverty, thus facilitating the path toward their eventual adoption. 

One concrete action that people can take is to encourage their Government to respond to the consultation, as well as civil society organisations of which they are members. More information is available on the ATD Fourth World website.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fetching water versus fetching a cuppa

I got sent the other day a very revealing email concerning Water Aid's "End Water Poverty" campaign (h/t Laura Cowley). It has some interesting facts about how the average Brit spends his or her time. Did you know for example that we spend about six hours a week drinking tea and coffee? That’s the same amount of time it itakes on average to make two trips to collect water in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Something to bear in mind the next time you trapse to the kitchen to put the kettle on... There's more on their campaign, as well as a petition to end water poverty, on their website.

Friday, March 25, 2011

All you can farm for $200 a week

I came across this video below from the Guardian website on Duncan Green's blog. An Indian company has bought an area of land the size of Wales in south-west Ethiopia for which it pays the Ethiopian government just over US$200 a month. Most of the workers receive less than US$1 and the food produced will be exported to India. And this in a country where a large proportion of the population are still dependent on foreign food aid.

Is this just an inevitable consequence of globalisation, where the interests of large corporations supercede those of the indigenous population? Can private sector companies be held to account to ensure they give due regard to international human rights norms? Relevant to this issue, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights will be considered by the UN's Human Rights Council this June. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, has also issued a call to consider a set of eleven human rights principles regarding "land grabbing".

The land grab phenomenon thows up a lot of questions regarding the fight against poverty and for sustainable development. Anyone got any answers?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Link to game

For some reason the link to the game I refered to in my post yesterday was down. Today it's working - you can check it out here.

Look forward to your comments after you've given it a look.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can you turn Haiti into a game?

With spring in the air, time for this blog to emerge from hibernation...

And what better way than a moral question. I came across on the Global Poverty Project website a game which has been developed by a group of children from Brooklyn, NY who are involved in a project to develop online games run by Global Kids Online Leadership program. The game I came across is called, "Ayiti: The Cost of Life" and it involves "Helping the Guinard family to make ends meet and get ahead in their poverty-stricken homeland, Haiti. In this sometimes tragic and always challenging simulation game, you help the parents, Jean and Marie, and their children, Patrick, Jacqueline, and Yves, make decisions about work, education, community building, personal purchases, and health care that might brighten their future."

According to Global Kids' website, "During the 2005-2006 school year, Global Kids Youth Leaders in the Playing for Keeps program at South Shore High School gained leadership, research, and game design skills while producing a socially conscious online game, Ayiti: The Cost of Life ( The youth chose to design a game that focuses on the issue of poverty as an obstacle to education and uses the country of Haiti as a case study. The game and its associated curriculum were released through UNICEF’s Child Alert: Haiti website(...) Since it was released in October 2006, hundreds of thousands of people have played Ayiti. The game and the after school component are being evaluated by the Center for Children and Technology."

I played the game to see what it was about (this morning the link is down for some reason). The game is user friendly and has been well designed by the kids. But no matter how hard I tried, the Guinard family kept dying on me, one by one, as I ran out of money and they got too sick to work or go to school. 

The game certainly made me think about the challenges extreme poverty brings to a family in Haiti: health, education, lack of money and decent work, hurricanes. There are even pop ups occasionally telling you it's Carnival and how happy the community are to celebrate, so you get small glimpses of the culture.

The game also made me think about what Haitian kids would think of this game about trying to keep alive and flourish their fellow citizens. I couldn't find anywhere on the website reaction from Haitians.

It also made me think about the extent to which it is fair for people to learn about a country based principally on its hardship. What you come away with from the game is how harsh and fragile life is in the country. More often than not, the game will end in the death of the family after about 15 minutes play, in which time 2 or 3 years have gone by in the life of the family. 

What's missing is a real insight into how people really live to really do justice to the struggle of the Haitians (or any people come to that). How do Haitian children spend their day, how do they help their family, what games do they play, what are their hopes and dreams? 

I think it's a great idea to learn about a country through a game. But my question is whether it is morally acceptable to learn about a country through a game in which people die?