Truth, Human Rights, and the Sharp End of Poverty

human rights are about usBy Diana Skelton (France)

Human rights are not charity; they’re about justice.

This quote, and the cartoon illustrating it, was singled out as the favorite of a lively group I had the chance to join in Glasgow several weeks ago. A hundred of us were gathered to mark Human Rights Day for an Innovation Forum called “Tackling Poverty Through Human Rights.”

One of the things that made the day innovative is that the Scottish National Human Rights Commission prepared it with a group of 20 people living in poverty, including eight members of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission. Inspired by work in South Africa and in the United States, the commission is a place where key decision-makers and people livingat the sharp end of povertyget to know one another over several years. It began in 2009, with a group that worked for three years on the questions of overcoming violence, challenging stereotyping, and supporting relatives who help care for children in their extended family.

A new commission with a different group of 28 people was named in June. They have spent these first months getting to know one another and building trust. Developing these relationships first helps them in the next step of choosing priorities to focus on. Since 2009, several members of ATD Fourth World have played active roles in the Poverty Truth Commission.

The people living in poverty who prepared Human Rights Day met three times to highlight issues of greatest concern. During the preparations, some of them shared videos on Storify and on a Pinterest board set up by the Human Rights Commission, like one declaring:I am not a problem to be solved!On the day itself, many people spoke of the impact of poverty and human rights violations in their daily lives: the pain of being stigmatized, made fun of, or pitied. Speakers who are Travellers spoke of feeling segregated, and the need to hide their ethnicity. Some asylum seekers spoke about a double trauma, both through violence in their home country, and by administrators in Europe who assume that they are lying about everything. People voiced anger at the media for stigmatizing everyone in poverty, and shared their shame at needing to depend on food banks.

They also spoke of the importance of sharing personal stories as a way to challenge stigmatization. The day was also about recognizing the courage of people in poverty, and others standing in solidarity with them to ensure that all people’s human rights be respected. A speaker from Belfast shared how a group there called Participation and the Practice of Rights works so that the priorities of people living in poverty can influence spending. For instance, in one low-income housing project, they began by visiting residents door-to-door to create a safe, uncensored space where people could share their concerns. Gradually, they brought people together to develop a broader conversation about individual issues that were also collective. For instance, many children living there were suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems. This was linked to the large quantity of pigeon droppings and the dampness of the housing. From this collective conversation, residents began collecting evidence of these housing issues, participating in public hearings to call for change, and using both the media and international human rights standards to pressure the housing authority to act.

stigma hurtsSpeakers from Coventry Women’s Voices and Warwick University spoke of their collaboration to measure the impact of austerity budget cuts on different communities. They voiced frustration at politicians who cut funding saying,We’re all in this together,when in fact the cuts fall more heavily on people who are the most vulnerable, often people with disabilities. They also cited news articles about 150 different cases of people committing suicide because of budget cuts that plunged them further into poverty. One of the results of their research has been to show that targets established to sanction unemployment benefits often lead the advisors working in job centers to take advantage of people who have trouble speaking English or who have learning disabilities. Because it can be easier to impose sanctions on them, this helps the advisors meet their targets for cutting benefits. They also stressed the importance of making local assessments instead of working with national averages. In the city of Blackpool, for example, they found that working-age adults had their benefits cut by far more than adults in London did. Their work has led them to denounce the way that budget cuts are often justified with supposed economic benefits that in fact have not been proved, and also by stigmatizing those the government calls theundeserving poor.

Professor Aoife Nolan, from Nottingham University, spoke about participatory human rights budgeting done by an increasing number of governments, particularly in the Council of Europe and in Latin America. She pointed out that very few experts in economics have a grasp of human rightsand vice versa. Sometimes governments begin by looking at a single aspect of human rights, for instance by looking at children’s rights in their budgets, or gender rights. One of the challenges of human rights budgeting is that many budgets lack disaggregated information about who benefits from certain expendituresand who does not benefit. Another challenge is expertise. She has seen situations where people in poverty share testimonies that are not taken seriously by policy-makers because they were not equipped to connect their concern with the basic tools of budget-making. Her goal in human rights budgeting is to ensure that public budgets focus on human dignity, not only economic indicators. Following this Human Rights Day event, she wrote on Twitter,Listening to the impressive people speaking today about life in poverty & its impact, one is left wondering how any country can afford to waste them & their contribution by relegating them to life in poverty.

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It was just a few months ago that the referendum proposing Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom failed. I met many people who had wanted the referendum to succeedbut instead of being frustrated at having lost the election, everyone I spoke with called this year a time of cultural shift and empowerment for the Scottish people. One woman living in poverty said,Before, we had always been disenfranchised. Now, we have enfranchised ourselves again.” She, and everyone I met there convinced me that all of us can learn a lot from Scotland’s creativity, its renewed sense of enfranchisement, and its passion for freedom and human rights.

Cartoons by Graham Ogilvie.

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