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girls from the Kalokol Girls Primary School fetch water

Breaking the Poverty Trap

Why Poverty and Inequality are Human Rights Issues

Girls from the Kalokol Girls Primary School fetch water from a dry riverbed to carry back to their school, which does not have access to running water. Nearby Lake Turkana is too saline for human consumption. © 2014 Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has long documented how, when people live in poverty, their ability to exercise all their human rights erodes. Because of this, we have pushed governments to end abuses that contribute to poverty. We have recently decided to bolster this work and expand it to include economic inequality. Senior Researcher Komala Ramachandra speaks with Amy Braunschweiger about the change, and why the fight against poverty and extreme inequality is core to human rights.
A woman sits next to a meal and flowers from Iranian American volunteers who served food to homeless people on Skid Row to celebrate Nowruz, Iranian New Year, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 17, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

What is the relationship between poverty, inequality, and human rights?

When a person isn’t able to feed themselves or house their family, if they can’t access clean water or a decent job, or when kids have no choice but to drop out of school or get married because they’re living in poverty, these are all examples of human rights abuses. When government and corporate practices systematically deprive people of the resources they need, poverty becomes entrenched and economic inequality grows. But when you challenge structural inequities and improve access to essential goods and services, people can live with dignity, which is fundamental to upholding human rights.

The intersection between poverty, discrimination, exclusion, and a range of other rights abuses are themes across much of our work at Human Rights Watch. Also, addressing the impact of deprivation is fundamental to protecting human rights. We investigate the policies that trap people in poverty so that we can stop the cycles of poverty and promote more inclusive development. 

How are governments to blame for poverty? 

Governments around the world carry an immense responsibility to support people and help them reach an adequate standard of living, a basic human right. They can do so by ensuring policies don’t support the wealthy at the expense of the poor. But governments do the opposite when they fail to rein in powerful people or companies from actions that result in people living in destitution. And when governments fail to enforce labor standards or roll back policies preventing deforestation or pollution, they’re contributing to the loss of livelihood and a healthy environment for people. Laws that govern land, inheritance, lending, and a whole range of other issues can also disproportionately hurt people already struggling financially.

Jacinta, 15, was excluded from school after authorities found out that she was pregnant. She said her teachers took her to a medical clinic to undergo a pregnancy test. She subsequently gave birth prematurely and her baby did not survive. August 5, 2014. © 2014 Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch

Governments also fail to invest in resources and programs that ensure all people have access to what they need. They cut budgets for food and adopt policies or laws that exclude certain children from going to school. For example, in Tanzania, we did work to end discriminatory policies that prevent pregnant girls from attending school.

In the United States, the cost of health care prevents certain people from accessing care. As there is a clear correlation between race and poverty in the US, this disproportionately impacts communities of color. Most governments worldwide don’t have social systems to protect the economically most vulnerable from external shocks, although there is a basic human right to social security.

Governments are also harming people when they prioritize efficiency over rights when using technology to automate social programs. In the United Kingdom, the government is using a poorly designed algorithm to calculate people’s welfare benefits, creating payment delays and fluctuations that force people into hunger, debt, and poverty. And what about the people who can’t afford internet at their homes? The government still requires them to manage their benefits online.

Additionally, because of the pandemic, we are seeing what happens when governments don’t invest enough in social protection programs to make sure people aren’t thrown into economic freefall when crisis strikes.

The National Bank of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 2011.  © 2011 Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For example, in Cambodia, many low-wage workers have lost their jobs as companies and factories shut because of the pandemic. Many low-wage workers are turning to micro-loans to pay for essential services such as health care and school fees. Despite government guidance for micro-lenders to provide debt relief, these micro-loan providers are unethically coercing people into selling their land and housing, used as collateral, when they can’t pay back their loans. Cambodia’s government should suspend loan repayments and interest accruals and give people debt protection.

How else can governments help people get out of poverty?

A critical first step is developing a solid legal framework that protects people’s basic economic rights, like the right to an adequate standard of living, and provides for effective remedies for those whose economic rights are violated. Laws and regulations should prevent people from exploiting political and economic systems to benefit themselves at the expense of the rights of others. This includes worker, environmental, consumer, criminal, or anti-discrimination protections and policies. For example, governments can raise the minimum wages so that they are genuine living wages that help meet the needs of workers and their families.

These rights are universal, and, in a global economic system, these protections should expand beyond borders. Workers across a global value chain need to be protected against labor abuses. And governments need to monitor and enforce those laws. Without enforcement, the best laws won’t have much impact.

Governments also should leverage resources to invest in people and communities. This includes increasing spending on a range of social programs, like health care, education, job training, and access to credit. It also means improving transparency and oversight to root out corruption and wasteful practices that take resources away from the people who need it most.

A man washes clothes next to a mining road belonging to the La Société Minière de Boké (SMB) consortium. Local communities state that the construction of SMB’s mining roads blocked rivers and streams, diverting their course and reducing water levels in local wells.  © 2018 Ricci Shryock for Human Rights Watch

It is critical for governments to include people’s voices in shaping these policies and the technologies they use to implement them. This is a necessary counterbalance to self-interested powers that seek to enrich themselves.

For example, in the context of development projects, affected communities should be consulted to ensure they receive the promised benefits, and don’t end up losing more than they gain. In Guinea, we reported on bauxite mines that were funded both by Chinese investors and by the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. The mines were supposed to create jobs and make things better for communities, but instead they have threatened the livelihood of thousands of people by destroying ancestral farmland and damaging water sources. The companies involved claimed to have consulted communities, but in reality, communities have little choice but to allow mining to move forward on the companies’ terms. Communities should instead be able to participate in decisions about how their land is used and get meaningful benefit from mining and other development projects.

What if governments can’t afford to provide all this for their people?

It’s a reality that governments don’t have infinite funds, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, when many are facing revenue crises. Yet when governments respect human rights, they make sure powerful people and companies don’t make it harder for people to be financially secure. This doesn’t require massive government spending.

A volunteer at a Trussell Trust food bank prepares food parcels from their stores of donated food, toiletries and other items. London, United Kingdom. © 2017 Leon Neal/Getty Images

Also, there’s a lot governments can do to maximize the resources they have. This means eliminating corruption and self-dealing by politicians that can lead to misdirected or wasteful spending. Governments should prioritize the needs of the poorest, ensuring that everyone has the adequate support to access food, housing, water, education, and other essentials for a decent life. Governments should also aim to provide universal social protections, such as a welfare system, and should help people achieve greater economic security. For example, providing affordable internet access to low-income families could buffer them from future poverty, as does offering quality public education along with other continuing education courses designed to improve access to better jobs. All this would benefit society as a whole.

Also, governments should make sure they have the resources to fund programs, creating stable, long-term programs focused on people’s needs. Governments should also take steps to prevent tax evasion and explore progressive tax policies, which tax people with more assets at a higher rate than the poor, thereby easing the burden on the poor.

How would you answer people who say it’s people’s own fault that they’re living in poverty? 

Everyone is entitled to basic rights like food and housing – it is not a question of who is “deserving” or “undeserving.” There are undeniable systematic forces that make it much harder for some people to earn enough money to meet their basic needs or save enough money to protect them from ruin when they face unexpected expenses. This has contributed to the stark rise in inequality around the world. Over 70 percent of the world’s population live in countries that recently experienced growing inequality. There is no reason why a person should have to work multiple shifts or jobs to make ends meet.

People should have agency over their lives and be able to shape their futures. We want to change the policies that deprive people of those choices and of the opportunities they need to create a better life.

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