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Redefining poverty

– If we are to fight poverty, we need to communicate more clearly through the media and to get across that poverty is a human rights issue, says Alberto Cimadamore.

The 50 year old Argentinian took over as leader of the Bergen based Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) in late spring and has spent the summer thinking about how he wants to shape the fight against poverty in his three year tenure as head of the project.

– There is a tendency for academics to get lost in the details of complex issues when dealing with the media. But I believe that the media is central if we are ever going to fight poverty, he says.

– Of course, these are complex issues. But if we don’t try to engage the public at large, we end up just speaking to the converted. We academics have to accept cutting some corners to get our fight against poverty across to a mainstream audience.

Stereotypes in the west

One of the things he wants to highlight is some of the notions of poverty held by many people in the west. In particular the idea that some countries are poor and others are rich.

– Poverty is an issue in most countries, whether rich or poor. You will find extreme riches in some countries we think of as third world and you will find pockets of poverty in many industrialised countries, he explains.

That is why CROP, which is co-sponsored by the University of Bergen, is not just dealing with the usual suspects in the shape of conferences in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but is also commissioning work on impoverished rural areas in the US and urban poverty in Europe.

Open-minded approach

CROP is also putting a lot of focus on the condition for children, a key group in the fight against poverty. In this work they are increasingly looking beyond traditional social sciences, such as recently published brief viewing child poverty through cognitive neuroscience.

– We want to break out of traditional ways of dealing with poverty. By embracing a more multidisciplinary and open-minded approach, we can deal with these issues more effectively, he says and believes that even big and bureaucratic organisations such as the UN is slowly waking up to tackling poverty in more unorthodox ways.

– I mean, it’s impossible to talk about poverty without connecting it to other issues facing the world, such as consumerism and global warming, Cimadamore argues.

Pockets of poverty

Before moving to Bergen, Cimadamore worked at CROP’s sister project CLACSO in Buenos Aires. Given his background, he has particular knowledge of the situation in Latin America, which has long been a prime target for CROP’s activities.

– Everybody is talking excitedly about Brazil as one of the world’s emerging economies that is now one of the richest countries in the world. And rightly so. But at the same time, this hides the fact that Brazil is probably the most unequal country in the most unequal part of the world, Cimadamore argues pointing out that the tourist image of Brazil is far removed from the struggles tens of millions of ordinary Brazilians face every day.

– I remember a project dealing with poverty in Latin America which focused on El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, because they were the poorest countries in the area. But this was completely ignoring the fact that there are areas of Mexico and Brazil where people are just as poor, even though these countries as a whole are wealthier. This is exactly the type of prejudiced stereotype that CROP wants to address, he says.

Major challenges ahead

The Argentinian social scientist also sees major challenges ahead in redefining how we view and ultimately fight poverty.

– The UN and World Bank reports set the tone for how we deal with poverty. We believe that by focusing on the conditions that create poverty a lot can be done. But there is a lot of movement on this, so people are clearly listening, he says.

This approach echoes with his own career path, from working with poverty issues on a more theoretical level before joining CLACSO in Buenos Aires ten years ago. This way he feels that he’s doing something more actively to combat poverty around the world and create growing awareness of these issues.

Local support system

Despite seeing the need to engage more with the media, Cimadamore sees this as only one part of the work lying ahead of him.

– One of the most important things that CROP engages in is providing researchers with the necessary tools. Many scientists find themselves isolated from valuable information and know-how. This is something that we can supply them with and helping them in their day to day work dealing with poverty in their local communities and eventually lift people out of poverty, he says enthusiastically before elaborating. – Our role is always indirect. Rather than carrying out projects ourselves, our job is to help identify the causes of the problems.

He also believes that we are in a unique position in the world today. Despite the credit crunch and turmoil in the world economy, the world has never been as rich as today.

– We live in a time when we have the resources to abolish poverty once and for all. There is no excuse in a world that is so rich not to deal with lifting everybody up, he says and argues that this is not a question of ideology or money. – This is an ethical and practical issue.

Poverty and human rights

He also believes it’s of the utmost importance to draw comparisons between poverty and human rights.

– The link between poverty and human rights has been on the stage for a while, but is only now gaining ground. In some reports UNESCO is now considering poverty in equal terms to slavery. This is all about changing attitudes. As with slavery, if you get people to think of poverty as unacceptable, then a lot more will be done to abolish it, he argues.

In this respect he believes working in Bergen alongside human rights groups such as the Rafto Foundation, will be beneficial.

– I must say that me and my family have had what we call a Latin welcome here in Bergen. Everyone at the University of Bergen has been extremely welcoming. I also believe that a lot of the emphasis on human rights and equality that characterise Norwegian society are a good basis for the work that CROP does, Alberto Cimadamore says.