Interview with Monique Ilboudo: 'Poverty is disregard for human rights.'
in SHSviews 14
Burkina Faso’s Minister for the Promotion of Human Rights calls for a change in the approach to the fight against poverty as the year 2006 brings to a close the First United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006). Monique Ilboudo, who trained as a lawyer, says: “until economic, social and cultural rights are given the same recognition as political and civil rights, it will be very difficult to overcome poverty”.
What do you think is the significance of Burkina Faso’s Ministry for the Promotion of Human Rights?
This Ministry only came into being in June 2002. Perhaps it was planned with a view to speeding up the democratization process and establishing a civic culture so that a maximum number of the people of Burkina Faso could access their rights and carry out their civic duties. But before that can happen, before rights can be claimed, people need to be taught about them.
UNESCO is developing a project – concentrating particularly on West Africa – called “The human rights-based approach to poverty”, to contribute to the eradication of poverty in the region. What do you think of this approach?
You know, even before this project was set up, we had already started moving in that direction in Burkina Faso. On several occasions – my country’s Economic and Social Council (CES) and in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) – I have had the opportunity of putting forward the view that if we do not tackle poverty from that angle, it will be difficult to deal with the issue. Because in fact if we consider that people have rights – and consequently duties – it obliges every single person to take responsibility. It also obliges the development actors – both at national as well as international level – to respect the dignity of the “creditors” of those rights, and to acknowledge that there are “debtors” who owe them those rights. This can be done through changing attitudes and restoring dignity to the very poor by no longer considering them to be incapable, and by making accountable those who can and who must change the situation.
To what extent do you think the UNESCO project is helping Burkina Faso find the key to this issue?
It does at least help us go deeper into the question. And there we have another demand that is answered: to be able to reflect and put forward alternative routes to find a way out of poverty. Not just waiting to be handed solutions and then being blamed when they don’t work out. This programme gives us the opportunity to develop endogenous thinking. As this is a subregional programme, we have been able to integrate Burkina Faso’s views with those of Benin, Mali, Niger and Senegal at a meeting where all these countries were represented. Our five countries were able to convey their respective understanding and ideas on the matter. But it looks as though it is going to be a fairly lengthy process. Getting the concept of poverty as a violation of human rights accepted is certainly difficult, but I am sure it will allow our countries to move ahead more rapidly.
Why do you think it will help African countries move ahead more rapidly if they acknowledge that poverty is a human rights issue?
First of all, because it will help identify the “debtors”. Second, because if States have named the fight against poverty as the no. 1 Millennium Development Goal, an evaluation cannot be carried out every five or ten years without asking why those goals have not yet been reached. Third – and this is the most important point – because a human rights-based approach to poverty protects people’s dignity. And in this fight against poverty, dignity is of paramount importance. Instead of bowing their heads and being resigned to their lot, people feel they are full members of society, able to take an active part in their country’s development. The fight against poverty should not be seen as a charitable or philanthropic venture. Victims of poverty are people with rights that are already written into our Constitution, in the United Nations Charter and in many international conventions. The only question we should be asking is: how should those rights be met? Until it is acknowledged that we have the right to development, and that economic, social and cultural rights are on a par with civil and political rights, we still have a long way to go.
How do you confront your detractors who put forward the idea that what is needed is not reflection but action, when it comes to poverty eradication?
Simply by saying that you can’t put one foot in front of the other without first thinking. Reflection before action saves precious time. The issue of people’s well-being is not only an economic issue. Freedom, dignity and citizen accountability are all determining factors. If you treat people as though they are incapable, they themselves will feel unable to reach for certain goals. So in fact if we were to agree that poverty is a human rights issue, then we could tackle the accountability aspect in another way. For instance, if every individual felt that solidarity was a right for the other and an obligation for himself or herself, the world would fast become a different place. It is therefore fundamental to change the way the fight against poverty is approached.
If Burkina Faso chose to increase its commitment to tackling poverty through a human rights-based approach, would it have the means to carry out such a policy?
Burkina Faso is part of the international system. In the region of West Africa, countries have signed agreements enabling them to benefit from public aid systems. These agreements set out strategies for the fight against poverty. So it is not always easy to go it alone. But what we are asking for is justice and respect for the commitments undertaken. Take the example of cotton: our country sells its cotton at such a low price that those working in the fields do not receive even a decent wage. Why? Because some countries – those that have imposed free trade through the World Trade Organization (WTO) – subsidize their own cotton producers. It is unfair. Then those same States come round the other way to “help” us fight poverty – do they take us all for fools? For all those reasons our reflections on the subject must be shared as widely as possible. If there were more of us who thought the human rights-based approach feasible, it would change our development policies. Some of our priorities would be brought forward. For some years now, people have been talking about sustainable human development. It is when development policies and action come full circle: they start and finish with the very people concerned. It is certainly difficult, but not impossible.
Would it not be quicker to retain current development structures but try to improve them?
I don’t think so. Whenever new public policy is drafted, this is the approach that should be planned. Every single person should be helped to understand that development is a human rights issue. In Burkina Faso, we are trying to set up a committee which will have the specific task of developing this reflection, beginning with the production of material for researchers and journalists. In parallel, we also want to include this approach in teaching modules with both the formal school system and the informal education centres. In Burkina Faso, the August 1983 revolution helped us understand the importance of education in citizenship and human rights; we consider citizen involvement to be a determining factor. It is citizen pressure that has contributed to our country’s progress along the path to democracy.
How do you think you can bring these concerns to international attention?
If only the view that poverty should be tackled through human rights were more widely shared nationally, as well as in the other countries of West Africa engaged in this process, then we could take this reflection and debate a little further, since it is primarily for our countries that this issue is so essential. If we manage to get the States of West Africa to agree to this approach, then we will be able to speed up the process. With a human rights-based approach to poverty we would be obliged to review all our policies, all our programmes, and everything that has to do with a country’s development, to make respect for human rights a priority. It would require that everything be undertaken with a view to those rights being met at every level. In fact, that is why some people find the human rights-based approach rather frightening. People do not always want to be reminded of their obligations towards others with whom they would perhaps prefer to sympathize or even pity. But I do want to stress that as individuals and as States, it is above all dignity we need. We are not a charity case.
Interview by Chifa Tekaya
Monique Ilboudo was born in Burkina Faso. She holds a doctorate in law and taught private law at the University of Ouagadougou. Ms Ilboudo was a member of the Higher Council of Information from 1995 to 2000, before becoming Secretary of State for the Promotion of Human Rights, and later, in June 2002, taking up her current position as Minister for the Promotion of Human Rights. She is an active human rights campaigner, particularly women’s rights. Monique Ilboudou is an author whose work in French is considered an essential part of African literature; in 1992 she was awarded the national Grand Prix for her novel Le Mal de Peau (Éditions le Serpent à plumes, 2001) and she has just published Droit de cité, être femme au Burkina Faso (Éditions du Remue-ménage, 2006).