Tackling the Shame of Poverty

Tackling the Shame of Poverty


[Robert Walker:] We’re used to thinking about poverty in terms of a lack of resources. Our work has caused us to think much more about the implications of those lack of resources in terms of how people live their lives, but, more particularly,
how they think about themselves. Amartya Sen argued that everywhere there is poverty, there is also shame. And we sought to
try and establish whether indeed this was true, which caused us to work in 7 very disparate countries, countries as different as
Norway, Uganda, Pakistan and China. The bottom line was that the story was very similar and, when you think about it,
it’s pretty obvious that it should be. What do people want to do in life? They want to fulfil their own aspirations; they want to be good parents; they want to have friendships; they want to participate in society. When they can’t for lack of resources, that obviously causes
a sense of failure, a sense of shame, which our research suggested was also imposed from outside. So each of us, in our dealings with people who were experiencing poverty — as policy makers, as institutions — we tend to stigmatise people who are poor, we tend to blame them for their circumstances. In so doing, we undermine their sense of self and their ability to help themselves. It may sound a little unfair, but a large number
of the people who are in a bad situation financially — it’s ultimately of their own making, it’s up to them. Anyone can go and start doing something — selling bottle tops or whatever — and start turning a profit. It just requires the effort. [Robert Walker:] The challenge in working with countries as disparate as Norway and China and Uganda is whether the words ‘poverty’ and ‘shame’ have the same meaning. Do they have the same place in the discourse? There are cultural nuances, but the overall story is the same: people, globally, have very similar aspirations. And society, globally too, is wedded to the notion that success is a product of individual effort, not a result of society collectively working together. In this last year,
we have brought those findings together and published the first of 2 volumes
with Oxford University Press, which begin to tell that story from the eyes of people who experience poverty, but also those who interact with them. It causes us to think about the framing of poverty: how we conceive the problem;
how we present the problem; how we engage the public
in thinking about the problem. Secondly, I think it applies to the design of policy. And, finally, I think it causes us to think about the delivery of policy. And, I guess, the way of
thinking about that most readily is to ask each of ourselves, “if we were approaching a bureaucracy, an organisation, for help… how would we want to be treated?” I’ve been researching issues to do with disadvantage for 40 years. I’ve spoken to hundreds of people over that time… Those experiences have left a deep impression, they are what motivate me to undertake further research
and to engage in the policy process. I worked to lobby individual governments. I joined with the special rapporteur from the UN who has a responsibility
for human rights and extreme poverty. She built a case based on human rights. Our research based a case on effectiveness. So the two pincer movements were enough to convince the trade unions, employers and governments that, not only was it right to make the changes, but it would lead to more effective policy. The policies that we’ve seen have added directly to the pain of people experiencing poverty — the experience of at least 1.4 billion people globally. It is incumbent on us, I think, to respond to these findings. On a day-to-day basis, we’re making the lives of our fellow citizens much worse and in many ways, we’re contributing to the perpetuation of poverty. Building a degree of collective responsibility and collective understanding is the challenge that we face.