Asia: Poverty as the Absence of Protection

| by Basil Fernando - Right Livelihood Award laureate 2014
(An article issued on the occasion of receiving the Right Livelihood Award - 2014)

( September 25, 2014, Hong Kong SAR, Sri Lanka Guardian) There are many ways of looking at poverty and its causes.

The most common way is to see poverty as the absence of the most meagre of resources for living. In other words, it is the lack of a minimum income. On the basis of this perception of poverty, the solution commonly suggested is to supplement this lack of income with contributions by the state. And, the approach proffered by states, and even by the United Nations in terms of the Millennium Development Goals, in discussions on poverty alleviation, is to find ways to improve basic income needed for living.

Often missing from such poverty alleviation discourse, purely concerned with a minimum improvement of basic income, is the cost that the poor have to pay, as a result of the absence of protection. What is meant by absence of protection? This absence is the non-existence of a public justice system capable of protecting the poor from the onslaught of predators in society.

Any study that focuses on such predators of the poor is bound to produce a shocking picture of man’s inhumanity to man. There are a large number of forces that scavenge from a poor man’s income and resources for their enrichment. The role of moneylenders who extract high rates of interests from the poor is well known. What is often not discussed is the way a “bad system” of administration of justice can create an ever greater burden on the poor.

The police, in many developing countries, rely on the poor for supplementing police officers income. This is a known fact. The power of arrest is often utilized as a means to force the poor to pay bribes to law enforcement agencies. Years of work at the Asian Human Rights Commission, in 12 Asian countries, has resulted in the collation of a body of information on the ways the poor are harassed by law enforcement agencies. When poor persons are arrested, often for no good reason, their close circle of family members and friends are forced to bribe the police and security agents, in cash or kind to obtain their release and to ensure that they will not be tortured in custody. Often, the way in which the poor pay such bribes is by borrowing money on high rates of interest or by selling whatever few possessions they may own.

When these poor persons are brought before the courts by unscrupulous police, they again encounter a large number of predators. Lawyers head this list. Other predators include the touts in the courts, court clerks, and even some judges. If a poor man is remanded for some time or sent to jail, then his or her family would also have to bribe the jailors, with the hope that he/she may be granted some relief while in detention.

Add to this brief description of predators the various pseudo-religious servants (or witch doctors) to whomt the poor resort in times of desperation.

AHRC-ART-075-2014-02.jpgA public system of justice is meant to protect all individuals, including the poor, from being harassed and harmed. Such a justice system protects all individuals under a framework of law. It is the criminal justice system that provides this protection. Such a system is meant to protect individuals from those who may try to harm their life or limb; defraud them one way or another; or engage in any other form of illegal exploitation of people. Within such a system, predators are the ones who stand to suffer.

Where such a system exists, the poor, like everyone else, have opportunities to improve their income. And, most crucially, they do not have to share the little income they have on predators.

One of the major causes of poverty, unaddressed during the state and international discourse on poverty, is the failure of states to create and maintain a public justice system, that is capable and willing to protect all individuals in the jurisdiction from attack and predation by others.

Anyone concerned with improving the incomes for the poor must be concerned with the type of public justice system available to them. Where the public justice system is weak or does not exist – which is the case in almost all developing countries – it should be the primary objective of all agencies concerned with poverty alleviation to institute or radically improve the system.

A critical contemporary challenge is to find ways to influence all concerned international agencies contributing to the improvement of the lives of poor, so that they may understand the importance of creating and maintaining public justice institutions that help protect the poor.

What this calls for is a change at policy levels in strategies of poverty alleviation. The minds of all policy makers need to be opened to enable them to consider the problem of poverty, not only from the point of view of economic criteria but also from the point of view of political and social criteria, within which the problem of the missing public justice systems should be given prime place.

This is a challenge to all humanitarian organizations in the world. It calls for richer understanding of humanitarian tasks, in terms of poverty alleviation and poverty eradication. This challenge for an understanding well beyond the mere doling-out of money or simply introducing programmes, such as credit facilities to the poor. Lobbying and advocacy for establishing and improving public justice systems must find place on the humanitarian agenda.

Naturally, human rights organizations too should be able to look beyond mere calls for investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations. They should play more active and dynamic roles in promoting ways to create and maintain credible and functioning public justice systems.

An outstanding contribution to this discourse is a book written by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, The Locust Effect – Why the end of poverty requires the end of violence, published in 2014, and already a best seller. This book is devoted to demonstrating the link between poverty and the need to protect the poor from violence through the establishment of effective public justice systems.