Think Tank #25 – Poverty, Experience and/or knowledge? Knowledge and/or power?

With a représentative of ATD Fourth World, Oliver Van Goethem, ‘expert du vécu’ and Ludwig Simon, defender of the beggars in Namur/Namen.

For each definition of poverty, we run the risk of missing — or even denying — an essential aspect of the reality and experience of those who find themselves in precarious circumstances due to poverty. This stumbling block is ever-present in policies that aim to tackle (extreme) poverty, especially when policies are far removed from those who are directly concerned by the decisions and directions taken: in claiming to understand poverty and the solutions needed, we impose rules, infantilise, and animalise, reducing an infinitely complex reality to a few basic variables.

Some actors in the field have picked up on this issue. The organisation ATD (All Together for Dignity) Fourth World bases its work on this fundamental principle: the experience of poverty is itself a source of knowledge, and it is only in recognising and integrating this knowledge that the fight against poverty can hope to achieve something. This can be seen in their mission statement: “People living in extreme poverty are the first to refuse misery. They have unique knowledge and life experience that can lower the barriers separating people and communities. By combining our strengths, courage, our intelligence and our creativity, we can live together differently”.

This is also the view adopted by the Belgian “expérts du vécu” (which could be translated as “experiential experts”, i.e. individuals who, from their own, first-hand experience of poverty, can bring knowledge to public services): “If, as a public service, we want to bridge these gaps, we need to involve people who are experiencing, — or who have experienced — poverty. These people are best placed to help identify the challenges and obstacles. They are also the only ones who have had a broad, first-hand experience of different services and can therefore evaluate how effective or ineffective certain measures are in fighting poverty.”

But whether we are talking about ATD or the “expérts du vécu”, some questions can be raised: can we talk about ‘expertise’ when the person is still in a situation where the regular obstacles are likely to rear their head, despite the person having this role as ‘expert’? If having a first-hand experience of poverty is relevant and important, can’t a more detached experience be more, or at least equally relevant to finding solutions?

Restoring dignity to the poor is a huge task, but can we consider it a breakthrough if the socio-political and cultural conditions that cause that indignity in the first place are not challenged? Should we recognise the poor as a minority that deserves respect, dignity, and non-discrimination, or should we recognise poverty as a social phenomenon that must disappear because it is intrinsically undignified?

That is the question of this 25th Think Tank: can poverty yield knowledge? But, more fundamentally, is it always knowledge, and under what conditions? Does recognising this knowledge bring empowerment? Does it increase the poor’s their power to act, or does is only bring dignity to something undignified, without providing a means for them to escape from the initial inequality that has defined them?

Thursday 3 May 2018 from 12.00 to 14.00.
In French.
At DoucheFLUX, Veeartsenstraat 84 rue des Vétérinaires, 1070 Brussels.
Prior registration preferred (free sandwiches provided):