This episode is all about saying it like it is. As we continue with our #InequalityVirus miniseries, we speak to Professor Philip Alston, who famously exposed the stark realities of inequality and called out unjust Government policies during his tenure as UN Special Rapporteur for Poverty and Human Rights. We ask him whether we’re heading into a more unequal world in the wake of the pandemic, and what he discovered listening to communities he visited. From these visits, he has shined a torch on the reality of extreme poverty and human rights – often getting criticism for it. We dig deeper into the pressures of speaking out while holding such a prominent UN role, and how he responds to criticism.
We start by asking what the pandemic means for the gap between the rich and the poor. Prof. Alston says, “I think the pandemic has really exposed…the full extent of inequalities. We’ve seen too much about it being ‘the great leveller’ but in reality, it’s nothing of the sort. Those who are on low incomes are much more vulnerable to infection. They are on the frontlines as essential workers. They have access to less care and worse care. They can’t shelter in place as the rest of us can, and they don’t have the capacity to take the economic hit. So, it’s been a dramatic difference between how the well off and not-so-well-off have been affected.”
Does he think we are headed to a more or less equal world post-pandemic? He’s very fearful about that, saying, “I suspect we’re going to see a second dramatic round of austerity following this… I don’t think governments are going to step up and learn the lessons that most of us would like to think they were learning about the importance of public facilities, better health systems and so on…”
Prof. Alston recently said that “the policies of many States reflect a social Darwinism philosophy”. We ask him what exactly that means. He explains, “…the basics are that the elites running the country are absolutely indispensable and must be protected at all costs along with business interest; whereas the workers and those who are vulnerable are dispensable…”
Prof. Alston conducted many country visits (call them fact-finding missions if you like) during his tenure as UN Special Rapporteur for Poverty and Human Rights. We’re curious to find out what he considers his lasting memories from those visits. According to him, “…it gives you a lot of insight. Much of it is of course the dramatic contrast between the official discourse and what you hear and see on the ground…I learned how rarely most people who are experiencing poverty feel that they are listened to…”
Given all he’d seen and heard, we ask what surprised him the most. He said, “First of all, I think there is a real vindication of the role that stigma and discrimination play… On the other hand, there is a lot of resilience, which is reassuring…but of course they’ve also got to deal with the challenges of repression which is a major factor in many of the countries that I visited.”
As someone appointed by the UN, a body funded by country contributions, Prof. Alston was still able to call out injustice for what it is, thus facing massive criticism. Nabil asks whether he ever felt pressure to dial down what he was saying. Very firmly he responds, “There is a lot of pressure to dial-it-down, but it takes many different forms. …One of the most ironic things is I got a lot of pressure from the UN itself when I wrote a report on UN responsibility for taking cholera to Haiti.” He also recounts pushback from other country visits and concludes, “… I think it is just very important to stand up to the pressures, but of course, you have to be confident that you’re on firm ground and that the criticisms you’re making are fully justified.” So, were there any Governments or institutions that were more responsive to his message and wanting to better their policies? Yes, there were! He tells us, “…When my report (on Malaysia) came out which was very critical, the Economics minister immediately dismissed it…but within a few hours, the then Prime Minister…said, ‘well, you know if what the UN have said is right, we’re going to have to change the poverty line.’ And they pretty much committed at senior government levels to do that. Sadly, when Mohamad was thrown out just a few months ago, the government seems to have reverted to its old position that they don’t have poverty…”
Does Prof. Alston see inequality and human rights as inextricably linked? He answers, “…I think what we’re seeing now is that the human rights community is starting to recognize the importance of addressing equality, starting to look at the importance of redistribution which previously they didn’t want to address. And what we’re starting to see on the other side is that advocates for economic progress are also realizing that without rights, this is not going to happen. So, if you look at the situation of poor people in so many countries around the world, it’s not simply a depravation of material resources. It is that they are excluded from the political system. They are victimised by the justice system. If there’s torture, it’s going to overwhelmingly affect the poor. If there’s violence against women, it’s the same story. And I think the coming together of these two sets of issues is an important development over the last few years”.
What good does he think can come out of the pandemic? Any hope? He says, “in some ways the pandemic has been something of a trial run for climate change. We’re seeing the vulnerability of particular groups, particularly the poor. We’re realizing one way or another we are all in it together. We’re seeing the role of science. We’re seeing the relationship that we have with nature, which we have to address in both contexts, and I guess there’s just a much broader awareness of the need for deeper structural changes. I think the important thing is not to underestimate the resistance to any sort of deep change but that also means that those of us who are trying to achieve progress, to achieve equality, to promote respect for human rights have to grasp the opportunity and have to make a much bigger effort to come together…”
There’s lots we cut out in the summary blog, so find the full episode at Speaking Uncomfortable Truths or listen on all major platforms. Be sure to subscribe and share with friends and family as we have amazing episodes lined up. And follow us on @EQUALSHope on Twitter. If you have any suggestions for us, you can DM us on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com . In the meantime, do keep safe.