We judge our economy, not by the presence of billionaires, but by the absence of poverty. Jeremy Corbyn former UK Labour Party leader
The first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included in the 2030 UN Agenda adopted in September 2015 was to end Poverty in all its forms everywhere. Mauritius was among those States that officially expressed their commitment to uphold the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development and in 2019, our National Review Report on SDGs showed unreserved optimism for being on course to successfully achieve SDG 01. In view of the poverty situation prevailing in Mauritius is such optimism grounded in facts or is it mere wishful thinking? The answer to this question should start with an agreed definition of the terms ‘Poverty in all its forms’.
Poverty is reckoned as a global, multidimensional man-created phenomenon. It is often defined or measured in terms of the revenue of an individual. The United Nations defines ‘extreme’ poverty as equivalent to the daily earning of less than 1.90 US dollars. However, the different facets of poverty are not accurately captured by this monetary description since Poverty is more than a money account. One of the obvious facets of Poverty is the denial of basic human rights to those living therein, the most critical ones being the right to food, health, housing, education, employment, safety & security. There are also other facets of poverty that are less obvious, not easily observable that go unnoticed or are deliberately ignored. In order to eliminate ‘Poverty in all its forms’ both its manifest and its hidden facets need to be identified and resolutely addressed.
It is precisely with this objective in view, and also for a better understanding of the various key facets of Poverty, that the International Movement ATD Quart Monde undertook, in 2016, a multi-year participatory research project in collaboration with Oxford University in six countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, France, Tanzania, United Kingdom and United States of America. The choice of the countries challenges the delusional belief that Poverty is a third world country phenomenon. Rich countries too have their poor!
The methodology adopted for this research project is known as ‘merging of knowledge and practice’ and it brought together those with a direct experience of poverty with other experts. The co-searchers were thus of three categories: those living in poverty, the social workers and the university researchers.
The research report, that has now been widely circulated, while noting the inadequate income, absence of decent work and material deprivation of the poor, which are all manifest and ‘material’ aspects of the phenomenon, also revealed the hidden dimensions of poverty - those we don’t see or are not willing to see. They are the discrimination, prejudice and stigma against those living in poverty - disempowered and often isolated. The physical and moral sufferings of poor people go unnoticed. Victims of social maltreatment, they are either simply ignored or neglected and sometimes even abused. Their knowledge, skills and social contribution are never recognized or acknowledged. They are, moreover, subject to institutional maltreatment wherever policy institutions, through their actions, respond in an inappropriate and inordinate manner to their needs or their rightful demands due to the circumstances they are made to live in.
The conclusions of the Research report that has thoroughly studied the phenomenon of Poverty have been the subject of intense debate and discussion, here in Mauritius, with the participation of scores of NGO workers, University researchers and people living in poverty, working together for nearly a year, under the aegis of ATD Mauritius, first to learn about the new perspectives brought to the understanding of poverty, second to specify the dimensions which are more predominant in the context of Mauritius and third to enable people living in poverty to express themselves freely on the various issues related to their everyday life. The whole exercise aimed at bringing about a new approach, proposing new res- ponses and devising new policies that would be more effective to fight and eliminate poverty.
The manifest aspects
Official statistical reports show that in 2017, 130,500 Mauritians lived in poverty, of whom 70,300 were women. On the other hand, the 2019-2020 Annual Report of the Ministry of Social Integration and Economic Empowerment quotes the figure of 10,274 households both in Mauritius and Rodrigues featuring on the Social Register of Mauritius as families that live in extreme poverty. And if we assume the average household to be made of 5 individuals, then 51,370 individuals live in abject poverty. In the Voluntary National Review Report of 2019 mentioned earlier, Government recognizes that Poverty is exacerbated by inadequate and poor housing conditions. As part of our social protection program, in 2017 government set out a 3-year plan to commit Rs 6,8 billion towards construction of social and low-income housing units and improving living conditions. In the 2018-2019 budget the project value increased as well as the promise for more social housing units. Each time – and this has been going for several years now – the target increases but is never met, the number of housing units built decreases while the number of demands for housing increases. In other words, poverty keeps on exacerbating.
In the meantime, in the suburbs of towns and coastal villages, thousands of poor people continue to live in squalid conditions, their houses prone to flooding at the slightest rainfall and their children growing up in a most unpropitious environment, becoming easy prey to all sorts of social evils. The 2020-2021 report of the Ombudsperson for children has sent out alarm.
ignals of the harm being caused to children at the Residence Anoska living in the most difficult of situations with inadequate housing and other social facilities. There are so many ‘Anoskas’ in the four corners of the island!
It has often been repeated and accepted as an undeniable fact that Poverty can and should be fought through education, which is also considered as a fundamental right of children. Do all children benefit from the education dispensed in our schools and do the schools provide effective teaching and learning environment for all children? Is there level playing field or equal opportunity offered to all the children to get the full benefit out of education? Are our schools inclusive institutions? Is the quality of education dispensed to our children uniform and up to standard or is it in some cases not to say in many cases sub-standard? Does our school include or exclude? In spite of the successive reforms in education, how many street children are we still churning out of our schools every year and how many future victims of substance abuse and juvenile delinquency? And those left in the lurch after 10 long years at school and college, having, in grade 12, earned less than 5 credits? Can we call such a school an inclusive one when neither the student, nor the teacher still less the parent knows wherein lies the future of the child? An inclusive system of education would cater for all students indiscriminately and would well in advance provide to all those concerned the alternatives, at different levels of achievement or non achievement, to enable them to develop their potential in the fields most suitable or appropriate for them through proper training and education that would introduce them to apprenticeship and gainful employment. Only some 30% passes with 5 credits promoted to HSC classes and we call this inclusive school? This is characteristic of a school of exclusion, ‘perpetrator of poverty’.
The hidden aspects
We have all witnessed how the threat of cyclone or, in some cases, flood, leads people living in tin shacks and shanties to run for shelter in so called refugee centres provided by the authorities. The treatment meted out to them during and after the cyclonic period or the heavy rainfall is so humiliating that it should make us all hang our heads in shame. Were it not for the solidarity expressed through certain NGO’s they would perhaps have only biscuit and water for their under-aged children, while in the refugee centre. Once the threat is over, they have to undergo the humiliation of being treated as beggars for a mere pittance, first at the nearest police station to prove their genuineness as a ‘refugee’ and afterwards at the hands of inconsiderate public officers. It is this type of ill treatment and humiliation that find an echo in the population and breed bad blood with the risk of provoking dangerous ethnic tensions.
«...starting a small business was impossible. Help from the government doestn’t reach the poorest.»
A Research Study undertaken by the same ATD Fourth World mentioned earlier in 2012, entitled Extreme Poverty is Violence, Breaking the Silence, Searching for Peace, included Mauritius as one of the 12 countries to assess the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - goals set by the UN to fight, among others, poverty and which preceded the Sustainable development Goals (SDGs). The result was absolutely as- tounding. Living in poverty, the participants said that they were often the victims of intersecting forms of discrimination. A Mauritian participant confirmed that ‘the Government started to build a house for us, but the inhabitants came and destroyed the house because they didn’t want ‘c……’ in their neighbourhood. Finally we obtained a piece of land elsewhere. There, as well, the people demonstrated against the construction of our house, but we managed to get an official letter so we could live there’. Doesn’t this ring a bell? It does to me because a Government minister in the previous government did voice out his opinion –which probably was not government policy – that no member of a particular community was going to be offered an apartment in a block of houses in a particular region of Mauritius for reasons I won’t dare mention.
Many women interviewed, spoke about their experience of gender violence and how this denied them the autonomy to improve their lives, especially in terms of work and education. A few women during a professional training scheme argued that ‘starting a small business was impossible. Help from the government doesn’t reach the poorest.’ She said.
Unless and until we address this hideous and utterly unacceptable perception, thinking and attitude towards people living in poverty, it would be futile and even indecent to speak of our determination to fight po- verty – its manifest as well as its hidden dimensions.