International Day for the Eradication of Poverty
“Moving from humiliation and exclusion to participation:
Ending poverty in all its forms”
October 17, 2016
It seems like a paradox. The subject matter at hand is the estimated 1 billion people living in extreme poverty around the world, and the pressing need to end poverty so that everyone will have access to food, safe water, education, healthcare, and so on. It is a tough issue, yet the event itself that marked the international day of eradicating poverty was uplifting, inspiring, and transforming.
The event was launched with the reading of the words engraved on the Commemorative Stone in Honor of the Victims of Extreme Poverty: “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.” This connection of extreme poverty and human rights is carried throughout the commemoration. In his introductory remarks, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson acknowledged the enormity of the issue at hand, but he left us with these words of encouragement that were also a challenge: nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.
One after another, people living in poverty spoke and shared their experiences and challenges. They were a couple who live in a shelter with their child, a single mother who also live in a shelter with her three children, an immigrant living with HIV, a man who was homeless for three months, and a whole neighborhood living in the Republic of Mauritius. They gave powerful testimonies, detailing their experiences of how they found themselves living in poverty. The reasons differed: getting sick, being illiterate because teachers just kept passing him on to the next grade, separating from a partner, getting laid off,. They spoke of being discriminated, treated with contempt, being humiliated, abandoned, excluded, and invisible. But what was powerful about their sharing is not only how they are dealing with their current situation of living in poverty, but also their immense capacity to continue dreaming, living in hope, and recognizing their inherent dignity. They have become advocates for themselves and for others.
Participation is a common theme among the speakers as part of the process towards eliminating poverty. Following are some quotations from what they said.
- It is very important to get people to participate. Build solidarity; accompany us; journey with us. When things are imposed without the participation of the poor, nothing good will come of it.
- If you’re poor, you need to get to the table. Otherwise, people will not know that you exist.
- Participating makes people feel valuable; it makes them feel counted.
- Connect with others with respect. Respect of one is recognition of the dignity of the others.
For those of us who are on the ground, these words remind us of the importance of getting people with whom we minister to engage and participate in their own empowerment. Or perhaps, these words from people living in poverty might provoke a reflection on our relationships with sisters in our communities, co-workers, local and national leaders, and others.
Towards the closing of the event, 13 year old singer, songwriter and rapper, Sparsh Shah, rendered a musical performance that got everyone in the room on their feet, clapping and swaying to the music. (Check out video of Sparsh Shah in “Heal the World”, the same song he performed at the UN) It was a fitting closing to the event, encouraging people to do what they can to eradicate poverty.
Indeed, the commemoration of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17 was life-affirming, life-giving, and life-transforming. People with direct experience of poverty voiced their hopes and struggles, and left the room with the conviction that they have been heard.
UN Deputy Secretary-General H.E. Jan Eliasson was so moved that he spontaneously took the floor at the end of the commemoration and said:
“I want to say that during my many years in the UN this is one of the most unusual, one of the most inspiring meetings I’ve attended.
I want to thank the Ambassadors of France and Burkina Faso, heads of the Missions, showing the solidarity that you have with those who fight and live in poverty. But also all of you, I want to thank all of you for bringing life into this room!
I often think when I’m spending time in Headquarters how important it is to connect to the realities. I spent a lot of time mounting the areas of conflicts; I’ve been to Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali, neighborhoods of Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and all over the place, and I feel extremely inspired. But here we are in this room, inside the United Nations, in New York, and you bring the realities into this room. I think it’s so important that we bring, connect those who are doing policy and writing resolutions, and that is translated to the life of people.
You know the first three words in this Charter that I always carry in my pocket. The first three words in this Charter are: We the Peoples. We are here to serve the people. We are here to fight for peace, fight for ending poverty, and fight for human rights and human dignity. This is our job. And this is what we need to be reminding all governments, all leaders, all over the world.
And I think you reminded us of that very important process of bringing together those who are privileged, those who have reached the position of influence, and those who are affected, those who really need to be brought in and actually take part, in the processes that can change the world. So I thank you very much for being here today.”*
A fitting conclusion to the observance of the day! It is a beginning, but we still have a long way to go to truly honor the lives and efforts of people living in poverty. We need to step up our advocacy to ensure that those most affected, most marginalized, can come to the table of decision-making with the people who have the power and influence.
* Thanks to Cristina Diez of ATD Fourth World for the transcription of Mr. Jan Eliasson’s closing remarks.