“Poverty is the world’s worst human rights crisis.” With that belief Irene Khan writes passionately and authoritatively, a heartrending book, advocating for a human rights approach for the approximately three billion human beings living in poverty on less than $2.50 a day. That statistic translates into almost half of the world’s population. Approximately twenty thousand children around the world die each day because of poverty.
Although most people are aware of poverty, to read this book is to become more acutely aware of the economic and social injustices affecting the lives of billions of people living in poverty. The author makes the strong case that defining poverty only through income levels has led people to the conclusion that raising income levels will solve the poverty problem. She cites examples of national income rising in countries, but still the inequalities and poverty persist. Economic growth in many countries has not ended the marginalization, discrimination and exclusion of various groups of people such as poor people, ethnic groups, religious groups and women.
The author describes the plight of the poor as more than an economic issue. To live in poverty is to experience “deprivation, insecurity, exclusion and voicelessness.” The author’s stance is that all of these issues connect, forming a “vicious circle;” it is those factors working in concert that keep people in poverty.
Throughout her book, Irene Khan cites many examples of voicelessness, insecurity, exclusion, discrimination and deprivation. Some of the numerous examples she cites are:
• the millions of workers in China laid off because of the global economic crisis who were sent back to their villages with no safety net.
• the high profile example in Zimbabwe where millions have been impoverished.
• the tens of thousands of homeless people in the U.S. who are excluded and discriminated against because they are not eligible to vote.
• the over 2,000 trade unionists in Columbia who have been killed during the past 20 years.
• the statistic from 2008 which documents more than 37 countries holding Prisoners of Conscience.
• the statistic of over 81 countries with “severe restriction on freedom of expression….”
• the Dalit communities in India which make up 16 percent of the population (160 million people) who are economically excluded and discriminated against.
• the 1500 families in Cambodia who were forced into trucks and deposited in a flood plain in 2006. Their homes were then destroyed.
• a U.S. 2002 report that documented homeless people in the U.S. being either forced to move, fined and/or imprisoned because they slept in a car, in a park or on the street. In San Francisco alone, some 43,000 people were cited for “quality of life” violations in a single year.
To live in poverty is to be trapped by political and philosophical belief obstacles. Living in poverty is also to be trapped in the “economic growth” belief that economic growth alone will trickle down and solve poverty issues. Living in poverty is to be trapped in “the sequencing trap.” It is the idea that poverty can be solved in “a piecemeal fashion,” a prioritizing of steps to be taken. The sequencing trap is to resist a holistic approach to solving the complex problems of the billions of human beings living in poverty.
The author defines what she considers to be concrete, holistic approaches that must be taken in order to solve the multiple problems facing the billions of human beings living in poverty.
This book is an analytical look at worldwide poverty written from a compassionate human rights perspective drawn from over 20 years of personal experience. It is a must-read book for people concerned about the social and economic injustices so prevalent in today’s world.
The Unheard Truth, Poverty and Human Rights, 2009, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York, 10110 written by Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, 2001-2009. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and worked at the United Nations for twenty years. She has received prestigious awards for leadership in human rights.