Is Poverty a Human Rights Issue?

Is poverty a human rights issue? The long-standing debate appeared again in the Grauniad yesterday. An exchange between Conor Foley (aid worker) and Kate Allen (Amnesty director) about how far Amnesty should be getting involved with poverty campaigning. Is it a case of “mission creep” – trying to do everything at once and becoming less effective as a result?

The fact remains that poverty is specifically mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing… (etc)”. And Amnesty’s own mission statement clearly states: “To conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.” Though it’s not entirely clear what constitutes a “grave abuse”.

Perhaps the three main points of contention could be summarized as:

1) The UDHR was drafted by a few white men on a boat 50 years ago, much of it is philosophically questionable, it has been used as a diplomatic tool for governments to play politics with each other. Is it actually relevant?

2) Does getting involved with poverty campaigning harm Amnesty’s other work and if so, where’s the evidence?

3) Can poverty be effectively fought as a “rights violation”? Many countries simply don’t have the money to feed, clothe, educate and treat everyone. Shouldn’t they be sorting out their economy first?

The first two are perhaps the easiest to deal with. The UDHR is obviously a modern and indeed western construction. It has been misused both for politics and propaganda, by countries both north and south. But it is still the best we’ve got. At the core, it’s a framework to protect values which people hold for different reasons, be they religious, humanistic, philosophical, or whatever. Any umbrella concept trying to cover these values for the diversity of humanity will obviously be artificial. But the fight for better treatment for individuals is not. It is not about governments pressurizing governments, but about a platform of legitimacy for individuals to protect themselves and each other against abuses of organized power.

The second claim, that poverty work dilutes Amnesty’s core areas, is a practical one. It is true that Amnesty used to focus on clear-cut issues such as prisoners of conscience and torture. It still does. On the other hand, its scope and budget have increased a lot in the last few years, giving it more resources to stretch out to other areas, including “positive rights” which cover poverty campaigning. There are many other organizations working in this area – and in the core areas as well. Co-operating rather than competing has always been a key challenge for humanitarian organizations. Campaigning on poverty does not in itself undercut work on “negative rights”, but it is a balancing act. As long as Amnesty doesn’t slip up, there is potentially much to gain.

The third question is the most difficult to deal with. No matter what your stance on Human Rights, the fact remains that no amount of documents, laws or campaigns can “cure” poverty. Until very recently, the vast majority of all people had little education or health care, and were frequently hungry. No country has come close to eradicating internal poverty (by the UDHR definition) without experiencing an industrial revolution and rapid economic growth. And while it is true that the current world output, if evenly distributed, would be enough to provide food, healthcare and education for all people, the chance of this happening is 0. We could distribute the food we have today, but where will tomorrow’s food come from? Some people believe in worldwide revolution. There is zero evidence that this is possible, or that people are willing to participate. Eradication of poverty will require not just a transfer of knowledge and capital, but assistance to grow them organically in the places that need it most.

So why is it that developing countries consistently advocate “positive rights” as being so important – often more important in fact, than the “negative rights” which in the west are considered to be the most fundamental? Indeed, pressure from developing countries was influential in causing Amnesty to shift its position to cover these rights in the first place. China is just one example of a country calling for economic and social rights to be prioritized, and that a right to expression if no use if you don’t have food in your belly. Cultural reasons are undeniably a factor. Another is authoritarian governments who know that whereas “positive rights” may strengthen their power, “negative rights” may undermine them. But the fact also remains that people in these countries live much closer to destitute and dehumanizing poverty, and arguably have a better understanding of the challenge it presents.

So I believe that Amnesty should be staying involved with poverty campaigning, precisely because it is such an influential organization. Human Rights as a concept has a long way to go to be accepted, especially in some developing countries (and also in many developed countries, *cough cough*). By reaching out to the areas which are most urgent in people’s daily lives, Amnesty can prove that it is directly relevant to all people. It can stand up to allegations of politicking or luxury rights, and answer the criticisms of countries such as China which say they want to focus on the economy. And the point is, that by broadening their appeal, it should actually strengthen the fight for “negative rights”. Of course China should be free to get rich. The poverty reduction and standard of living improvement China has produced is historically unprecedented and should be celebrated by all the world. It is fantastic. But this does not preclude it from allowing greater freedom of speech, and not locking people up in prison for political protest.

So is poverty a human rights issue? Perhaps not. Philosophically it is debatable whether humans have an innate right to be given anything at all. But should Human Rights organizations be involved with it? From a strategic perspective: yes they should. Historically the existence of the UDHR is a major breakthrough, but its worldwide legitimacy comes from its entirety. Only by recognizing all the rights it stands for, can we continue to fight for them in a way that is relevant to everyone in our world.


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