Could poverty be made illegal worldwide, just as torture and other human rights abuses have been?
It’s a radical concept, and one that’s being vociferously debated at the International Network of Street Papers (INSP) annual conference following a call by Henrique Pinto, from Cais street paper in Portugal, for street papers to support his campaign to make poverty illegal.
What at first seems like an idealistic, never-achievable “dream” goal gains some weight when you consider that once slavery was legal, and it took a radical mindshift and support from a critical mass to make it illegal. There are countless examples of these shifts that throughout history, so why is it so inconceivable that poverty, like slavery, could one day be outlawed?
As Pinto points out, like torture, genocide and other human rights abuses, “poverty is a serious violation of the most basic human rights”.
And, like slavery, “poverty is man-made — it is not a natural phenomena”, Pinto argues.
He makes a passionate, weighty argument, but I’m not (yet) convinced this is a realistic campaign, nor one that street papers around the world, which have a combined readership of five to seven million an edition, should use their considerable power in the media to drive on a global level.
It’s a grand ideal, but as Trudy Vlok, MD of The Big Issue SA, pointed out: If poverty is made illegal, that automatically means it’s a criminal offence to cause poverty. But who or even what causes poverty is not always clear-cut, so who do you lay criminal charges against for causing poverty?
Pinto reckons the buck stops with governments, which should be forced by their people to commit to goals to alleviate poverty. Should they not meet those goals, he believes they should be fined, as they do in the European Union when countries do not meet carbon emission reductions, for example. The money from the fine would then be put into a fund for poverty alleviation.
There’s an immediate issue here: if governments have to pay a fine, the money will simply be taken from the taxpayer’s coffer, which has its obvious problems.
Fining governments for breaking agreements also has its own set of problems; it’s a slap on the wrist which they mostly shrug off and then go straight back to doing what they were doing before. Getting governments to seriously sign in on “dream” targets is equally tricky. Governments always seem to be all too happy to sign on the dotted line when the cameras are clicking but, like we’ve seen with the overall implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, implementation is an entirely different story.
That said, no one — not even the passionate Pinto — is talking about making poverty illegal overnight. It would be a long-term campaign, at least 20 years. Who knows, over that time the glitches in the campaign for poverty to be made illegal could be ironed out. Perhaps in 50 or 100 years we’ll even look back at this time and be amazed that poverty wasn’t illegal.
*Melany Bendix is editor of The Big Issue South Africa. She blogged from the INSP 2011 annual conference that took place in Glasgow from July 20 to 22. The INSP represents 113 papers from 40 countries. Follow her on Twitter @melbendix