Thursday, October 16, 2008

Highlights from "NUS Stand Up Against Poverty"

Earlier this evening, I attended the "NUS Stand Up Against Poverty" event and it turned out to be a rather thought-provoking and insightful session. But, due to time constraints, I would not be attempting to provide a complete chronological report of the event.

Instead, I would just be attempting to highlight, in my opinion, the major points discussed by the guest speakers/panellists at the event and to hopefully synthesise them into a coherent whole. After that, I would insert in one or two personal observations of mine and conclude with a short list of online resources which you all may consult to know more about the struggle against global poverty and/or to get involved in the struggle.

Guest speakers/panellists

However, before I move on to discuss the major points brought up during the event, I suppose it would be proper for me to first list out who were the guest speakers/panellists at the event.

They were:

i) Professor Jack Donnelly, a visiting professor at the NUS Political Science Department (coincidentally, I am currently taking the module "Human Rights and International Politics" under him this semester); he was not able to be physically present at the event but he was able to give his opinion about the linkages between poverty, hunger and human rights in a pre-recorded video clip

ii) Professor Alan Chong from the NUS Political Science Department

iii) Professor Godfrey Yeung from the NUS Geography Department

iv) Ms. Braema Mathi, who is the Coordinator for MARUAH and Singapore Focal Point for The Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism; you all may also know her as a former Nominated Member of Parliament and a former president of AWARE

v) Mr. Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organisation

vi) And last but not least, Mr. Michael Switow, a co-founder of ONE (Singapore)

A right to not live in poverty

One major point which the speakers brought up was that people have the right to a proper standard of living (i.e. not live in poverty). This right is enshrined in the first part of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is signed by most, if not all, member states of the United Nations.

The first part of Article 25 reads like this: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control".

Yet, although it is recognised that people have the right to not live in poverty, there remains significant numbers of people who are suffering in poverty. Why is this so?

Here, side-tracking, it should be noted while globalisation and the current international economic system may have created greater wealth for some people, there are nonetheless people who, due to various reasons and factors, find themselves excluded from the wealth and opportunities created by the contemporary globalised economy. In fact, it may be the case that globalisation has acted to exacerbate the problem of global poverty.

Global poverty, a man-made political problem

Returning back to track, it may be observed that poverty is a man-made political problem, in that one factor contributing to global poverty would be poorly-designed government policies that perhaps result in the maldistribution of economic resources. And seeing how global poverty is perhaps a man-made political problem, it is a problem which thus can be overcome and resolved by humanity if we possess the will necessary to do so. In other words, it is not a case of whether we can overcome global poverty, it is a case of whether we are committed enough to resolving this problem.

Hence, bearing in mind the above, the solution to global poverty perhaps do not lie in the hands of governments and/or international economic bodies, such as the World Bank and the IMF. This is considering that while these entities may come up with noble-sounding pledges, declarations and reports on their desire to combat global poverty, the issue of global poverty perhaps remain only one of many competing interests which these entities have to deal with. Thus, while combating global poverty may be on the agenda of these entities, it is neither the only item nor the most important item on the agenda.

Empowering the poor to help themselves

With the above in mind, a better way to resolve the problem of global poverty would be through a bottoms-up strategy. In other words, a better way to combat global poverty would be to empower (poor) people, through various means such as education, social entrepreneurship and/or enhancing their civil-political rights, to help themselves get out of poverty.

Here, it should be noted that despite the common misperception, poor people are not helpless victims who can only await help from benevolent saviours. They have or can have the capability, if properly empowered, to "save" themselves from poverty.

Combating poverty at home and with simple actions

In addition, it may be observed that it is not really necessary that Singaporeans have to go overseas to some poor Third World country to combat global poverty. They can start with fighting poverty right here in Singapore, considering that there are also those living in relative poverty in Singapore. And there is also no need for one to resort to grand gestures when combating poverty, one can also just start with simple actions such as volunteering one's time with organisations helping the poor or being a discerning/ethical consumer and support social enterprises.

Why so few people?

Moving on, I must say that I was rather surprised, if not disappointed, by the small number of people present at the event. By my estimation, there was only about less than 30 people present at the event, including the guests and the event organisers. It did not help that the event took place in LT 8, which is one of the larger lecture theaters in NUS FASS, making the small audience size appear even smaller. (I assume the organisers were expecting a larger turnout, seeing how they booked a large lecture theater like LT 8)

I cannot help but think about why so few people from the NUS student community attended the event. In my opinion, there are perhaps four reasons why and they are as follow:

i) Lack of publicity about the event

ii) Those who may be interested to attend had other committments, e.g. schoolwork, that prevented them from attending

iii) The late evening timing of the event may have made people have second thoughts about attending

iv) Apathy towards the issues raised at the event

Well, I am hoping (crossing my fingers) that it is not the last reason.

In the end, I suppose it is not the number of attendees, though it would be nice if there were more attendees, that matters most. I mean, those who did come down for the event must be, I assume, quite interested in the issue of combating global poverty and if they share what they have learnt at the event, a multiplier effect would perhaps set in and thereby extending the impact of the event beyond those who were physically present at the event.

Finally, kudos to those organising the event! Hopefully, this event will not the last but the first of many other similar events.

Online resources

i) UN Milliennium Development Goals

ii) ONE (Singapore)

iii) Stand Up Singapore

iv) In My Name


Agagooga said...

Why no Economist there ah

LCC said...

Good question but I am afraid I don't have an answer to it. I was just a participant at the event and was not part of the organising team, so I am not in the capacity to answer the question.

Perhaps you should direct your query to the organisers of the event? You should be able to find them on Facebook through the group and event they created on Facebook...

LCC said...

Okay, Agagooga, I managed to come into contact with one of the organisers and her reply to your question is that they had planned to look at the issue of global poverty from a human rights perspective, rather than from an economics perspective.

Agagooga said...


That's very strange.

It's like looking at female circumcision, say, from an economic perspective and not inviting a doctor.

LCC said...

Hmm... Well, I guess the organisers wanted to take a different perspective on the whole issue. I mean, most people tend to view global poverty as an economic problem and not a political/human rights problem.

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