ATD Fourth World: “Extreme poverty is violence; break the silence”

“Extreme poverty is violence. Alongside the violence of deprivation exists another equally extreme form of it: the humiliation and contempt that denies a person’s humanity, ‘like we were not even humans’. This attitude leads to many types of violence: continual disrespect, humiliation, discrimination, verbal abuse, and denial of basic rights. This can go as far as physical blows at school, work, and in the street,” according to the final report of an “action-research project” developed by the International Movement ATD Fourth World on the connections between extreme poverty, violence and peace.

Over a period of three years, between 2009 and 2012, ATD Fourth World conducted the research that involved more than a thousand people from all over the world. Five regional seminars enabled the researchers to base themselves on local realities and identify common themes. An international colloquium with academics, grass-roots workers from other NGOs and international organizations was held in January 2012 in Pierrelaye, France, to finalise the results of this research.

An event was organised at UNESCO in Paris to present the results of the action-research project to the general public. The conclusions were prepared by a group that was representative of the diversity of participants in this Colloquium.

“‘Not only did I have nothing, but I was reduced to nothing,’” summarized one of the poor persons interviewed for the report. According to the experts that summarized its conclusions, “people are denigrated, stereotyped in stigmatizing categories, or even referred to with dehumanizing language, such as ‘cases’. While this everyday violence is unbearable for the person on the receiving end, it is either invisible to others or considered normal. It is trivialized by those who perpetrate it and those who witness it without reacting.”

“The consequence of extreme violence is to silence its victims. The indifference and contempt to which people in chronic poverty are subjected is so violent that they end up feeling unworthy, doubting themselves and seeing themselves as others see them: useless, incapable, good for nothing, outcasts,” adds the study. “There is a dual iolence: forcing people to live in extreme poverty; and misunderstanding why they react the way they do.”

ATD Fourth World is a non-governmental organization with no religious or political affiliation which engages with individuals and institutions to find solutions to eradicate extreme poverty.

Working in partnership with people in poverty, ATD Fourth World’s human rights-based approach focuses on supporting families and individuals through its grass-roots presence and involvement in disadvantaged communities, in both urban and rural areas, creating public awareness of extreme poverty and influencing policies to address it.

Through its long-term grassroots presence and action alongside the most marginalized populations, ATD Fourth World has understood that the first step in moving out of poverty and exclusion is when people can effectively claim their rights.


Institutional violence and violence legitimized by the State

“Violence and injustice affect the freedom and the physical and psychological integrity of individuals and families”, according to the summary of the study developed by ATD Fourth World. “They are an impediment to their future and affect the cohesion of society. Yet this has been trivialized to such a degree that it does not cause people to question public or private policies when they fail to promote peaceful and safe communities, where everyone would have access to public resources and services.”

The authors remarked that “too often, institutions claim to have tried everything they can and then blame the resulting violence on those in difficulty. When the latter refuse to enter into a logic of submission and when they develop other defense strategies, they are deemed ‘unmanageable’.”

“Institutional violence becomes political violence when it is legitimized by laws or is carried out by the State,” they added. “Institutional violence is rooted in historical violence that has been neither understood nor recognised as such. That is why it continues over generations, making outcasts of individuals, families and entire communities.”

In a sense, according to the summary, “denying people the capacity to participate means that they have no access to processes of governance. Policies aimed at reducing poverty by a certain percentage are themselves acts of violence as this implies from the outset that they will not concern the whole population.”


Antipoverty projects not adapted o people's needs

On the other hand, “in today’s social and economic context, where projects must be at least efficient or even profitable in the short term, many institutions do not take the time to get to know and to understand the lives and hopes of the people and families with whom they propose to work”.

One of the participants in conditions of poverty explained: “An association that wants to help the poor gives wood, sheet metal and cement, but they don’t supply people to build the house. If you're a single mother, and you have no money to pay the builders, if you have no place to keep the goods you were given, they deteriorate, the cement becomes rock-hard and unusable. NGOs come with projects that are not developed together with the families concerned, without knowing the reality they live in.”

Other one said: “We have NGOs that work here, who give us a lot of money, who give us many things, but it's nothing. They cannot fight poverty or extreme poverty because they do not know who to go to. They speak to those who are smarter, and they divide the community, which creates violence. They come to give rice to someone for six months, and they don’t even go to the poorest. That is violence. Such behavior pits people against one another.”

“When projects – even those designed to help, such as vocational training, housing, micro-credit... – are based on only partial knowledge, they result in overly short-sighted or too modest responses and trap people in situations that offer no way out without lying about their situation” reads the summary. “Ultimately, as these projects do not achieve the results those managing them expect, they end up adversely affecting people in the most vulnerable situations of poverty.” Or, as one of the participants from the grassroots said: “The type of support that is thought out for us does not correspond to our real needs; we experience it as something imposed to satisfy the desires of project managers who want to dictate their values to us.”


Proposals for future commitments

The participants of the project proposed a set “common goals to achieve, to be adapted to each reality.”

They are:

“1. Acknowledge and refuse violence against people in poverty and work toward peace with them;

“2. Organise gatherings and promote understanding between individuals and populations working on eradicating extreme poverty;

“3. Re-evaluate our way of building and validating knowledge gained from the realities of life experienced by people living in extreme poverty;

“4. Restore the place of the most disadvantaged in their struggle against poverty and in their collective and family histories; and

“5. Recognise the unique contribution of people in extreme poverty in striving towards peace between all human beings.”

More information
“Extreme poverty is violence - Breaking the silence - Searching for peace” (Conclusions):
UN Human Rights Council adopts Guiding Principles On Extreme Poverty:

ATD Fourth World: