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Anti poverty protesters miss the language of justice


Make Poverty History'Making poverty history' and 'an end to poverty' are mantras that have been part of public conversation for the last five years. They have galvanised activists across the world, from Norway to Australia. Although 'making poverty history' may be a little tired now as a slogan, it still has pulling power.

Recently, under the 'make poverty history' banner, a group of young Australians launched a 'roadtrip' to Canberra to advocate that Australia raise its foreign aid commitment to 0.7 per cent of GDP. And although the white 'make poverty history' arm bands weren't as ubiquitous as they were in 2005, strong feeling about taking action to alleviate poverty certainly survives. The recent Canadian G8 meeting sparked new protests at the failure of rich countries to honour the promises they made five years ago at Gleneagles to increase aid by up to $50 billion by 2010.

Yet these latest protests, ritualistic at G8 meetings, point not only to the failures of the G8 governments, but also to the limitations of those mantras, 'make poverty history' and 'an end to poverty'. Much of the anger and debate that accompanies G8 meetings focuses on numbers. The monetary pledges made by governments are either met or broken, and the public responds accordingly. So the movement to 'end poverty' is tied to the numbers that emerge from each international summit. Progress is measured by the amount of money pledged and ultimately spent on aid and development.

In the cacophony of pledges and broken promises, one question is not clearly answered: what does an 'end to poverty' actually mean? Is it in fact a question of arriving at a world where everyone lives above some pre-determined 'poverty-line'?

The language of 'ending poverty' focuses on economic improvement. And that is where aid comes in. Aid seeks to rectify an imbalance of the basic goods which people need in order to live and to realise opportunities to do what they like with their lives.

But, as the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has argued, primary goods don't necessarily translate into substantive freedoms. Poverty is not a one dimensional affliction.Communities enduring poverty are almost always torn by multiple afflictions, for example, ethnic or class discrimination or corruption. A person in a poor community may not simply suffer from a lack of primary goods (food, shelter, healthcare), but also from various forms of discrimination or poor access to institutional protection. In India, for example there are on average 11 judges for every 1 million people.

Is it possible to conceive another way of thinking and talking about overcoming the harm we see caused by poverty?

Perhaps a more holistic and far reaching approach — and a different mantra — can be found in the idea of 'justice'. People's desire to assist poor communities — to 'make poverty history' — surely arises out of a sense of injustice. So any campaign to lift people out of poverty is moved by a desire for justice. By making 'justice' the stated goal of the 'anti-poverty' movement, success would be measured not only by material outcomes, such as  the quantity of aid delivered or the number of schools opened, but by the impact made on people's lives.

'Justice' is a more ambitious goal than 'ending poverty'. If we pursue justice, then we are not only working for higher average incomes or more housing. We are also working to empower people.

By adopting the idea of 'justice' as a new watchword for the fight against poverty we would recognise the complexity of human communities. Even though we might fund the construction of 1000 schools across a poor country, discrimination on racial, gender or religious grounds, corruption or lack of legal representation could prevent this 'achievement' from really vanquishing the injustices we visualise when we want to 'make poverty history'.

Making justice our goal overcomes another weakness inherent in the 'end to poverty' slogan. The movement to 'end poverty' has in practice worked with conventional concepts of what is a 'poor' community and what is a 'rich' community. Thus the focus has been on Africa and South East Asia.

In the late 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft criticised Edmund Burke's support for American independence because Burke did not also support the emancipation of slaves. Wollstonecraft argued that if we desire justice for one group of people, then we have to desire it for everyone.

While the slogan 'an end to poverty' has channeled energy towards assisting the world's poor nations (measured by GDP and general welfare statistics), people suffering from poverty are not confined to these nations.

Many African Americans living in inner city neighbourhoods have lower life expectancy than poor people living in less developed nations like Costa Rica. In Russia, a country classified as 'developing', many people suffer from severe lack of opportunity and proper healthcare, just like those in 'under-developed' nations. In the campaign to 'end poverty', must they be forgotten simply because their national statistics (GDP, GNP etc.) tell a different story?

As an articulated goal, 'justice' overcomes this problem. If we are working for justice, then by implication we are seeking to undo injustice wherever it exists and in all its complexity. The language of 'ending poverty' can inhibit us from seeing reality. The language of 'justice' takes the scales away from our eyes.

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: Ben Coleridge, G8, make poverty history, aid



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Existing comments

This would be a valid criticism... if activists' goals were indeed as simplistic as "make poverty history". Has the author of this article not heard of the Millenium Development goals?

Julie | 29 June 2010  

Well said Ben.
Perhaps we should start by first finding justice for our own Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. When we get this right, then we would have a model process to offer elsewhere - the true "aid" you are seeking, I believe.

John R. Sabine | 29 June 2010  

An interesting and provocative piece. I think the critique is well put; but I would challenge Coleridge to come up with some new sort of slogan to capture this broader focus. "Make Poverty History" may be oversimplified, but it also captures people's imagination, and that's an important value, too.

I've posted a link to the piece and begun a conversation regarding the idea on America Magazine's website, as well.

Jim McDermott, SJ | 29 June 2010  

I agree. Changing the language we use might be a good start. Helping people to see links between their worldview > justice > ending poverty would also be helpful. And ultimately, people need to have a basis for justice. Justice needs to look more valuable and glorious than the new iPhone.

Pete | 29 June 2010  

Ben Coleridge is right. But what can be done in the countries that are well placed to help, such as Australia?

In most democratic countries rival political parties are, with sound reason, reluctant to propose increased taxation. It would invite electoral defeat.

A possible solution would be agreement between all parties to introduce a clearly defined, equal, separate tax to give assistance to the peoples of countries in dire need.

Bob Corcoran | 29 June 2010  

Interesting that anti-G20 protesters can trash Toronto, burn cars, smash windows, etc, but that doesn't invalidate the "Make Poverty History" message in principle. But if a handful of protesters show up at a Tea Party rally with guns, or "OBAMA IS A MUSLIM" placards, the entire movement is beyond the pale. Do we have a double standard here?

Rod Blaine | 29 June 2010  

Well done, Ben. It's great to read such valuable stuff coming from the younger generation.

Joe Castley | 29 June 2010  

I like this invitation to more reflection on foreign aid. I understand that in 1970, the world’s rich countries agreed to give 0.7% of their gross domestic income as official international development aid, each year. And although I find the 0.7% target a tad arbitrary, if sweden, denmark and the netherlands can reach it, surely we can too.

Like Coleridge, Caritas Australia has made the good point that we need to focus not only on quantity but quality (i.e. making sure aid is used efficiently and effectively in areas of greatest need). Furthermore the NGO advises our nation to focus on a couple of the millennium development goals (e.g. education, and eradication of malaria) rather than all of them.

Liz | 29 June 2010  

Well said!

Tom | 29 June 2010  

Thank you Ben Coleridge, for bringing reality to our notice , through the most powerful biblical word 'justice'.

'Ending poverty' or 'making poverty history', may be terms which could lead good people to relieve poverty by only giving monetary assistance.

The term 'justice' would seem to entail a deeper responsibility , perhaps of a more personal approach. It could mean for some, aligning ourselves with those suffering, by physical demonstrations against discriminatory policies.For others who are able, it could mean walking with,or giving of our time to show compassion. To speak out in defence of the marginalised, in our churches and in society.

For some it could mean to actually go and see for oneself how some people live without hope, then inspired to return home with the confidence to reveal these truths with a deeper conviction.

Your article Ben is one of profound wisdom, a wake up call to all, and a serious insight into the Christian life.
Many thanks.. we all need to receive the grace to respond.

Bernie Introna | 29 June 2010  

Some activists may not get past the 'Make Poverty History' slogan of the MDG campaign, but those who attend to the detail of the goals, targets and indicators, will know that the MDGs are about justice. They promote justice in specific, concrete and intergated ways. The indicators seek to measure actual progress rather than how right we feel talking about justice. Not all are focused on material outcomes.

Whatever diminshes any human person anywhere diminishes us all. But we can't all do something about everything everywhere all the time. The option for the poor calls us to focus in a special way on the needs of those who are the poorest and most marginalised. To focus a campaign on reducing by half the most extreme forms of poverty within a specific timeframe seems both legitimate and appropriate to me.

In addressing key dimensions of the most extreme poverty, the MDG goals and targets touch on most of the most important dynamics causing and / or sustaining injustice in the world. That is why the framework has been adopted by NATSIEC's 'Make Indigenous Poverty History' campaign in Australia.

Sandie Cornish | 29 June 2010  

You make good points about the serious importance of justice, Ben. However, I don't believe you needed to be so critical of something that is in essence a great movement.
I think it's a case of Make Poverty History simply taking on board the healthy arguments you have made.

I was disappointed that you didn't include examples of Australians living in poverty - for example, children in low socio-economic suburbs attending under-staffed and poorly resourced Government schools. However, I'm very aware that few Australians realise that this kind of poverty exists in our own backyard.

Robert Van Zetten | 29 June 2010  

Thanks to everyone for their comments, I’m glad a conversation has begun.

Robert, I didn’t mention an Australian example in order to avoid misunderstanding – I didn’t want anyone to jump to the conclusion that I was promoting a ‘charity begins at home argument.’ I’m not.

Sandie and Julie, I am not critiquing the Millennium Development Goals (I don't even mention them in the article). I recognise that they have been necessary and effective in focusing international action. Instead, my argument focuses on the merits of the 'end to poverty' language used to spearhead these efforts. It seems to me that the 'end to poverty' mantra fails to really articulate what the Development Goals are about. My argument is precisely that we need to find language that fully reflects that ‘specific, concrete and integrated’ character of the MDGs along with the fundamental reason for their necessity – injustice.

Ben Coleridge | 30 June 2010  

Ben, I directed that Roadtrip and many other MPH initiatives since 2005. You’re right. Poverty is an injustice, and therefore justice is the true goal. Justice is our vision. The problem is that “justice” is far too vague a message for the public. The word lacks meaning outside churches, activists and the highly educated like yourself. 'Poverty' on the other hand, is specific and unambigious. This clarity is exactly why MPH has been so successful with the public. The public want to know exactly what change we're seeking in the world, and 'Justice' is way too vague. As activists, we are often seen as ineffective wishy-washy idealist hippies with vague notions of so-called peace, love and "justice", and don't have a concrete practical plan for real change. We are breaking that stereotype. Our plan, the Millennium Development Goals, is a time-bound, globally-agreed, economically achievable plan to end extreme poverty within our lifetimes. I would therefore say that, rather than becoming more vague with broad notions of “justice”, our language needs to get more specific. We must specifically highlight concrete solutions to alleviate extreme poverty, like the MDGs. This will have the greater impact for the poor, and therefore for justice.

Viv | 01 July 2010  

Hi Viv, great effort on organizing the road-trip. I’d have to disagree with you there. I don’t think the language of justice is vague or incomprehensible at all. In fact my instinctive thought would be that the people who most understand the language of justice are those who experience injustice (people often outside churches, activist groups and universities!)

I think that every person has a capacity to sense justice or injustice (of course we might have different visions of what justice looks like but that’s beside the point here). Therefore, the language of justice can be immediately powerful for everyone.

On the other hand, poverty may be ‘explained away’ comparatively easily. So, for example, in the 19th century, campaigns against disadvantage often attributed poverty to poor people’s inferior moral lives. In the 21st century, people sometimes attribute poverty to intrinsic cultural weaknesses.

‘Injustice’ cannot be so readily ignored or explained away.

Ben Coleridge | 01 July 2010  

Indeed, I agree, as we have a parallel poor worlds on the basis of race, ethnicity, migration background and etc.

Lina Vosyliūtė | 17 April 2013  

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