Here’s the transcription of Dr Philip Alston’s video message to the Fourth Decent Standard of Living Colloquium in October 2019.


I am very grateful for the opportunity to say a few words at the beginning of the Fourth Annual Colloquium on a Decent Standard of Living in South Africa.

It’s great that you are engaging in this incredibly important work. I have only been in South Africa once, which was way back in 1997 where I was involved in launching anti-poverty hearings along with Kadal Asmal, who I had got to know in the preceding years of his anti-apartheid work from Dublin, but he was one of the key people and obviously made a huge contribution in terms of the approach to the Water Resources Act and how he turned that into a potential human rights instrument.

But It’s also clear that for all of the brilliance of the South African constitution and the promise that was held out, we haven’t seen the sort of progress that one would have hoped in terms of basic economic and social rights in the South African community. So, I think that it’s very important the work that you are doing.

There are a lot of challenges, and I don’t need to describe them to such a sophisticated group. The Committee on Economic, Social Cultural rights, which now very fortunately has Sandra Liebenberg among its members, made a number of recommendations I think, but the issue that is raised by the efforts that you are focusing on now, is in some ways how to transcend the problems of both proceduralism, which is of course and issue that’s been long criticised in terms of a constitutional jurisprudence, and also minimalism, which is a long standing issue/problem in the human rights area. In other words, if we are looking for an adequate standard of living do we take the easy path out and say this is only an issue that involves those who are living in extreme poverty and thus we are talking about absolute minimum necessities, or do we raise the threshold to a higher level.

I think that the work you are doing now is clearly premised on the inadequacy of the minimalist approach. I think you are adopting absolutely the right approach. I should say just in passing that in my current capacity as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, I actually give all too little attention perhaps to the word ‘extreme’ because my assumption is that it’s not very helpful to be trying to make those sort of distinctions – it’s not going to bring about the change that is necessary if we really focus on the question of those who are absolutely in the lowest category of living standards, and it is better to adopt a broader approach. So, my work looks at the issues of poverty and even veers quite often into say those even in the 30% level who are in many countries are at constant risk of poverty but really need to be addressed in the same sort of category.

I think that we do need to link this to the concept of human dignity because that’s what brings it all together. That also emphasises to us the need to ensure that both the civil and political rights are part of any such strategy to achieve an adequate standard of living, but also that we look at the impact of inadequate standard of living on people’s ability to exercise their civil and political rights, and so it really does cut both ways.

I think that the work that has been done in South Africa recently on the need for a decent standard of living is extremely important. We know that the international standard refers to an adequate standard of living. There are good arguments why that should be interpreted at least in conjunction with the right to human dignity, the concept of decent work and combined in a way that really emphasises that we are not really just trying to satisfy the bare minimum, but to really promote the notion of a standard of living that is much more adequate and much more decent, to enable people to enjoy the fullest of their lives.

It’s important, and my understanding is that this conference is premised to a large extent on the importance to present this effort very much as a question of rights. We still haven’t transcended in many parts of the world the link to charity, and indeed a lot of countries are moving backwards in terms of almost trying to almost change the notion of accountability. In other words, rather than the state being accountable to the individual to ensure that there’s decent standard of living, individuals are now having more and more demands imposed on them if they are going welfare, benefits and so on, more and more possibilities of being excluded from it such that the individuals suddenly become accountable to the state. And once that happens, the notion of a right to a decent standard of living just because you are a member of the community disappears very quickly. So, the rights to mention is very important. I think we need to constantly say other rights are not as meaningful as they must be if one is living in poverty. It’s clear that all of the other rights become much more problematic and much more subject to violation when one is living in poverty, and so there’s this much larger link.

I think there’s also the instrumentalist dimension which is relevant to the work you are doing. In other words, the argument that if South Africa (or any other country) is really trying to build a sustainable economy, it can’t simply leave a large number of people living in poverty – that’s just economic bad sense quite apart from the inhumanity of it – and to have more people being able to lead constructive lives that contribute to the economic and social growth is a very important aspect.

At the end of the day I think that your conference is going to contribute very significantly. These measurements and campaigns needs to be developed at the national and the local level. International conceptions can go so far, but they won’t resonate in the way that you design and you can shape and will be able to.

We need to keep in mind what I would think of as the twin pillars – one is simply the human rights dimension, in other words, there really is a right to a decent standard of living that’s linked to dignity. And secondly and secondly, poverty is a political choice. In other words, even a country like South Africa, even in the current problematic economic situation, poverty could be very significantly alleviated and probably even eliminated if there was the political will, but of course there’s not. So, the big challenge is how can one use the sort of measurements and emphasis on rights that you are promoting in order to really bring about a change in political priorities and the way in which the community thinks of poverty as a violation of human rights. Good luck in your work!