Marking an anniversary without much to celebrate

“Last month, when I met Franciscans in São Paolo and Uberlandia, they shared how they had to open community kitchens, providing meals to people hit by the consequences of the pandemic and who cannot feed themselves anymore. Franciscans have started a new campaign to combat hunger,” says Ulises Quero, Franciscans International’s Program Coordinator for the Americas. 

Franciscans in the Philippines face similar challenges, and these testimonies are only some of the many that we received at Franciscans International during and after the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. As September 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights, the world faces a surge in the number of people who have remained or been pushed back into extreme poverty across the globe.

This shows that, even if some progress had been achieved before the pandemic struck, it was not robust enough. Measures taken, for example under the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, failed to address the structural inequalities that perpetuates extreme poverty and, when shocks occur, create new ones.  It is important to remind ourselves of some key figures. While analysts at the World Bank estimate that the pandemic pushed an additional 97 million people into poverty in 2020, analysts at the International Monetary Fund just confirmed the dramatic extent of world inequality. The World Inequality Report 2022 shows that 10% of the world population hold over 75% of the global wealth and is responsible for half of our carbon emissions.

In 2012, the UN Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights were adopted by consensus by States within the UN Human Rights Council. They enshrined the nexus between human rights violations and poverty – the former being both a cause and a consequence of the latter. They also provided detailed policy guidance to public authorities and other relevant actors to design and implement anti-poverty policies that respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. And, as Markus Heinze, FI’s Executive Director states, “this is particularly important for us as Franciscans. Our strategy and our values inspire us to fight for equal dignity for all, and to consider the fight against extreme poverty as a matter of justice and rights and not just of charity or economic growth.”

For this reason and together with other civil society allies including ATD Fourth World, FI contributed to the implementation of the Principles at the grassroots, working with people living in extreme poverty to ensure that they can be agents of change, active in society and in decision-making for issues that concern them. In particular, we participated in the elaboration and use of the collective manual Making Human Rights Work for People Living in Extreme Poverty to help Franciscans and others living with and accompanying the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities to assert their rights.

Nevertheless, as the latest reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty denounce, a large share of the help formally available to the poorest households fails to reach them because of the way people are treated in public services, feeling ashamed and stigmatized. Oftentimes, programs are not conceived in consultation with those who need to access them and thus fail to take into consideration gaps in information or in digital access, to name only a few factors.

Hence, 10 years down the line, these very valuable UN Principles have been left under-, if not completely un-used by the international community. This has not been the case for other similar instruments in the UN system, and one can wonder if the lack of political will to tackle extreme poverty and structural inequalities, discrimination against those who experience them, and the criminalization of poverty, is not reflected in the treatment of the Principles themselves. It is therefore high time for States to renew not only their commitment to implement the important policy recommendations in the Guiding Principles, but also their commitment to a truly human rights-based approach to the fight against extreme poverty and extreme inequalities that threaten our societies and planet.