Poverty and Human Rights

By Anjum Altaf

Is poverty a violation of human rights? I was asked recently to speak on the subject and faced the following dilemma: If I convinced the audience it was, would that imply the most effective way to eliminate poverty would be to confer human rights on the poor?

Two questions follow immediately: First, if that were indeed the case, why haven’t rights been conferred already? Second, over the entire course of recorded history, has poverty ever been alleviated in this manner?

Likely answers to both suggest it would be more fruitful to start with poverty than with rights. Poverty has always been with us while the discourse of rights is very recent. Studying the experiences of poverty elimination could possibly better illuminate the overlap with rights and yield appropriate conclusions for consideration.

We can begin with the period when sovereignty rested in heaven and monarchs ruled with a divine right beyond challenge. For centuries under this order a very small group of aristocrats and clergy lived atop impoverished populations existing at bare survival. This did not mean the kingdoms were poor or lacked sophisticated cultures, just that they were characterized by extreme inequalities and poverty was considered a natural condition, an element of a divinely ordained order, not a social problem. At best, it was to be ameliorated through alms and charity which were deemed moral obligations.

[Since poverty is an ambiguous concept whose definition has changed markedly over time, it is useful to employ a simple characterization for purposes of this discussion. Consider as poor anyone not being able to afford ownership of a motorized vehicle (substitute horse-and-carriage for the age of monarchy). This indicator of ‘transport poverty’ can serve as an adequate proxy for poverty itself as also for economic transformation.]

The first major change in the monarchical social and moral order occurred in Europe, beginning in the 17th century, and over 300 years absolute poverty in Western Europe and its settler colonies disappeared for good. Poverty was next eliminated in Eastern Europe beginning with the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. Parts of East Asia followed starting around the mid-20th century with Japan starting earlier and China still in process. The last region to join was parts of Latin America beginning in the late 20th century.

The point to note is that these various eliminations of absolute poverty had very little systematic relationship with human rights. Only in Western Europe did the process proceed in parallel with the acquisition of rights as subjects were transformed into citizens bound in a social contract. But even here, rights had to be wrenched from the aristocracies: civil rights via social revolutions (the French Revolution, for example, with its explicit call for equality); political rights via the struggles for suffrage; and economic rights via the pressure of labor unions.

In Eastern Europe and East Asia, poverty elimination through accelerated industrialization was accompanied by gross violations of rights and in Latin America the sharing of wealth continues to face a violent backlash by entrenched elites and their allies.

The causes for these transitions were equally varied. In Western Europe, the first mover, they included infusion of colonial wealth (involving violation of rights of natives), emergence of capitalism (with exploitation of labor including children), replacement of communitarianism with individualism through urbanization, wars of religion discrediting divine sovereignty, and the need to protect capitalism itself from its worst excesses and its challengers.

In Eastern Europe the spur was to compete and catch up with the first movers. In East Asia, social insurgencies hastened preemptive land reforms followed by the challenge to compete globally. In Latin America, urbanization finally strengthened the hands of citizens wielding the power of the vote.

Countries with significant absolute poverty today are overwhelmingly in Africa, South and West Asia. In South Asia several characteristics are salient: communitarian identities with weak tendencies to individualism; quasi-monarchical ethos with strong dynastic traditions; sovereignty in some countries still reposed in heaven; leaders aspiring or believing in divine right to rule; populations still more than half rural; negligible economic aspirations to be globally competitive; weak labor unions; poverty still considered a natural condition with charity the preferred route to amelioration; moral crusades retaining precedence over political action.

Given this characterization, South Asia seems barely at the point where poverty is considered a social or political problem; the poor have yet to mount a sustained challenge for the acquisition of civil or economic rights – the few attempts to date having been brutally crushed. The only right, conferred by departing colonial masters, is the political right to vote and entrenched elites are determined to dilute, fracture and negate that by any means foul or fair including in places overturning the electoral verdict by force or manipulation.

It seems a mistake to extrapolate from the Western European experience and associate democracy unambiguously with human rights and poverty alleviation. The relationship is a function of the specificity of history and context. In South Asia, where the power to vote has preceded social equality and civil rights, a prolonged, bitter and often violent and anarchic struggle is very much on the cards – think of the Naxal revolt in India, the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, or the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Poverty in South Asia, much like anywhere else in the world, is unlikely to be eliminated by a voluntary conferral of human rights simply because the form of governance happens to be democratic. The reality is a lot more complex than that.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 4, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It is a summary of a talk presented at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in April 2013.

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15 Responses to “Poverty and Human Rights”

  1. Faizan Says:

    I am intrigued, does religion being strong in certain parts of the globe has any correlation with poverty being rampant in those parts?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Faizan: Religion is too broad a term to be useful in this discussion. Restrict it refer to areas where people believe strongly that life on earth is determined by a divine plan and the reward for putting up patiently with whatever one gets in this world would be earned in the afterlife or next incarnation. If you do that, the evidence might suggest that poverty was/is extensive in such areas. Somewhere in the Bible it said that the poor shall always be with us.

  2. Myrah Butt Says:

    Could it be argued that poverty itself may not be a violation of human rights but there is a poverty of rights? Deprivation of rights in and off itself can be categorized as a form of poverty. It may not be related to absolute poverty but eradicating that particular form of poverty may be a desirable goal.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Myrah: You could do that but it doesn’t change the bottom line. Elimination of deprivation, whether material or of rights, requires a political struggle. Redefining a political issue as a legal one may make it more desirable (in what sense? to whom?) but that doesn’t mean the end can be achieved by filing appeals in courts. Does it?

  3. Mehmood Ashraf Says:

    We can look at the discussion by drawing a map of human rights. Its an important point to initiate a debate on inclusion vs exclusion. The way rights are defined, perceived and executed in a given social, political and legal order is more of a non materialist issue while the poverty is predicated upon materialist ‘haves’. My thesis would be that those who are under poverty cannot be empowered through rights. Eliminate poverty, emancipate the people, enhance their range of choices in terms of participation in the order and then it would be right time to see. I think rights would rather consolidate the inclusion of the marginalized than initiate it or be its starting root.

  4. Anjum Altaf Says:

    The following very interesting contribution was received from Professor Dale Whittington who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Manchester in England. Professor Whittington is a fellow-academic, a co-author, and a close friend.

    “In his Letter to the Sheriff of Bristol, he [Edmund Burke] asks, ‘What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring them and administering them .. I shall always advise to call in aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphyscis.”

    Quoted in “Edmund Burke – The First Conservative” by Jesse Norman, Basic Books, 2013. p. 194.

    For Edmund Burke (1729-1797), see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke

  5. Anil Kala Says:

    I don’t think poverty is human right. Sarojini Naidu famously said that it was very expensive for the state to keep Gandhi in poverty, quite apparently remaining poor was Gandhi’s conscious choice. Then there is this tradition of glorifying poverty in our region and (at least in the past) trashing flaunting of wealth. These are melting attitudes therefore can’t be considered human right. Although poverty alleviation is a moral responsibility of the state and in a democracy a political necessity. I think Amartya Sen said some where that it is because of democracy that we have not seen large scale famines like the ones we had regularly before independence.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: What would you consider to be the essential rights of all human beings? Also, choosing to live simply is not equivalent to poverty. I doubt if there was time when Gandhiji wanted a meal and was told that there was nothing to eat. And further, one might consider malnoursihment to be the equivalent of a slow-motion famine. There is plenty of that even in a democracy.

  6. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Professor Daron Acemoglu is a big name in the analysis of development and democracy. Here are his thoughts triggered by the recent protests in Turkey:


    ” My research with Simon Johnson, James A. Robinson and Pierre Yared has shown, for example, that countries that have grown faster don’t show any greater tendency to become democratic or to consolidate democratic institutions that already exist. A few cases where democracy has followed rapid growth, as in South Korea and Taiwan, did not occur automatically but as a result of a combative political process — and a far more violent set of confrontations between the military and protesters, trade unionists and students.”

  7. Hasan Says:

    How does education factor into the wider complex reality? What role does/can education play in the alleviation of poverty specifically? Who is best equipped to lead an initiative to alleviate poverty?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Hasan: This is a tricky discussion which turns on the content of education. Education by itself does nothing if it is a substitute for indoctrination – in fact it can make things worse. Education that generates critical ideas is what matters and no wonder the state is irrevocably opposed to anything of the sort. Ideas play an indirect role in reaching agreement that poverty should and can be alleviated. At a later stage, ideas have a more direct role in specifying the policies and strategies that might be best suited for the task in specific socioeconomic contexts. We just can’t borrow strategies that have worked elsewhere. This is what I tried to emphasize in an earlier post:


      Look at the history of poverty elimination in Europe and you will recognize the leading role of ideas and intellectuals like Voltaire, etc. Read Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729). It is a citizenry informed by such ideas that then itself puts political pressure for the elimination of poverty and other injustices that are all societal creations and not the working out of some divine dispensation.

  8. Hasan Says:

    Thanks for making the point about education and indoctrination. I assume a goal of education is to understand truth. Education without indoctrination will likely produce the critical thinking and ideas (as you mentioned) that can bring societal change and alleviate poverty. It seems indoctrination is so omnipresent that fighting it is an insurmountable obstacle and the tools of indoctrination are becoming even more powerful and sophisticated. I think the first to deny indoctrination will the most indoctrinated. My question: Is there any escape (even partial) from indoctrination?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Hasan: One would have to answer your question with an affirmative but add that the process is complex. It is not simply that one moves from indoctrination to education in some linear progression. There are clear cycles. We moved from the incredible work of Plato into the Dark Ages and then again to the Enlightenment. Now once again, we see indoctrination taking over in the US. In between there was the flowering of Arab intellectuals only to be followed by a long decline into the ultra-indoctrination of our own times.

      So, the real need is to understand the dynamic that leads to these cycles of education and indoctrination. I suppose this was one of the questions that Ibn Khaldun (the father of sociology according to some) addressed in his classic Muqaddimah and what Gibbon might have explored in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

      Read this interesting article on Rousseau to see how the indoctrinating dogma of the Church came under challenge in 17th and 18th century Europe: http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/julyaugust/feature/friends-rousseau

      “Rousseau’s first great work was a Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, written in 1749 as an entry in a prize competition (he didn’t win—the judges said his submission was too long). The expected answer in those days would have been that God created us to be unequal, or else that nature did. Either answer would confirm the rightness of social hierarchy and privilege. Rousseau, far more pessimistic than Marx would later be, accepted the truth that inequality is inseparable from human culture, but he wanted to know why.”

      And then read the first part of Ian Johnston’s explanation of how social changes triggered the challenge to dogma in 17th century Europe: http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/introser/hobbes.htm

      All of this should bring us to an informed discussion of the conditions in South Asia today.

  9. Anjum Altaf Says:

    For an excellent elaboration of some of the arguments in this post, read the preface to James Scott’s new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism:

    Click to access p9816.pdf

    In particular: “That means that of the roughly five-thousand-year history of states, only in the last two centuries or so has even the possibility arisen that states might occasionally enlarge the realm of human freedom. The conditions under which such possibilities are occasionally realized, I believe, occur only when massive extra-institutional disruption from below threatens the whole political edifice.”

  10. SouthAsian Says:

    Here is a concrete example of the struggle that lies ahead for the marginalized to reclaim their rights:

    “India is a caste-based society with deeply rooted social hierarchies. However, universal adult franchise proved to be a game-changer, for each vote carries equal value. Democratic elections have enabled the traditionally marginalised groups to take the democratic route towards empowerment… The age-old inequalities were, at one stroke, sought to be eliminated or at least substantially diminished by conferring political equality.”

    “Anticipating that the caste based social hierarchy would play a restricting role in ensuring the equality of citizenship rights in the elections, the lawmakers made specific provisions in law… Notwithstanding these legal provisions, almost every election after Independence witnessed violence, threats and intimidation of SC voters.”

    “Reporting on the Indian elections a journalist of Associated Press was to write: ‘Armies formed by local politicians have intimidated villages during every election in the underdeveloped farmland of northern India … on election day, hired thugs prevent many voters from reaching polling stations. Other voters arrive to find their ballots have already been cast'”.


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