Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Abolishing Poverty

We live in a world that abounds in economic and natural resources and in an age of unprecedented wealth and technical prowess. And yet today, 1.2 billion people live in abject, dehumanizing environments. Over 400 million people over the age of 65 dwell in impoverished conditions. Tens of millions of the world’s urban population are actually homeless, sleeping in unsafe public places, on pavements, in construction sites, or graveyards. Many low-income countries have child mortality rates as high as 100 to 200 per 1,000 live births. Worldwide, over 8 million children die every year from diseases caused by dirty water or poisoned air. And it is a known fact that these figures underestimate the situation.

In response to this sobering, unacceptable picture, the world community in the year 2000 has resolved to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day. This laudable target has been chosen on the basis of definitions made by international financial institutions, who reckon that a person is poor who lives on less than $1.25 per day. From the outset, this definition is conceptually flawed. To consider that someone living on $1.50 or $2.00 per day is not poor is to ignore, unacceptably, the impoverished existence of millions of inhabitants of this planet. Furthermore, the reality of poverty is much broader than what can be defined through income. Poverty is not a question of income; it is an issue of the poor being denied their basic rights. It encompasses powerlessness, a sense of humiliation, violation of dignity, social isolation, and deprivation. Poverty is both the cause and consequence of a denial of human rights.

The condition of poverty is neither inevitable nor immutable. It is a constructed social and economic reality. The poor are nor poor because they are physiologically or mentally inferior to others living in better conditions. Nor are they poor because they have a different set of values. On the contrary, poor people care about many of the things that other people care about: happiness, family, children, livelihood, peace, and security. Their poverty is often a direct or indirect consequence of society’s failure to establish its social and economic relations on the basis of equity and fairness.

Numerous factors contribute to poverty, and they exist at every level from the most local to the international. At the national level, two factors are amongst the most complex and politically controversial. The first is the distribution of power, authority, and resources among different levels of the Government; second is the equality of “governance” in terms of responsiveness, accountability, transparency, and the quality of its engagement with civil society. But what can be done to make governments and developing countries more accountable toward the poor?

At the 1993 World conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, poverty was deemed to be a human rights violation. Now that it is acknowledged that this is the case, the international community has a responsibility to strive to abolish poverty in the same way it is responsible for ridding the planet of slavery, torture, and more recently, apartheid. All human beings stem from the precept that fundamental principles should be respected in the treatment of all human beings. States owe a duty to protect the life, liberty, and security of their citizens. They must create the conditions to meet the basic human need to live in peace with dignity.
Poverty dehumanizes half of the world’s inhabitants, leaving the other half totally indifferent. That such massive and systematic daily violations do not shake the conscience of millions is certainly one of the most important moral issues in this century. On the one hand, equality in the attribution of rights is proclaimed, while on the other, inequality is the distribution of goods persists, maintained by unjust political and social policies at national and global levels. 

Treating poverty as a human rights violation implies realizing the concept of international justice. This subjects relations between states and nations and their citizens to one structure of global justice, governing relations among human beings. All people would be equal, regardless of race, religion, creed, gender, or age. All people would live in a global society and benefit from absolute and indivisible rights- like the right to life, guaranteed by the international community. These rights are entitlements, and individual nations are the guarantors or duty bearers. But a moral obligation weighs on us all- particularly in the case of failed or impoverished nations- to help eradicate poverty. The principle of global justice, therefore, means establishing the conditions for a more equitable distribution of resources among the world’s inhabitants so as to satisfy certain absolute rights.

If we were to abolish poverty on the grounds that it is a systematic and continuous violation of human rights, the condition of poverty would have a new status. Instead of being a deplorable consequence or accepted status quo, it would become an injustice. With this shift in perception, the poor would become entitlement to claim compensation on the grounds that their impoverished conditions are a denial of all or part of their civil, cultural, economic, social and political rights.

This shift, however, requires creating public awareness of the concept of universal justice, a goal that is within our reach. Galvanizing public opinion, to make all citizens concerned with the prevalence of poverty as an affront to universal justice, is one step.

There is also a need to harness political will at the international and national levels. International justice must include a foundation of legislative measures that will hold perpetrators responsible. Such a legal framework would provide the poor with the right to gain compensation for their status.

It is true; we are all different. True, cultural diversity is a fact like biodiversity. True, we are all unique- the world is peopled by 6 billion unique individuals. And this is what makes our humanity. It is moral, ethical, and legal imperative to abolish poverty worldwide so as to secure long-lasting peace and prosperity on this planet. And this goal must be embedded in the conscience of all.

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