25 September, 2020

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Poverty As The Absence Of Protection

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

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.

A 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.

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Congratulations Basil on your being honoured recently. You deserved it. Keep up your good work. Bensen

    • 0
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      I agree, well deserved accolade Basil.

  • 1
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    What would Basil know about poverty? he’s been living off donations from western funding agencies for the past 20 years.

    • 0
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      The title of the post is “Poverty As The Absence Of Protection”.

      So he is saying [Edited out]

  • 0
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    Violence in many forms in society undoubtedly devour particularly the poor in society like a horde of locusts on their way. Thus is the ‘Locust Effect,’ expounded by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros as I understand. But I am not sure whether that is the main cause of poverty in society as Basil points out in this article. Perhaps Basil is trying to provoke others. However, one danger might be to take our attention away from the real causes of poverty in society. I just came across this article while re-reading Robert Tressell’s novel “The Ragged Trousered Philanthrophists” after almost 40 years. By the way, Robert Tressell was just a worker, but with some education. To my view, this worker gives a better understanding about the causes of poverty, including violence, in an easy to understand manner through a novel although the book was published exactly a century ago in 1914 after his death.

    If I may put it categorically, it is a misleading conception (although not new) to consider that solutions for poverty can be found in the sphere of civil and political rights while those are primary necessities for all sections of society. If the former is the case there is no poverty in western liberal democracies. Here the definition of poverty is also questionable. Poverty is not economic destitution alone prevalent in poor countries as the conception goes. It is the denial of the advantages of civilization on equal terms to every section of society, basic economic needs being the bottom line. This is what Tressell argued. If one needs to alleviate poverty in human rights terms one should genuinely fight for economic and social rights as equal as fighting for civil, political and cultural rights. Protection for the poor will never come unless their economic and social rights are addressed squarely and properly. How many international human rights organizations are committed to this universality? Basil should answer. These are just preliminary responses before going for a minor surgical procedure and this is to excuse my silence at least for two to three days if counter arguments are made.

    • 0
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      The good Dr seems to have got it right this time,

      He must have seen the recent stats on violence in Sydney and Melbourne in his Diaspora land.

      • 0
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        The “good doctor”?
        I thought he was some type of law college graduate who has got hold of the NGO gravy wagon successfully and sucking it pretty?

  • 1
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    Poverty alleviation happening under Basil’s nose in Hong Kong.
    [Edited out]

  • 0
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    This “human rights” lawyer has got it completely wrong. He is talking of the justice system. The justice system was initially created, and even today, does the job of ensuring that those who have land continue to hold them AGAINT the just demans of the poor. Thank of a poor destitute man going a picthing a hut in a small tiny corner of an estate with a vast number of acres in the North, owned by a Wigneswarana or Sumathirans who are absantee Periah Dorei living in the south. His family will be immediately evicted using the law. Think of the Muslims ejected by the LTTE on just a few hours notice to leave the North. Now, has this human-rights lawyer said anything about them at that time? No, instead he hobnobs with Fr. Emmanuel and Garry Anandasangaree. So you know what his political label is. You know what the LTTE fought for. You know that his concern for human rights is purely limited to fighting the causes that he is funded to fight for — remember, all lawyers fight for their clients. They are just paid hirelings. But the beauty of it is that these people have hijacked the moral mantel, exactly in the same way as the fathers of the intuition in the middle ages hijacked the moral mantel when they claimed to hunt out witches and sorcerers in the name of God. These are the modern which hunters, funded by the same church, the same banco santo spirito, and the same capitalists.
    Basil is living in Hong Kong, and he does not see the human rights abuses happening just near his doorstep!!! But they are not his clients, so that is not his brief.

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