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      Volume 11 |Issue 20| May 18, 2012 |


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Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The Rights and Poverty Interface

Shazzad Khan

A few days ago I was instigated by a colleague to take a session on 'rights and poverty interface' in a workshop of local NGOs outside Dhaka. I was not very willing because I have no doubt that the NGOs that work with the rural poor for years can easily perceive why the poor are poor and what the fundamental rights that cause their poverty are. However, driven by the hidden fact that unless we speak bombastically in workshops and seminars, and write paradoxical articles in the English newspapers the profile of a (so-called) development worker or any project cannot be projected, I was insisted upon to go into the workshop and deliver a 'lecture'. Nowadays it has become a common practice in the development arena that the so-called civil society members are engaged in exposing themselves as robust as they can, even though their content within is very, very meagre. Rarely have I seen in workshops and seminars, or in the media, people restraining themselves from talking.

Fortunately for me, the evening before the day of my 'lecture' I joined a meeting followed by a dinner in a district hotel participated by a number of NGOs. The meeting was very brief but the dinner was big – a common practice in all rich events of the rich classes. A huge quantity of food with many items was served at the dinner. I could see and easily reckon that a good amount of food would be left out and wasted. After the dinner, as I got down to the exit of the hotel, I found an emaciated old beggar asking me for some alms to buy food. I gave him some money and instantly realised a burning example of rights and poverty interface had just set its picture right there on the spot, without any paradox. While a distressed man was begging for food outside, an unaccounted amount of food was being enjoyed and wasted by some privileged people inside the hotel. Just see, how the 'rights and poverty equation' is so simple although it is multifaceted – when some people make themselves too privileged and rich by violating others' rights, many go hungry as they are deprived of the same without rights.

People's rights are violated when the state ignores its duties in a democratic mechanism.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The next day, without delivering a so-called lecture, I initiated a dialogue like a 'reading circle' and asked all present to express whatever they felt about the relation between rights and poverty. To my very normal expectation and maybe to the amazement of my colleagues around, what most of the NGO representatives expressed about the causes of poverty in our social, economic, political and cultural context was no different from what Amartya Sen mentioned in his books Development as Freedom and Poverty and Famines. The difference was: Amartya Sen had written all about it in a fine and organised English and the NGO representatives expressed their views in discreet experiences. The quintessence of what the workshop participants expressed was that poverty is deprivation and powerlessness due to inability of accessing certain entitlements guaranteed by rights. It is as simple as that. When we live in a state mechanism, all the people, directly or indirectly, pay some money to the state and in return earn the entitlements to get some services guaranteed in the state constitution and laws. This very simple established 'give and take' relationship between a state and its citizens is expected of in a democratic mechanism. When this relationship is violated or ignored by the state mechanism, eventually rights are violated, citizens are deprived of their entitlements and at the end of the day they fall into poverty situations of different kinds. All the rights in a state are essentially formulated on the basis of fulfilling biological and psychological needs of humans.

Undoubtedly it is because of the spread of awareness that people are convinced now that poverty does not essentially mean lack of income or lack of food. Although it goes without saying that the very first manifestation of poverty is counted upon looking at people not having enough income or food. But taking into account the poverty that impedes a human from becoming a complete human being, both biological and psychological needs are to be fulfilled by the state. This concept of poverty strongly disapproves the age-old notion held still by many that increase in state income contributes to increase in individual income through the trickle down economic theory. Very interestingly the workshop participants rightly pointed out that increase in state income cannot bring about positive change to people's lives unless the income is distributed by the state evenly or equitably among its citizens through annual development programmes, infrastructure development, social securities, employment creation, safety nets, credit facilities, legal protection, agriculture subsides, market management etc. To back up this simple fact, they mentioned that at present the per capita income of Bangladesh is $820 but at least 50 percent of people live below the poverty line of $1.6 per day per person. They also mentioned the income gap in terms of the Gini ratio, which at present stands above 0.50.

It was really encouraging to see the NGO representatives at the workshop rightly discard the ideas of poverty projected by economists, and stressed on the needs of claiming rights to the state, so that the entitlements of people, especially of those who are poor and marginalised, are fulfilled through democratic process and distributive justice. They suggested that to take poverty into account holistically, the government and development agencies should look at poverty relating to lack of income and assets, poverty relating to voicelessness and powerlessness and poverty relating to man-made and natural vulnerabilities. In terms of addressing both income poverty and human poverty, they stressed on the needs of claiming rights in regard to healthy life, adequate nutrition, quality and inclusive education, informed knowledge, production and employment facilities, recreational facilities, personal and social security, social safety nets, protection from environmental hazards and participation in social actions. It was argued that from the rights perspective of poverty alleviation, all the projects, programmes and approaches should include and address these elements of entitlements, embracing political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantee and protective security. Only then can the rights and poverty interface be effectively and efficiently identified and addressed, removing the paradox in understanding this simple issue in development.

The writer is a development worker.


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