On today’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Maria Paula Meneses, Mara Bicas and Laura Brito at CES in Coimbra, Portugal reflect on the conceptualisation of poverty, the value of human dignity, and the usefulness of a bottom-up approach.

More than three decades ago, in a gathering in Paris, Joseph Wresinski exposed poverty as injustice, stating: “whenever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty”. The available data indicate that 783 million people live below the poverty line, with less than US$1 a day. Women are more affected by poverty, with 122 women for every 100 men aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty.

Following this challenge, on this day the world celebrates the struggle against poverty, one of the chronic harms of contemporary world. The purpose of this day is double: to listen to the voices of the impoverished and subalternized groups, and to guarantee the value of human dignity, ensuring respect to fundamental social and human rights. This paradigmatic shift in affirming poverty as the result of human rights violations meant a significant progress in relation to the previous approach. Indeed, until recently, poverty was explained as caused by individual or collective misfortune; ensuing, the societies had the duty to provide assistance, as charity, to overstep poverty. The new paradigm shifts the responsibility to the governments, that have the obligation to devise strategies to contribute to the ultimate elimination of the causes of poverty.

Although the dominant form of poverty is economic and material deprivation, poverty goes along with deprivation of human dignity, with the violation of human rights. Poverty impairs the access to economic and social rights, like health, adequate housing, food, safe water and education; it also has a strong impact in civil and political rights. But human rights do not exist unless we also guarantee the rights of nature, that is, of all living beings and of the planet earth itself. Taking on this position, how and where does poverty occur? How is poverty created in modern, democratic nation-states?

Our world, dominated by a neoliberal economy, witnesses a massive impoverishment of both human beings and of the earth. Everything within this global economic system is perceived as a resource. The mercantilization of life has repressed all our innate abilities to relate to others, to cultivate a community ethos, of being a collective subject of decision.

As ETHOS project has been stressing, the best way to overcome injustices suffered by impoverished and subalternized vulnerable groups is to change the top-down approach by a bottom-up one. Europe is continuously impoverishing itself, as the continent continues to waste the wealthy of experiences and knowledges available both in the continent and outside of it. By insisting on seeing poverty essentially as an economic phenomenon, Europe is perpetuating social injustice. Poverty is not inherent to the human beings, as the GDP performance seems to suggest. An interesting alternative approach was proposed by Bhutan, through its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. Instead of focusing on GDP, which only measures the economic growth of a nation, based on its production and consumption, the GNH proposes an alternative philosophy centred on community vitality, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural diversity and environmental conservation.

The International Day for Eradication of Poverty is a privileged moment to appeal to the eradication of poverty in the earth, our common home. This day symbolically appeals to a radical change of our models of democracy, economy and justice, by listening the experiences of those experiencing poverty. Eradication of poverty is a matter of human rights; it is about recognizing the importance of allowing all humanity to live with dignity.

By Maria Paula Meneses, Mara Bicas, Laura Brito