The financial crisis is deepening poverty’s reach across the globe; the fierce healthcare debate in the U.S. is raising questions about what rights are truly universal; and economic inequality continues to grow wider in superpowers like India and China.
It’s an apt time for Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s first woman and first Muslim Secretary General, to release a project called: “The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights.” The book – part textbook, part memoir, and part treatise – passionately argues that the root of poverty isn’t just about money; it’s about human rights.
Secretary Khan, who’s based out of Amnesty International in London, sat down for an interview with the International Examiner during the Seattle leg of her book tour:
1.) What prompted you to write this book at this moment in your career?
Very early in my book, I talk about the story of a South African woman named Rose. I was confronted with her story in my first few weeks as Secretary General of Amnesty International. As a lawyer, I was struck by the fact that the best laws of the land could not protect this woman because she didn’t have a bus fare to go to the magistrate’s court and get a protection order against her abusive husband.
That got me thinking about the issues other than income that keep people poor – discrimination, insecurity, their inability to influence policies … I began to realize that you have to take a holistic approach to human rights if you are going to help people overcome violence and poverty.
2.) Part of your work at Amnesty includes launching the Demand Dignity campaign, which is largely about giving a voice to the poor. What do dignity and voice mean to you?
Dignity is what gives us respect for ourselves as human beings. That’s why I see human rights not as ends in themselves, but as tools to promote human dignity so that people can live decent lives.
Voice means – first of all, having information, and secondly, being able to use that information to influence those in power and take part in decisions that affect your life.
3.) A major focus of your book seems to be the gap between measures of economic growth and the reality of human rights in a country. Can you talk about why you find this divide to be problematic?
Economists will argue that economic growth has pulled a lot of people out of poverty by creating jobs, improving the economy, and so on. And I’m not denying that economic growth does that. What I’m saying is that there are also other consequences of economic growth that actually marginalize some people and increase inequalities.
Let’s do a simple calculation. If there is 10 percent growth, the person who earns $100 will make $110. But the person who earns $40 will make $44. So the difference actually increases – the difference is no longer $60, it’s $66.
The other consequence of economic growth is that it does not necessarily address some underlying problems of poverty. You can invest in agriculture, and that increases the crop yield for the poor farmer – but he is still a landless peasant at the mercy of his landlord. You can build a school, but this does not automatically ensure that girls will get as good an education as boys.
4.) How can the economist and the human rights advocate work together?
I would say that most economists today recognize that you can’t only take an economic approach to poverty. The problem is, even though economists agree to that, it’s not being translated into practice for two or three main reasons:
First, some countries don’t recognize education, health, or housing as human rights. Here in the U.S. right now, you have a debate on healthcare and whether that is a right, even though it’s in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Second, some countries believe you have to suppress civil and political rights in order to progress, like China.
Then there are people who simply say that the market will take care of it – that economic growth will shoulder the problem. What economic growth actually shows is that the poorest are the last to benefit from a boom and the first to be hurt by a bust.
5.) Is there anything you would’ve liked to explore in greater detail?
I would like to explore more the whole issue of empowerment. How do people take control of their lives and make a difference? There are many different examples of it around the world, and it’s happening at the grassroots level. To better understand the process there would help us use human rights as a breakthrough strategy for development.
Despite the very negative spiral of poverty, there are so many good stories to tell. There is optimism. There is hope.