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President of Ireland

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President of Ireland

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President gives an address at an event to mark UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

Human Rights and Poverty Stone, Custom House Quay, Dublin



There can be no doubt that how a society treats its more vulnerable citizens is a reflection of its moral core.

Táim thar a bheith sásta a bheith libh inniu ar an lá thábhachtach seo - lá ina thagann daoine le chéile, in áiteanna ar fud na cruinne, chun seasamh i ndlúthpháirtíocht le bhaill uile ár bpobal Domhanda atá ag fulaingt i mbochtanacht.

[I am very pleased to have the opportunity to join you all on this important day when people come together, in venues across the world, to stand in solidarity with all those members of our global community who live in poverty.]

Members of the Oireachtas and most of all those who made the testimonies which are the most important part of what is taking place here today. I know Hugh Frazer a very long time, it was shortly after poverty was discovered in Kilkenny in 1974 and we’ve been discussing it for a very long time since, sometimes we appear to be going around in circles because there is so much people should know by now.

I wanted in particular to hear these five testimonies and the first thing I want to say is I have no difficulty using whatever influence I may have in conveying them to those that I hope will respond as it is past time responding.This is a very important day around the world and for a long time before I became President I have been coming here indeed before we even had this stone. Sometimes the crowd has been very small, however the numbers today are very good, it is very important to see so many young people. It is very important that they do not see in their generation the failures that we have had in my generation and generations before me, that is that the capacity that exists in our work and everything we are doing to actually eliminate poverty, not just alleviate poverty. We have failed in that. When we hear reports of great global councils and gatherings of people discussing these affairs, this issue should always be there. This particular day is an important day to express solidarity throughout the world, the importance of dignity and giving real meaning to our words. 

May I thank ATD Fourth World-Ireland for their invitation to address you on this commemoration today, and all of you for the very warm welcome you have extended to me here this morning. I am very happy to have come and been able to take notes on the five testimonies that we have heard.

2016 is, of course, the centenary of the birth of Joseph Wresinski, the founder of ATD Fourth World. ATD, as you know, stands for ‘All Together in Dignity’  because across all the religions of the world and across all the beacons and all the human rights statements, the word dignity can occur. This is about simply seeing in the other person, not just yourself, but a person of immense uniqueness that is entitled to respect. While the term Fourth World is typically used to indicate and describe the most poverty stricken and economically troubled regions of nations within the Third World, nations often excluded from society. The purpose of ATD Fourth World is, therefore, to stand together in dignity with some of the most excluded people in the world. Founded by Fr Joseph Wresinksi when he was sent as chaplain to 250 families placed in an emergency housing camp in Noisy-le-Grand, near Paris its foundations are truly rooted in a spirit of solidarity and collectivism. His words:

"The families in that camp have inspired everything I have undertaken for their liberation. They took hold of me, they lived within me, they carried me forward, they pushed me to found the Movement with them"

 

Here in 2016, as people speak to the people on the street who are homeless, very often what they actually say at the end of a conversation is ‘Thank you for speaking to me’. Of allowing them the dignity rather than anything else that they are entitled to as a human being.The words of Wresinski speak movingly of the great unity and commonality which saw an initiative that started as the distribution of food and old clothes to the poor, become an organisation that works in partnership with communities across the world to end the exclusion and injustice of persistent poverty. Joseph Wresinski was a man whose compassion, vision and great spirit of humanity should continue to inspire us today. But I believe myself as well that it goes far beyond compassion and far beyond reason, all of the capacities, morally, intellectually, practically in policy terms, enable us, if the demand is made, and if people with generosity agree among each other, that to eliminate poverty, to decide that that the elimination of poverty is that to which economic structures, fisical structures, financial structures must adjust themselves so that it takes precedent over every other issue. That it is regarded, it’s cohesion that it makes possible. It enables us to provide the only guaranteed security that can cross planets and can cross conflicts. I think today, as all of us do, all of you who have been telling these wonderful stories of yourself with courage, and it takes courage to do so. Is there anyone here present who does not think of the children and the suffering people in Aleppo, those who have been forced from their homes, the 63 million who are scattered across the planet and who are vulnerable.

Wresinski grew up in poverty and experienced, at first hand, the exclusion, marginalisation and daily humiliation, the náire, that goes hand in hand with a life lived below the bread line. He was a man acutely aware, not only of the great physical deprivations suffered by those who are poor and vulnerable, but also of the grinding everyday demoralisation and disempowerment which permeates the lives of the impoverished and disadvantaged in our communities.

Today marks the thirtieth occasion on which people have gathered around the world to observe the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Today also marks the first gathering to take place in the time-frame of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2016-2030) which has as its first goal: End Poverty in all its forms everywhere. As President I have spoken before of how critical it is that we look beyond the aim of alleviating poverty, even beyond eliminating extreme poverty; of the importance of broadening these aims and seeking to eliminate poverty in all its forms and to address issues such as needless and avoidable early mortality and morbidity, the elimination of diseases, and the many other factors which so impoverish the lives of citizens across the world.

John Weeks, in his The Economics of the 1% has offered, as an appropriate definition of economics:

 

‘the study of the causes of the underutilisation of resources in a market society, and the policies to eliminate that resource waste for the general welfare'.

 

It is a definition which calls on us to seek out and come to understand the sources of societal inequalities, if we are truly work for the eradication of poverty across the globe.

The new Sustainable Development Goals recognise the need for a redefinition of the very notion of “development".  They signify an invitation to a crucial advance in multilateral diplomacy, in their being universal, in their applying to all countries, and no longer primarily to those labelled ‘developing’ or ‘poor’.

The new 2030 Agenda provides a comprehensive blueprint for an integrated continuum of action at international and national levels, stretching from the necessary response to emergency situations in the short term, to the need to empower vulnerable communities in the long-term.

If we are to eliminate global hunger we must not simply seek to  respond to immediate needs, but must meet the obligation that is involved in creating the capacity, in different circumstances and cultures, of our fellow global citizens in achieving food sufficiency. There is a clear distinction between an immediate response to famine and hunger that provides essential food, even nutrition, and the creation, or protection, of the capacity to produce food. What is required is a holistic approach to issues of famine, global hunger, poverty, nutrition and food production.

It is appropriate therefore that, during this important year, the UN  International Day for the Eradication of Poverty has asked us to focus on the theme of “Moving from humiliation and exclusion to participation: Ending poverty in all its forms” .

Every day, around the world, human beings living in poverty are denied the basic human dignities that so many of us take for granted. Basic livelihoods are casually removed by government brokered land deals with large international corporations; women are economically marginalised or denied the education that is key to their empowerment; entire groups are neglected or discriminated against based on their ethnicity or religious beliefs.

A denial of basic human rights to those who live below the poverty line is not, of course, limited to any particular part of the world.    Even in countries with developed economies and advanced technological infrastructures there are those who are left behind; discriminated against, isolated, insulted, stereotyped, and made objects of condescension by fellow members of society who, deliberately or unthinkingly, dehumanise and further impoverish the lives of those struggling with chronic poverty. Let us also not forget the many ways in which societies create a culture of dependency forgetting that truly effective compassion means striving for human flourishing and seeking the conditions that make it possible.

Poverty is, and always has been, a multidimensional problem.  It is a complex issue to define. However, the ways in which we define poverty are critical to how we structure political, policy and academic discourse and the fuller debate on both its definition or impact and the challenges we face in eradicating poverty from our societies.

Those who live in poverty speak of the isolation, shame, and humiliation they perceive as having been inflicted on them by society and of how such treatment as they experience is a key factor in their lived experiences of suffering.   Until recently, however, intrinsic human emotions such as lowered or damaged self-esteem have been the missing dimensions in poverty analysis and research. But such dimensions are an essential part of the analysis if we are to understand the different types and intensities of poverty that impact on wellbeing and quality of life, their many layers and dimensions, and how they interact and interconnect, and look for explanations and effective solutions.

The introduction of a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index in 2010 was a welcome development, allowing for the measurement of the non-monetary deprivations which, combined with lack of economic capacity, define chronic poverty in over one hundred developing countries across the world.

Such non-monetary indicators have also been increasingly used in individual European countries, as well as at European Union level, in measuring poverty and exclusion -  allowing for a greater understanding of the stark realities of the experience of poverty and the many ways in which it can diminish and limit the lives of its sufferers.

Despite the development of more comprehensive indicators of poverty, many in society continue to view poverty as a one dimensional problem which can be measured in purely monetary terms. Today, however, we are asked to remember its multi-dimensional nature; to look closely into the deep and quiet corners of those lives deprived of a right to participate at all levels of society, and to reflect on the long inter-generational shadows consistent poverty can throw across individual families.

Historically, societies have often been condemnatory of those in poverty and at times they have branded or punished poor people as idle, criminal or disruptive. People living in poverty were subjected to abuses of power and to policies that deprived them of their autonomy; were categorised as undeserving; and were often segregated from society and banished to workhouses or other institutions designed to morally remedy the sin of being poor.

It is both disheartening and worrying to realise that in Ireland, as in so many other parts of the world, shame continues to be one of the most consistently reported characteristics amongst people experiencing poverty. It is a feeling reinforced daily in a society where the spoken and unspoken attitudes of fellow citizens so often fall short of the common humanity that is a critical component of a truly functioning society.

Professor Robert Walker, in his book The Shame of Poverty, wrote that:

"If a society creates the illusion of meritocracy – that you get what you deserve, that the harder you work, the richer and more valuable to society you become, it suggests that the opposite is also true – that it is shameful to be poor, and that poverty is self-inflicted."

 

We are, it would seem, living in a time when the increasing spread of extreme individualism has led to the erroneous fiction that poverty is a sign of a personal failure, that it has somehow been ‘deserved’. However, poverty and its associated suffering is never deserved.

Here in Ireland people with disabilities experience high levels of consistent poverty and are twice as likely to live below the poverty line as the rest of the population; almost one in five children live in households with incomes below the poverty line; 18% of adults living in poverty are in some form of employment, while more than 57% of those in poverty are retired, students, people in caring roles, people who are ill or people with a disability.

Behind those statistics are, of course, many personal stories of misfortune, unemployment, mistakes, regret, lost opportunity and sometimes abuse, neglect, addiction or illness. These are human stories; the stories of our fellow citizens who have, through circumstance, found themselves living in insecure and difficult situations.

There can be no doubt that how a society treats its more vulnerable citizens, how it deals with helping people into work and protecting those unable to work, is a critical reflection of its moral core. A society that creates a culture of suspicion or hostility towards those living below the poverty line; or that patronises and infantilises them; or that fails to view its citizens living in poverty as individual people with individual problems, preferring to dismiss them as homogenous members of an inadequate underclass, cannot easily lay claim to being part of a functioning democracy.

Earlier we listened to testimonies describing the different dimensions and experiences of poverty in Ireland. Those who gave those testimonies come here today as representatives of the seven hundred and fifty thousand people in Ireland who live in poverty, lacking the economic capacity to live lives defined as fit for humans within our society. Listening to those testimonies should be a stark reminder of the many ways our society can inflict, often through choosing not to know or care, unnecessary hurt or pain on fellow citizens who struggle every day with the challenges of poverty.

They are testimonies permeated by great courage, willpower and a determination to improve the landscape for fellow citizens experiencing poverty. They are generous and brave testimonies delivered by citizens of whom we can be very proud indeed.

True citizenship must be based on equality and the accordance of equal value to every citizen, including a basic level of rights and participation.  There can be no room, in such a vision of citizenship, for the prevention of full participation due to poverty and discrimination.

There are challenges too to our administrative systems.  When people living in poverty are treated as numerical units or administrative cases; when they are forced to jump multiple and difficult hurdles in order to claim financial benefits to which they are entitled; too many occasions when they are required to navigate their way around overly complicated procedures and layers of red tape in order to avail of vital services, we insult and demean those amongst us who are guilty of nothing except living, day in day out, below the poverty line.

When a citizen experiencing poverty is not enabled to exercise their voice, or to claim their rights and entitlements, not empowered to enter into informed dialogue about decisions which affect their lives, rendered unable to defend themselves or to assert their opinion or to speak up and object when they feel their rights are being violated or ignored, or obstructed from access to an education that would open up windows of opportunity, they have been failed by a society that claims to operate on the principles of a democratic republic.

When strangers who arrive on our shores in need or difficulty are left in the uncertain limbo of direct provision for anything up to ten years; when homeless families are forced to live in one hotel room devoid of cooking facilities, and subjected to a dehumanising set of rules and conditions; when others without a roof over their head are condemned to wander the streets by day, and desperately seek space in homeless shelters by night, we as a nation are failing to display the necessary spirit of humanity on which a democracy should be built.

On this important day, when we come together in solidarity with the poor across the world, let us consider how we treat those amongst us who are in difficulty or in need.  Let us pledge to strive to ensure that the common good will always be placed above narrow interests.  Let us also consider the many ways in which we can enable those living in poverty to make that life changing move from humiliation and exclusion to full participation in their society and their communities; a participation which will allow their voices to be heard and their possibilities to be realised.

We must, as a nation, continue to strive to deepen our understanding of poverty in all its forms and dimensions, ensuring that our policies focus on all aspects of poverty, including the shame, humiliation and social exclusion that so negatively impacts on the human dignity of citizens living in poverty.

Mar shaoránaigh de Dhomhain ina mbraithimid uile ar a chéile, caithfimid glacadh lenár ndualgaisí guth a thabhairt do na prionsabail sin ar mhór linn a fheiceáil i gceartlár ár dtoghchaí le chéile, agus gníomh a dhéanamh chun an fís sin a bhaint amach.

[We must also, as citizens of an interdependent world accept our obligations and duties to join forces across the globe in voicing and actioning the values we wish to see placed at the heart of our collective and global future.]

In conclusion, may I thank you sincerely for inviting me to attend this commemoration, to hear your enlightening stories and experiences, and to join you in expressing friendship and solidarity with people who live with poverty and social exclusion every day of the year in Dublin, in Ireland, in Europe and around the world.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.