The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights

November 5, 2009

The theme of this book is understanding and tackling worldwide poverty, conceived as the denial of human rights, and more especially the rights to access the resources, services and political influence necessary for a life in dignity, justice and equality.

Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, explains her aim: "I want to convince you, the reader, that not only are the poor denied human rights but also - and more importantly - that if we act in effective ways to protect those rights, our efforts to end poverty stand a far greater chance of success."

Readers of humane and compassionate disposition will readily accept her view that poor people are deprived, insecure and discriminated against, and they lack freedom, in particular the positive freedom to attain mastery of their circumstances and purposes. They will support the cause of "making poverty history", but may well ask how Khan proposes to identify the "effective ways" of protecting rights (which presumably we have not yet taken), and further, what kind of motivation we need to have (which so far we have not developed) to carry them out. The point of this twofold question will become evident presently.

The main body of the book provides a mass of evidence - mostly drawn from Amnesty International research and illustrated by a series of dramatic photographs - for the different forms of poverty, its global spread and consequences. A succession of chapters deals, in harrowing detail, with the death and suffering caused by war, drought and famine in Africa; endemic violence against poor women in many parts of the world; adolescent pregnancy and maternal mortality in developing countries; the unsafe and unhygienic conditions experienced by poor people in slum communities ... the catalogue of injustices is endless.

So, what are the effective actions that can be taken to fight poverty? Khan offers many suggestions. A central thought is that the empowerment of poor people can best be achieved by a combination of, first, grassroots protest and self-help action by the poor themselves; second, campaigning and organising activities by humanitarian groups lobbying for effective solutions to injustices; and third, sustained efforts to gain universal recognition and achieve legal effect for a range of human rights through international instruments and legislation, and the creation and resourcing of human services.

This gives rise to an issue concerning moral motivation. Since inequalities in the distribution of wealth - abundance for the few existing side by side with deprivation for the many - are as old as history itself, it should be plain that the privileged few have not been appropriately motivated to do what is necessary to implement the poverty-elimination programme. Plainly, those who have wealth and power don't want to give up their privileges and support peace, freedom and security for all and a just redistribution of wealth. How can the wealthy be induced to accept sacrifices to their standards of living? Khan is silent on this.

Most of us are moderately selfish persons who may be willing to share some of our goods with our families and friends, and who accept that our government can use tax money to fund public works and social services in our own country that benefit the poor proportionately more than the rich. We believe that, in some sense, all sections of our own society are interdependent in various ways and we feel a natural sympathy for vulnerable groups of fellow citizens. Some of us consent to our government using a fraction of our wealth to fund famine relief and infrastructure development in Third World countries.

But how many of us would be prepared to offer half of our wealth to feed the hungry in Sudan's Darfur region or to help the Guarani-Kaiowa people in the Nhande Ru Marangatu province of Brazil to protect their land rights? To do so, we would need to consider these peoples as our brothers and sisters, members of our own human family. We would need to believe that we have fraternal obligations towards poor and destitute people whose language we don't understand, whose faces we may not like, and whose countries we can't place on the world map.

This requires a revolution in our values that only an effective programme of worldwide humanitarian moral education could bring about in the long term. Unless this happens, the rich countries, and indeed the rich oligarchies in developing countries, will not have the will to sacrifice their security and comfort in order to alleviate the poverty and suffering of the peoples whom Khan wants helped.

The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights

By Irene Khan with David Petrasek W.W. Norton

2pp, £13.99

ISBN 9780393337006

Published 15 October 2009

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