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Poverty and racism inextricably linked, says UN expert

In a report to the UN General Assembly, a UN rights expert has emphasised that poverty is closely associated with racism and contributes to the persistence of racist attitudes and practices which in turn generate more poverty.

Kanaga Raja


RACIAL or ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty; and the lack of education, adequate housing and health care transmits poverty from generation to generation, a United Nations rights expert has said.

In his report to the UN General Assembly in the week of 4 November, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mutuma Ruteere, was of the opinion that the issues of poverty and racism are inextricably linked.

As has been emphasised in the Durban Declaration, he said, 'poverty... [is] closely associated with racism... and contribute[s] to the persistence of racist attitudes and practices which in turn generate more poverty' (paragraph 18).

Ruteere said that as the previous Special Rapporteur on racism underlined in his report to the General Assembly in 2009, 'racial or ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty, and the lack of education, adequate housing and health care transmits poverty from generation to generation and perpetuates racial prejudices and stereotypes in their regard'.

In his report, the Special Rapporteur welcomed the efforts and initiatives undertaken by various states to prohibit discrimination and segregation and to ensure full enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights for all individuals and groups.

He noted that certain groups and individuals, including people of African descent, indigenous peoples, minorities, Roma, Dalits and migrants, are still confronted with poverty and discrimination, especially in the enjoyment of their economic and social rights.

'The persistence of discrimination against those groups and individuals remains a challenge to the construction of a tolerant and inclusive society, and only the guarantee of equality and non-discrimination policies can redress that imbalance and prevent those groups that are discriminated against from falling into or being trapped in poverty,' Ruteere emphasised.

Poverty and discrimination

In his report, the Special Rapporteur discusses the manifestations of poverty and racism in the areas of economic and social rights such as education, adequate housing and health care, and other rights affected in the link between racism and poverty, including the right to work in just conditions, social security, food and water.

According to Ruteere, poverty does not result only from an unequal sharing of resources. 'Discrimination against groups and persons based on their ethnicity, race, religion or other characteristics or factors has been known to encourage exclusion and impoverish certain groups of the population who suffer from unequal access to basic needs and services.'

Groups that are discriminated against, such as Afro-descendants, minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees, are disproportionately affected by poverty in all regions of the world.

'The complex relationship between racism and discrimination suggests that only the guarantee of equality and non-discrimination can redress that imbalance and protect such groups from falling into or being trapped in poverty,' the Special Rapporteur stressed.

According to the report, a history of discrimination has left a large number of racial and ethnic groups in various parts of the world trapped in conditions of 'chronic deprivation of resources' with limited choices and vulnerable to multiple violations of their rights.

In many parts of the world, race and ethnicity continue to be persistent predictors of poverty. The multi-generational nature of poverty, with successive generations inheriting the disadvantages of their predecessors, means that over the years poverty and deprivation have become part of the characterisation of particular racial and ethnic groups trapped in poverty.

This in turn fuels prejudice against those members of poor racial and ethnic groups, exacerbating the problems of racial discrimination.

For most racial and ethnic groups living in poverty, said the rights expert, the formal provisions for non-discrimination are not sufficient to address the challenges they confront in the realisation of those rights that would lift them out of their conditions of poverty.

'Their situation is that of multidimensional discrimination - as they are discriminated against for being poor and also on account of their race and ethnicity. The nature of this challenge requires much more than formal protections and calls for special measures.'

Discrimination based on racial, religious, ethnic, linguistic and also socioeconomic factors exacerbates the vulnerability of those persons and groups. This situation and furthermore the lack of participation of groups that are discriminated against in decision-making processes is often the result of historical legacies rooted in traditions.

The report said: 'Their situation is primarily the consequence of historical systems of inherited status, and of the formalised exclusion of certain traditional populations in modern societies, sometimes encouraged by authorities. Thus, even in countries where resources are sufficient to ensure to the whole population adequate standards of living, those groups and individuals do not fully benefit from those resources.'

The Special Rapporteur believes that it is the obligation of governments to prevent marginalisation and to ensure protection as well as to guarantee the enjoyment of human rights for all, including the right to education, the right to adequate housing, the right to health or the right to food and safe water.

The right to education

He noted that one of the reasons why groups that are discriminated against remain trapped in poverty is 'the perpetual marginalisation they suffer in terms of access to education', despite the obligation of states to realise this right for all without discrimination.

'Realising the right to education for all children should be the cornerstone of strategies directed at reducing poverty and discouraging discrimination,' he underlined.

He cited Minority Rights Group International as noting in 2009 that, of the 101 million children out of school and the 776 million illiterate adults, the majority are part of racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities.

In many countries, the low enrolment rate of minority children is the result of official policies that fail to recognise the existence of minorities as part of the whole population and to take measures to ensure that they enjoy the rights guaranteed to every citizen.

The Special Rapporteur noted that, as a result of such discrimination, there is a lack of trust in the national educational system and some children tend to remain within their community rather than attend school and acquire skills that could eventually enable them to break the cycle of poverty.

He was also of the view that if discrimination in education reinforces poverty, poverty also fosters discrimination. Poverty is one of the causes of the low enrolment rates in schools of children from groups that are discriminated against.

The Special Rapporteur is convinced that the full enjoyment of the right to education is the prerequisite for the full enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to work, freedom of expression, or even the right to health.

'For groups that are discriminated against, education is crucial for preparing and equipping them with the skills to achieve economic and social mobility and consequently to break the cycles of multidimensional poverty and discrimination.'

Ruteere noted that poverty and discrimination are often reflected in poor health status. Vulnerable and marginalised groups disproportionately face obstacles in accessing health care. Many inequalities in accessing adequate health care are related to social disparities and exclusion, themselves often the result of racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

First, from a geographical point of view, access to health care is often limited for those living in rural or economically remote areas and disparities sometimes result from laws, policies or programmes which intentionally or not concentrate services in urban areas. This can lead to decreased life expectancy and poor health conditions for minorities living in marginalised areas.

There is also a risk of mistrust in the official health services, due to stereotyping, but also due to the health service providers' lack of cultural knowledge of a particular cultural minority.

'Owing to their economic and social conditions, groups that are discriminated against are more exposed to health risks and diseases. They are more likely than others to live in polluted and environmentally degraded areas where the risk of exposure to substance abuse, violence and infectious diseases is higher.'

The Special Rapporteur also noted that racism and discrimination negatively affect the realisation of the right to adequate housing for the marginalised groups.

'Legal insecurity of tenure for poor and marginalised ethnic and racial minorities in some cases forces some of the members of those communities to move to urban areas, where the only affordable housing is in informal and slum settlements with substandard housing conditions and the daily risks of eviction.'

Adequate housing is also linked to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, he said, adding that poor sanitation and unhygienic practices are the indirect results of discrimination and the marginalisation suffered by racial minorities.

'Groups that are discriminated against, especially those living in rural or remote areas, experience disparities in terms of access to sanitation and drinking water. These further contribute to poor health outcomes for the poor racial and ethnic minorities.'

The Special Rapporteur observed that the problem of disproportionate poverty among some racial and ethnic groups is prevalent in all regions of the world, and highlighted the situation of just some of those groups.

Highlighting that more than 200 million persons identify themselves as being of African descent, the Special Rapporteur noted that many of them 'continue to face pernicious discrimination as part of the legacy of slavery and colonialism that still hinders them from fully participating in the decision-making process'.

In North and South America, two regions characterised by great disparities, a disproportionate number of persons of African descent are affected by a lack of income, health services, quality of education and opportunities to attain well-being.

In the United States, in 2009, 25.8% of persons of African descent were living in poverty, whereas only 9.4% of non-Hispanic whites were living in poverty. In a similar trend, in Brazil, in 2006, 47% of people of African descent were living below the poverty line, as opposed to 22% of those classified as white.

Ruteere also noted that people of African descent continue to suffer from discriminatory and consequently inadequate access to housing at various stages of the rental or sale process.

In the United States, one in five individuals of an ethnic or racial minority experiences discrimination during a preliminary search for housing. Moreover, 46% of African Americans were owners in 2011, against 74% of whites.

For many persons of African descent, because of their low-income situation, the issue of food insecurity remains a significant challenge. In many countries, the situation is the result of unequal treatment but also of the economic situation. It is the case in Latin American countries where disparities of income and resources are high.

Indigenous peoples

The Special Rapporteur further noted that, 'as a result of historical and contemporary factors', indigenous peoples are part of a worldwide disadvantaged minority as they continue to face discriminatory practices deeply rooted in cultural structures and reinforced by industrial development.

While they constitute approximately 5% of the world's population - 370 million - indigenous peoples represent around one-third of the world's 900 million extremely poor rural people.

'This situation of marginalisation is prevalent in all types of countries regardless of their level of development, as indigenous people consistently lag behind the non-indigenous population in terms of standards of living and development.'

In this regard, he highlighted, for instance, that, as a result of geographical isolation and marginalisation, indigenous children are less likely to access education in comparison to non-indigenous populations.

For instance, in small indigenous communities in Southern Arnhem Land (Australia), up to 93% of the population is illiterate. In Ecuador, the illiteracy rate of indigenous peoples was 28% in 2001, compared to the national rate of 13%, while in Venezuela, the indigenous illiteracy rate (32%) was five times higher than the non-indigenous illiteracy rate (6.4%).

He asserted that the increasing expropriation of indigenous peoples' lands for economic purposes also reinforces their vulnerability in terms of their right to adequate housing by affecting their ancestral culture, which is based on communal land and resources.

The Special Rapporteur cited the Department of Economic and Social Affairs as noting that there has been an upsurge in infrastructure development, particularly of large hydroelectric dams, oil and gas pipelines, and roads in indigenous territories; there has been a constant failure to consult the populations concerned first.

As a result of those development-driven displacements, many indigenous persons migrate to urban areas where they frequently live in poverty and face discrimination.

Ruteere also said that many indigenous people have inadequate food access and are exposed to high levels of malnutrition. For instance, in Latin America, malnutrition among indigenous children is twice as high as among non-indigenous children.

In Ecuador, chronic malnutrition is more than twice as high in indigenous as compared to non-indigenous communities. In El Salvador, an estimated 40% of indigenous children under five are malnourished, compared to the national average of 23%.

Poor nutrition, discrimination and limited access to quality health care, and contamination of resources, also contribute to poor health conditions among indigenous peoples. Overall, the life expectancy of indigenous people is up to 20 years lower than that of non-indigenous people, and they also experience higher levels of maternal and infant mortality.

Turning to the Roma, the Special Rapporteur said that with an estimated population of 10 to 12 million, they represent one of the most important minority groups in Europe.

He observed that, in spite of efforts at both regional and national levels to improve the situation of the Roma, an unacceptably large percentage continue to live in poverty and suffer discrimination in virtually all aspects of life, including employment, health care, education and adequate housing.

On average, in 2011 in Europe, only one out of two Roma children attended pre-school or kindergarten and only 15% of young adults surveyed completed upper-secondary general or vocational education.

With regard to health, the Roma may be one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe and their life expectancy is shorter than the rest of the European population. In 2011, one-third of Roma respondents aged 35 to 54 reported health problems limiting their daily activities and about 20%  of respondents had no medical coverage.

The caste system continues to be the source of discrimination against the Dalits, who have a low hierarchical status according to tradition and beliefs, said the rights expert, adding that a disproportionate percentage of the Dalits live in abject poverty and face discrimination and exclusion at social, economic and political levels.

Most of the Dalits live in rural areas, and are often excluded from services only available in urban areas. It is estimated that less than 10% of Dalit households can afford safe drinking water, electricity and toilets, and approximately 75% are engaged in agricultural work, although many do not have their own land.

The Special Rapporteur also observed that the situation of migrants remains precarious and called for closer attention, particularly as many host countries continue to experience economic difficulties.

'In spite of measures taken by some States to integrate migrants and provide them with the opportunities to live a dignified life, many migrants continue to live in poverty and to experience discrimination in many areas of everyday life.'

Good practices

The Special Rapporteur however noted that states around the world have developed and implemented many good practices which can alleviate problems associated with the intersecting problems of racism and poverty.

These include collection of disaggregated data, programmes aimed at increasing education and educational opportunities, laws which protect disadvantaged groups generally and in labour markets, poverty alleviation initiatives, and special measures aimed at enhancing equality between all groups.

Amongst his recommendations, the Special Rapporteur invited member states to adopt comprehensive approaches for tackling the intersection of poverty and discrimination which is prevalent around the world.

In particular, he recommended that member states review and redesign policies and programmes which may have a disproportionate effect on racial or ethnic minorities in view of their socioeconomic vulnerability and implement effective measures to improve the access of such groups to civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

The Special Rapporteur further encouraged the stakeholders of the post-2015 agenda to continue focusing on reducing socioeconomic inequalities while taking into account issues surrounding discrimination.

While the Millennium Development Goals have addressed the reduction of extreme poverty, he suggested that in the post-2015 agenda specific goals and targets be developed to ensure that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity, has universal access to health care, education, water, food and security.   

Kanaga Raja is Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), from which this article is reproduced (No.  7692, 8 November 2013). SUNS is published by the Third World Network.

*Third World Resurgence No. 278, October 2013, pp 34-37


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