Poverty and freedom of expression: How the poor are being silenced

Poverty can restrict your access to basic human rights. This is neither a controversial nor revolutionary statement — it is clear that access to food and shelter is diminished by poverty. But poverty also blocks the less tangible rights many of us nonetheless take for granted, among them, the right to freedom of expression.

Poverty can be a very powerful barrier to accessing the abilities and tools to communicate your interests, ideas and needs, and as such, your rights to fully participate in society. This lack of access to freedom of expression manifests itself in a number of different areas, including in education, online and in the arts.

Poverty remains the biggest block to access to education, with young people from the poorest households globally being three times as likely to be out of school compared to the richest households. Direct costs connected to education, such as tuition fees, school materials, uniforms and transportation can constitute huge barriers to education. In addition to this, many poor people live in rural areas with fewer schools. For poor families there can also be significant opportunity costs connected to sending children to school rather than work. Among other things, this explains the higher levels of illiteracy among the poor globally. The damaging effect illiteracy has on your ability to express yourself, and subsequently fully participate in civil society, cannot be overstated.  If you can’t read newspapers, write to your politicians or even fill out the necessary paperwork to apply for national identification documents to vote, your voice is severely limited.  This is without even considering the many costs connected to the above.

But poverty doesn’t only block participation offline. The internet, mobile phones and other modern communication tools provide some of the biggest potential platforms to freedom of expression. New technology can be used to take part in debates, organise large-scale campaigns, monitor elections and hold those in power to account. However, the gap between rich and poor in this sector is big enough to warrant its own term — the digital divide. While developed states can boast 71.6 internet users per 100 inhabitants, the corresponding figure for developing states is only 21.1. On the African continent it drops 9.6/100. This phenomenon also exists within states, along gender, geographical social, and significantly, financial lines. The latest figures from the UK show that 15 per cent of the population has never used the Internet. Of those, 15 per cent cite equipment costs as a reason; while 14 per cent cite access costs. Tellingly, 5.7 per cent of those earning less than £200 per week had never used the internet, while the corresponding figures for those earning £600 and above is less than 1 per cent.

Less has been said about access to artistic freedom of expression among poor people in development terms. However, the Millennium Development Goal Achievement Fund has recognised access to culture and arts as a significant factor in combating poverty. A study by the European Commission also concluded that cultural activities can be instrumental in helping people overcome poverty and social exclusion, through “building skills and self-confidence” and “enhancing self-esteem and identity”. The same study stated the groups like the long-term unemployed and poor families are often excluded from access to and participation in arts and cultural activities. Barriers include basic costs, as well as the daily struggle of surviving leaving little spare time to participate in cultural activities.

This example cuts to the core of the problem. As explained above, poverty often means that you generally have fewer channels through which to communicate your interests on international, national or even local levels. While lack of freedom of expression is a violation of human rights in itself, this inability to raise your voice and speak for yourself can have devastating spill-over effects. As the UN Communication for Development UN Communication for Development  panel pointed out in 2004, “challenges of poverty alleviation (…) must be designed and implemented with active participation of the communities in question”. How can the programmes meant to help the poor hope to effectively do that, if the poor themselves do not have a say in them? The lack of participation in policies that affect them and their communities means poor people are made vulnerable to misguided policy-making misguided policy-making . Or, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights  put it in a recent statement: “Lack of participation in decision-making is thus a defining feature and cause of poverty, rather than just its consequence.” The outcome is that the people with potentially the most to gain from freedom of expression are the ones who lack the access to it.

The idea that freedom of expression can help lift people out of poverty is has been recognised in development circles for decades, often masked in less politically charged development jargon like “voice”, “empowerment” and “participation”. But action based on this idea has left much to be desired.  The Millennium Development Goals, widely recognised as the biggest global push to eradicate poverty, have thus far put very little focus on freedom of expression. The term isn’t included once in the MDG progress reports from 2005 to 2012.

However, there are reasons to be cautiously positive about recent progress on the matter. In 2012, the UN appointed a high-level panel to determine a new development agenda to take over from the MDGs when they “run out” in 2015. A number of actors involved in this process have signalled they would like an increased focus on human rights human rights, among other things calling for media freedom to be included in the agenda. The Institute of Development Studies also recently launched their Participate project which aims to “put cameras in the hands of the poor”, to have their own stories be part of the post-2015 development agenda. DFID, USAID and the Swedish government are launching Making All Voices Count, a project to help the global poor access new technology to help them participate in society and the political process.  These are important steps, but the momentum must be maintained.