Poverty and the Right to Live

We need to redefine what it means to be poor.

Is poverty more about rights than money?


If poverty did not pose a real and immediate threat to one’s life, it would not be the critical subject of great debate, scholarship, and global fundraising efforts. However, Bangladesh’s approach to dealing with poverty is largely based on the idea of charity as opposed to “governance” and the ideas of citizenship and rights. Our current approach has not only been failing, but is fraught with problems complicating the greater project of good governance.


From a legal perspective, poverty reduction “as charity” appears irreconcilable with the idea of rights-based citizenship. This can be seen by a brief analysis of legal procedure, econometric estimation of poverty, as well as ethnographically collected material.We may begin with the legal perspective. Firstly, there is a tremendous difference between “guaranteeing” the right to live and merely stating that it is a fundamental right.

Guaranteeing a right implies the correlative duty of the state to administer consequences upon violators, or at minimum, that consequences be facilitated in such a way that rights are upheld. From this perspective, in reality, no such right is guaranteed to anyone.Second, the language pertaining to the right to live is ambiguously stated. It states that citizens have the right to live, “save in accordance of the law.” What is that supposed to mean, exactly?

Further, consider that the right to live is intimately bound with two other fundamental rights: a) speech, and b) property.Why? Because we depend on property for income, and we depend on the right to speak, in order to defend the right to hold on to it.But the rights to speech and property are equally ambiguous. Arguably, the sub-clauses seem to invalidate the fundamental rights altogether. For example, we have the right to speak freely, unless we do so against the “interests of the state.”

And, we have the right to own property, but if the state decides to confiscate it, we do not have the right to contest the market value given for compensation.Most poor people in Bangladesh are in fact victims of some form of violation of right and will often say that “we were not always poor” — but this or that shocking incident “left us in poverty.”Now, imagine the unlikely “fair trial” for an impoverished citizen whose land has forcefully been taken away. It is very difficult to do so since a) wide-spread corruption and disregard for proper procedure of the lower courts persists, and b) it takes years for a complaint to reach the courts.

Seriously, can we expect our legal system to protect anyone who doesn’t have the power to protect themselves?Returning to the idea that the “poverty as charity” complicates public policy, we may now consider the procedures by which social scientists measure the rate and incidence of poverty.The poverty statistic (35%) is an estimate based on “quantification.” It is not based on an actual “head-count” of number of poor people. More generally, “quantity” is the product of measurement — as opposed to “number” which is the product of counting.But measuring (quantifying) can never be exact, given the inexact tools at our disposal.

For example, we can count exactly three apples, but we will never be able to measure exactly three liters of juice — since our tools always contain small margins of error. Is it a big deal?

In our case yes, since a small sample error become enormous when multiplied by factors designed to enlarge the sample across an entire population of some 165 million.The same error is contained in the procedure for poverty estimation in Bangladesh. Statisticians try to compensate when they expand district-wise samples onto the national (aggregate) “poverty map.”But, in reality, the margin of error is only an approximate.More recently, attempts at conducting a “head-count” of poverty has been aggregated at the national level through gathering data from the Union Parishads (UP). However, both of these procedures are inaccurate.

Why should impoverished families be reduced to mere statistics? Is it a decent and dignified way of considering our fellow citizens?

Firstly, consider that the UPs are nowadays politicised institutions, while “patron-clientelism” still remains the dominant form of political organisation. The head-count then is distorted by the bias from dependency and voter-mobilisation. Secndly, the scientists who conduct the national poverty estimate need to define poverty in order to proceed with data analysis. In doing so they are asked to imagine a monetary-type “dividing line” between the poor and the non-poor.

But how can this be done? How can we really say, in a court of law, that Mr A, who earns a dollar a day is “poor,” whereas Mr B, who earns a dollar and ten cents is “non-poor”?While traditionally the “poverty line” has been established at the equivalent of a “dollar a day,” today social scientists speak of “multi-faceted” dimensions of poverty.

But this does not improve the fallacious attempt to measure poverty in the first place.Why should impoverished families be reduced to mere statistics? Is it a decent and dignified way of considering our fellow citizens?These estimates are attempts to add sophistication to the crude idea of measuring despair and only extends the propagation of error contained in idea of measuring human suffering. Importantly, it cannot easily be reconciled with judicial process. To exemplify — imagine a dispute over rights to income subsidy for a poor person.The dispute is taken to court and a complaint is levied against a public official who denied the person subsidy, or other form of income supplement he was entitled to — being labeled “poor.”

If this case were to be tried properly the claimant would have to show that he was indeed “poor” while the defendant would have to show evidence to the fact he was “non-poor.”But how could this be shown empirically? It cannot. And as a result, the case would simply have to be dismissed — even though matters of life and death were at stake. However, we may move on to consider the ethnographic approach.

Ethnographer and poverty researcher Joe Devine once encouraged me to examine more deeply the meaning of poverty. In his own work he had discovered a critical way of distinguishing poor from extreme poor.In his ethnographic accounts of rural Bangladesh, “I have nothing” was to be understood as differently from “I have no one” — signifying the real despair of being outcast from the “shomaj” (community).

I followed up on his work in my own study of citizenship in Bangladesh. I found that being “wealthy” meant, among other things, “having strong brothers.” This was so, I was told, since even if one has wealth — “strong brothers are always needed to defend it.”Here, having “no one” implies discrimination based on race, religion, and creed. The absence of “strong brothers” implies failure of the state to provide law and order, and the protection of speech and property.

Protecting the right to life, speech, and property, is the foremost duty of the state. But the main point is that it’s all well and good to estimate and measure in the classroom. But in the real world, justice, dignity, and equal rights of citizens should be honoured. So where does it leave us? Should the state abandon the “language of poverty” and charitable approach to poverty reduction?

Perhaps. In industrialised countries, the language has been discarded decades ago. In Sweden for example, officially labeling someone poor is considered contemptuous, offensive, and simply wrong. Instead, they are disaggregated as the unemployed, the victims of discrimination, crime, and neglect of state protection.

In doing so, policy-makers can better visualise and tailor-make policy for separate social problems. It allows them to honour their end of the social-contract.





Jens Stanislawski

Managing Director, 

Research and Action for Development Ltd.

The Dhaka Tribune, 12 October 2017, Bangladesh