Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights’

Poverty and Human Rights

June 5, 2013

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.

Back to Main Page


Ahmedabad: The Power of Labeling

January 16, 2009

We turn our attention closer to home and discuss if Ahmedabad is a successful city.

If one looks at the pronouncements of international development agencies there is little to doubt. Ahmedabad is one of the most dynamic cities in India with 5 percent of the national population but 14 percent of its export, an average annual growth rate of 9 percent and industrial growth rate of 15 percent. Every few months there are presentations about the city and visiting delegations extol the multiplication of municipal revenues and the successful launch of municipal bonds. Rating agencies swoon and investors salivate over the prospects.

And yet, within a few miles of the forums where such presentations are made one can also listen to civil rights groups showing photographs and statistics and narrating stories that can churn the stomach and make one sick with despair. One can read announcements from international human rights organizations that can make one lose faith in humanity.

So, is Ahmedabad a successful city?

Clearly, both processes are going on at the same time and one’s verdict would depend on which dimension is given more weight. This, as they say, is a value judgment.

But this also brings us to the power of labeling. The accolades of the international development agencies carry a lot more clout than the protests of civil rights groups and so, to all intents and purposes, Ahmedabad is a successful city. When the leaders of Ahmedabad and India see this global verdict propagated they feel little need to pay attention to that other dimension that is relegated to an inconvenient footnote.

This demonstrates the power of labeling. Imagine that international development agencies were to say that livability conditions would be a factor in lending and rating agencies were to refuse to rate cities with particularly egregious excesses against human rights. What do you think the response of the leaders of a city like Ahmedabad would be if a minimal attainment of human rights became necessary for doing business?

For a concrete example, recall the 1994 plague in Surat, not too far from Ahmedabad.  Because the global tourism industry let its negative ratings of India be made public, there was an immediate response not just by the city and the state but by the national government as well. For a while, Surat was even reputed to have become the cleanest city in India.

Consider also the fact that imposing minimal conditions for doing business is not an impractical or utopian idea. There are industries where consumers have had enough impact to eliminate manufacturing in sweatshops and the use of child labor. And there were instances where college students were able to generate enough awareness of human rights to force global corporations to divest their interests in South Africa under apartheid.

So why does a social plague that repeatedly kills more people in one city than a medical plague in another continue to have no impact? Because the power of labeling that deems Ahmedabad a successful city allows business as usual to continue and because activists have failed to effectively mobilize global attention to their cause.

Rates of economic growth continue to trump fates of human beings.

Does this make sense?

Back to Main Page