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Amnesty International Responds to “Poverty is Not a Human Rights Violation”

by Sameer Dossani, Demand Dignity Campaign Director at Amnesty International

Bill Easterly takes on Amnesty International’s 2009 Annual Report. I know and respect Easterly’s work; I’ve even been on a few panels with him over the years on aid effectiveness and the World Bank, but I have to say he’s pretty off base here.

The basic premise of his post is this:

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Easterly then claims that poverty does not fit this definition of rights because “who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income?”

It’s true that lack of income, in and of itself, isn’t a human rights violation. But poverty is about a lot more than just income. As Easterly knows, those who live on less than a dollar a day are poor not just because they lack income; the lack of income implies lack of access to services, clean drinking water, adequate education, housing, employment and so on. All of these are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. To give just one of many possible examples, estimates indicate that as many as 8,000 children die daily in Africa alone from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It’s certainly true to say that these are diseases of poverty – the rich can ensure that their water is not contaminated and can seek treatment at private hospitals as opposed to understaffed government clinics – but they are more than that. They are violations of the right to health and the right to clean water.

And people living in poverty are vulnerable to violations of their civil and political rights as well. In the Favelas (shanty towns) of Sao Paolo in Brazil, police and gangs are in daily conflict. There are allegations of human rights abuse on all sides, and the government feels little pressure to respect due process in large part because this violence is taking place in an extremely poor part of the city. Ordinary people are in danger from gangs on the one hand and from a state takes their rights less seriously because they live in a poor community.

These are all human rights violations, and it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to end them. In some cases those actually committing the abuse may not be governments; such as when Dow Chemical refuses to clean up the toxic mess that is still poisoning impoverished communities in Bhopal, India from a disaster that killed thousands in 1984. But in all cases it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to ensure that human rights – including the right to live a life of dignity – are respected.

Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor – and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.

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  1. ThomasL wrote:

    I have no reason for commenting accept to attach my name publicly (truncated though it is) to saying:

    1) There is no right to health.

    2) There is no right to clean water.

    At least, not as I understand them being used here. There is a right not to be deprived of health or water by some other actor, but that is quite different than the right to be provided with health and water by some other actor.

    Posted June 5, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  2. ThomasL wrote:


    Posted June 5, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  3. basil_seal wrote:

    one may be able to sketch a line between poverty and human rights violations. but how do we verify this relationship to improve livelihoods?

    from your post sameer, it appears the more direct relationships are that human rights are related to governance directly and economic growth indirectly through this effect on governance. this is murky at best.

    Posted June 5, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  4. augustin wrote:

    It doesn’t seem to me that Sameer Dossani answers Bill’s remarks on the rights approach. What Sameer clearly documents is the fact that most of the various aspects of poverty can be considered as the denials of one’s right to a decent living as stated in the universal declaration of human rights.

    We all think that all governments should fight poverty. Now, according to the declaration of human rights, we can say that all governments must fight poverty.

    So what? Sometimes you can get someone to do something by shouting louder or by invoking a legal document. Sometimes, well, maybe that is not the best use of your time and effort.

    Posted June 5, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  5. SS wrote:

    @ ThomasL

    Logic Not Your Strong Point?

    “There is a right not to be deprived of health or water by some other actor, but that is quite different than the right to be provided with health and water by some other actor”

    Access to clean water is the right and the only thing that can prevent one is property rights which requires other actors. Imagine a homeless American Indian. No access to clean water because his property rights have been usurped. Water like land was put here for everyone not for usurpation.


    Posted June 5, 2009 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Sean wrote:

    Yea, quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is pretty weak. Along with the rights against actual oppression, it lists the things that poor people generally lack. The UDHR says that poverty is a human rights violation because it defines human rights violations as extreme poverty. You’re going to have to do better than citing circular logic, Sameer.

    Clean water and health are especially things that are generally not readily available, let alone affordable, in many geographies. Who has violated whose rights when a flood damages water infrastructure however temporarily? The true oppressions occur on any timeframe.

    Anyow, I’d like to finish by summoning Sam Kinison: You don’t have clean water because YOU LIVE IN THE ***ING DESERT! GET OUT OF THE DESERT! GO LIVE WHERE THERE’S WATER! We have deserts in America, but we’re not [dying of thirst], you know why? BECAUSE WE DON’T LIVE IN THEM!!

    Posted June 5, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  7. Matt wrote:

    This main issue in this discussion is negative vs. positive rights. A negative right disallows oppressors taking away things that the oppressed would otherwise have. A positive right disallows oppressors from not giving the oppressed things they would not otherwise have.

    Rights are traditionally thought of as negative rights. We all have the ability to speak out, to go from place to place or to worship whom we please. However, none of us innately have the ability to possess clean drinking water or access to life-saving medicine and indeed most of the people throughout human history did not have access to such things.

    In fact, the only universal positive rights that come to mind are the defendant’s right to have an attorney paid for by the state or to a speedy trial. Even in those cases, the bill of rights assumed a state could always readily provide these provisions to a defendant.

    Saying a kid in a war-torn African country, a country with little if any infrastructure, has a right to clean water, food and health care belittles the term of right. Rights become mere wishes rather than cornerstones of a functioning society.

    Worse, these “rights” hide the more valid rights which could provide sustenance. Efforts to provide rights to freedom from violence or coercion are subverted to ineffective aid programs which do not address the underlying issues.

    Posted June 5, 2009 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  8. happyjuggler0 wrote:

    ThomasL and Matt are absolutely correct. Nobody is entitled to positive rights, because in order to have positive rights you have to violate negative rights.

    Desiring something that someone else has does not mean that taking it away from him somehow becomes a “human right”. Far from it.

    Amnesty International won’t be getting any contributions from me. I won’t aid and abet them in their quest to deprive others of negative rights.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 2:04 am | Permalink
  9. Devin Snead wrote:

    Is it me or do many people forget that poverty is the default position of humanity?

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 3:29 am | Permalink
  10. Matthias wrote:

    Nobody is entitled to positive rights, because in order to have positive rights you have to violate negative rights.

    Does affirming ‘property rights’ require public resources?

    Yes. Unless you live in anarcho-capitalist fantasy-land, enforcing property rights requires the establishment and maintenance of an efficient (public) law enforcement service. This is funded by pooling resources from all of society, and not by propertied people paying a ‘security fee’.

    Any constitutional arrangement that establishes rights implies costs that are shared. That is not the criteria to define what is and what is not a fundamental/human right.

    The quintessential negative liberty — the right not to be detained arbitrarily, or the right to personal freedom — requires nothing less than an efficient judiciary apparatus. I don’t know how some people still cling to the idea that ‘negative liberties’ have no, or little cost, compared to, say, public schooling, or clean water.

    You just need to look at a country such as Haiti to see what resource constraints do to the judiciary function, and how that affects all human rights, and not only economic social and cultural rights.

    The distinction between negative and positive obligations is, therefore, not a useful one to draw the line between ‘real’ human rights, and mere aspirations.

    As to whether ‘declaring rights’ is a useless exercise, given scarcity, I tend to think that it is highly relevant to remove ‘rights-talk’ from the sphere of public charity and move it to the field of entitlements that a society must strive to guarantee.

    In law, ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. That means that scarcity is always part of how we interpret rights and obligations. But the difficulties — economic, political, or social — involved in implementing rights are no excuse not to try, nor are they proof of the absence of rights.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  11. Sean wrote:


    I think (hope?) that most people who discuss negative vs positive rights are well aware of their costs. I find it curious that this point keeps being made. The problem comes when you talk of “rights violations” to someone who is unaware of the distinction.

    With negative rights, a clear entity can be found which has violated a person’s rights. With positive rights, no single entity can be identified to have violated said rights. Thus, when poverty is claimed to be a human rights violation, the natural questions to follow is: “Who violated those rights, and what can we do to provide justice?” Well, there is no answer to the first question, unless you feel inclined to blame corporations with Illuminati-like power. And the second, that question has spawned the existence of this very blog — the answer is not easy. Compare this to negative rights violations, where the first answer is simply the direct oppressor, and perhaps responsibility extends to others. The second answer is simply “make them stop doing that.”

    Does this clarify our (my) position? Can you at least understand why many people simply don’t agree with intractable problems being defined as human rights violations?

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  12. happyjuggler0 wrote:


    Imagine a US federal government where the only things it did was secure national defense (real defense only mind you) and engage in protecting the environmental property rights of property owners from being usurped from polluters.

    Imagine state governments (in the US) that did nothing but provide a court and prison system.

    Imagine local governments (in the US) that did nothing but provide police and fire department services.

    Can you imagine all these services functioning without taxes? I can. When the government only does things for the “common” welfare that realistically individuals can’t be expected to do on their own, I have no trouble seeing the highly charitable American people donating enough to have a minimally functioning national defense and EPA at the federal level. I have an even easier time imagining such self serving “charity” at the state level when it comes to funding the state courts and prison system. I have a still easier time imagining locals engaging in philanthropic giving for the purpose to funding the police and fire departments.

    Do you donate to charity? I strongly suspect you do, and since you are reading this board I also suspect you try to make sure that your giving is effective also.

    Just because you aren’t legally required to give money away doesn’t mean that you won’t. Do you tip waiters and bartenders, even though you aren’t legally required to? I have no problem imagining voluntary funding for a true minarchist state dedicated to preserving negative rights, as well as protecting against negative externalities such as fires.

    One does not need to deprive people involuntarily of negative rights to defend those rights. Hence there was nothing inconsistent with my mocking the notion that positive rights are actually human “rights”.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  13. Matthias wrote:

    Sean, first thanks for your response.

    Thus, when poverty is claimed to be a human rights violation, the natural questions to follow is: “Who violated those rights, and what can we do to provide justice? (…) there is no answer to the first question”

    Well, actually there is. There are actually multiple actors that contribute to the production of extreme poverty, including government, private corporations, and individuals themselves. (I say this in the same vein that one can say that despite cancer having multiple possible causes, we should still seek forms of treatment within the limits of our means and our understanding of the disease)

    What a right to be ‘free from poverty’ involves is a recognition that the State, within the limits of its means, must adopt policies that (i) enable individuals to ‘work their way out of poverty’ (an enabling environment); (ii) prohibit practices by private actors that might force people into poverty (minimum labor rights, freedom of association, safety regulations, etc.); and (iii) assists those who, despite their efforts, fall below a minimum threshold of human dignity (‘safety nets’).

    As to the second question, “what can we do to provide justice?”, I fully agree: it is not easy to answer. The point of having a ‘right’, however, is not to pretend that we have an easy answer to that. The point of having the right is to remind government and citizens that tackling the implementation problems related to any right is a matter of legal obligation and not a simple political aspiration, or a ‘mere’ moral duty.

    Compare this to negative rights violations, where the first answer is simply the direct oppressor, and perhaps responsibility extends to others.

    I suppose you would consider the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment to be a ‘negative right’. Indeed, a prison where detention conditions are inhumane is a clear violation of that right. And the author of the violation is the custodian, usually the state. But stopping the violation requires changing policies and incurring costs: it isn’t simply a matter of ‘stopping doing X’. It actually requires the State to ‘start doing Y (and spending money to do so)’.

    Same holds for many other ‘uncontroversial’ rights, such as due process, or non-discrimination.

    Can you at least understand why many people simply don’t agree with intractable problems being defined as human rights violations?

    I can understand, but I do not agree. As I mentioned in my comments to Mr. Easterly’s previous post, I suspect that he — and others — hold an excessively narrow, and historically dated definition of what rights are.

    Many intractable problems have consistently been handled under legal regimes. ‘Due diligence’ in tort law is a case in point: it defines when a person can be held liable even when it has not directly caused the harm in question. ‘Due diligence’ doctrine encapsulates the idea that the tortfeasor has a (positive) obligation to prevent exposing others to risks of which he is aware of.

    Many human rights today are understood as containing both negative and positive obligations for the state (and, sometimes, other actors as well). It is in this light that the ‘right to an adequate standard of living’ should be understood. Not as a ‘universal, automatic and unconditional entitlement to a minimum income’, but as the obligation of the state to progressively ensure (i)-(iii), above.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  14. Matthias wrote:

    Thank you too, Happyjuggler0, for your response. I think my point must not have come across clearly. English is not my first language and that might contribute to any misunderstanding.

    I must confess that I can’t imagine a functioning minimal State where people do not pay taxes, but rather freely contribute out of charity, or a feeling of moral obligation. I am also unaware of historical examples, at least durable ones. Your hypothetical country is premised on the idea that ‘charitable Americans’ will be willing to pay for these things without compulsion. If I presuppose enough things about decision-makers in a hypothetical model, I can always make the model work. Communists certainly believed anyone in their right mind would agree with them (and behave as they expected), and so did medieval Christian theologists, etc. Its not a sound starting point for a realistic theory of what the state should be, and of what it should do. But that’s just my opinion.

    I had no intention of discussing why or how people fund the institutions (public or private) that secure public goods such as security, protection against fire, etc. They might be willing to do it all out of goodwill and commitment to a minarchist state, as you suggest.

    My point was simply that any legal scheme protecting rights, even ‘negative rights’, and based on taxes (rather than fees), is essentially a wealth redistribution scheme. People with more property find far more use in law enforcement and an emergency management agency than people with little or no property, but under most fiscal schemes, both rich and poor pay taxes.

    How these taxes are spent, and to secure what services, is an imminently political question. Our conception of fundamental/human/natural rights will certainly influence this political decision. It might be that a good portion of the US population prefers to see the provision of health, education and social security services out of the state’s hands.

    But as a matter of current international law, the vast majority of states, and of developed states, accept the notion that things such as education, health, adequate housing, etc. are human rights matters, and not simply matters of contingent, negotiable political aspiration. These very same states are fully aware that implementing those rights is something that takes time, effort, and resources.

    Perhaps Mr. Easterly has reasons — philosophical, economic, political — to argue that poverty should not be considered a human rights matter. But in terms of international law — which is the normative reference point for amnesty international –, Mr. Dossani is right to characterize Mr. Easterly’s position as ‘pretty off base’.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  15. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Decidedly people have strong views about rights. Amnesty seems to use the word “right” about so many things that the word loses it meaning. From a philosophical standpoint, I have issues with their approach. To me, basic human rights should exist in the absence of a state and cannot require scarce resources to exercise those rights (e.g. medicine, healthcare or clean water). Freedom of thought, religion, yes.

    But that is not the main issue for visitors to this website. The main issue I have is practical, not philosophical. No one has demonstrated to my satisfaction how framing development issues in terms of rights facilitates development. On the contrary, I have been to many countries where the use of the term “rights” when applied to healthcare or clean water creates an entitlement mentality. That mentality makes citizen less willing to contribute to their own society’s efforts to provide them with healthcare or clean water. In my experience the “rights” approach is counterproductive to achieving development.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  16. p heinlein wrote:

    Labeling poverty a ‘human rights violation’ renders the entire concept of ‘rights’ meaningless

    Posted June 7, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  17. Matthias wrote:

    Do the (i) right to primary education, (ii) the right to due process and (iii) the right of prisoners not to be subject to cruel an inhuman punishment all render the concept of rights ‘meaningless’?

    If not, why?

    Posted June 7, 2009 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  18. Matt wrote:

    A couple of years ago when food prices were still high, I remember reading an article, uh, somewhere, about how agriculture was starting to pull the poorest Africans out of poverty. Some farmers were steadily becoming more productive with their land and farm consolidation was showing nascent life. Better farmers were gradually buying land of less productive farmers next door, employing less productive farmers and making both better off. Adam Smith’s pins were starting to be made in less and less time.

    However, the process advanced in fits and starts, to say the least. Most African countries have little in the way of property rights and even less in enforcement of those rights. Farmers typically didn’t have deeds, but loose signed agreements made over a number of different regimes. For the land-buyer, there was little guarantee that he could had true rights to the land he bought.

    If the process of farm consolidation continued, the end result would achieve substantial reduction in poverty. But farm consolidation needs a functioning judicial system, as Matthais mentions. But a functioning judicial system itself needs a number of positive and negative rights.

    Unfortunately, aid programs always seem to focus on the effects not the causes, the lack of food rather than a lack of a functioning judicial system. The positive right of “freedom from poverty” trumps the negative right of not having your land seized by the government for supporting the other party or the positive right of clear documentation of deeds and land ownership.

    With over 50 years of aid, I have yet to see a country which received substantial aid programs come out of poverty and most go EVEN FURTHER into poverty. Aid programs, like Amnesty international and the various initiatives Sachs supports, only ask for more and more money.

    Don’t misunderstand me: we should not have a complete absence of these programs. Africa had millenia of poverty and wars before these programs after all. But something fundamentally has to change to create actual sustainable results instead of mere short-term and mostly fruitless wealth transfers.

    Posted June 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  19. Tracy W wrote:

    The quintessential negative liberty — the right not to be detained arbitrarily, or the right to personal freedom — requires nothing less than an efficient judiciary apparatus.

    Only if there are people who want to detain others arbitrarily. If no one wants to do that, then there’s no need for a judiciary apparatus to stop anyone from doing so.

    In other words, with negative rights I can meet my obligations to others rather easily by not detaining others, arbitrarily or otherwise. The obligation on me though if other people have a right to healthcare is much higher and harder for me to meet.

    As a practical matter, a system of government and taxes appears to be necessary to defend those rights as many people do chose to try to detain others arbitrarily. And my current best opinion after considering a lot of history is that countries that provide a system of government that does provide some legal services do better than countries without any such service. But this does not strike me as wiping out the distinction between positive and negative rights, because the obligation that positive rights place on individuals are different.

    I suppose you would consider the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment to be a ‘negative right’. Indeed, a prison where detention conditions are inhumane is a clear violation of that right.

    Actually I would say that if detention conditions can be counted as cruel and unusual punishment then that right is therefore a positive right.

    Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink
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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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