The Barefoot Against Poverty campaign has beaten expectations by drawing support from around the globe, but what does it all mean for the fight against poverty. Rowena McNaughton writes.
The gathering stopped just after midday. Rajesh Upadhyay, Executive Director of Confederation of Dalits in India, walked to the podium, raised his arms in a signal for quite, and attempted to begin a prepared speech. The thousands of Indians assembled before him cheered. And, in a prolonged outburst of emotion, they kept on cheering. The cheering got louder and louder, and before long even passer-byers got swept up in the enthusiasm.
The group were not just in rupture over the anticipated words about ending social exclusion and poverty, or swept up in the momentum of the barefoot march. They were cheering the fact that they were cheering, because they knew what the cheering really meant. Something about their common response confirmed the feeling that had been gaining ground: uniting in shared solidarity might actually stand for something, and the momentum of civil society standing up against fundamental violations of human rights such as poverty could take off. The crowd shouted approval yet more. For the rest of the afternoon, that cheering in the streets of Delhi, from thousands of barefoot Indians standing and walking in solidarity against social exclusion and poverty, was as important a winning sign as any diplomatic talk or government meeting. People stood tall.
Like the barefoot walk in India to commemorate International Human Rights Day on December 10, a steady stream of individuals and groups, slipped off their shoes around the globe as part of the Barefoot Against Poverty campaign run by Every Human Has Rights.
On a busy bus in Singapore, a fresh-faced Loretta Marie Perera, confirmed via her mobile phone that it was 12:00. Her shoes were off. And although barefoot alone on that bus, she wrote on facebook that evening, that she felt part of a global movement. But the response she received from one her fellow bus-riders was far from empowering. “I was barefoot on the bus for Barefoot Against Poverty and a woman looked at me in disgust and gets up to get away from me. That really hurt, and I can’t imagine how much more it would hurt if going barefoot wasn’t a choice, and I didn’t have shoes to go home to,” she posted on December 10.
In Cuba, and across the ditch their brothers and sisters in Miami, International Human Rights Day took on a different character for dozens of Cuban activists. Whilst also barefoot, the tone from participants was poles apart from the inward reflections of a young woman on a Singapore bus.
“The poverty in Cuba is more than a material deficiency, it is the lack of fundamental rights of all Cubans withheld by a dictatorship,” commented Lavarrere Manuel Aguirre, Chairman of the Integration Committee Racial, from Havana.
Aguirre noted that Cuban activist participation on December 10, and subsequent barefoot walk was for one cause: “The unconditional release of all political prisoners and the right of everyone to choose our destiny without guidelines or frameworks imposed by the regime.” Along with Lavarre, activists from 12 provinces in Cuba mobilised groups such as the Ladies in White, the Latin American Federation of Rural Women, the Municipalities of Opposition, the Racial Integration Committee, the Youth Coalition Marti, and personalities like Dr. Darsy Ferrer, for a barefoot walk.
As the clock ticked over to midday in Geneva, Switzerland, the gleaming corridors of the United Nations headquarters took on an uncharacteristic scene. Barefoot suited men and women walked proudly. In Canada, in sub zero degree conditions, dozens amassed and walked barefoot in the snow. This scene of barefoot individuals was replicated throughout the world; Jamaica, Ghana, Australia, South Africa, Portugal, Kazakhstan, Venezuela…..people walked and stood proud.
Barefoot Against Poverty could
So why did people embrace an anti poverty and human rights campaign when so many initiatives struggle to draw attention? One reason is its simplistic ask. Ending poverty is often the aim of campaigns; Barefoot Against Poverty simply dared to ask people to become aware. It’s a fairly modest ask, but is it enough?
An obvious need itself is another reason. International Human Rights day, a day that commemorates the birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the cornerstone of democracy – had to date, no universal means for individuals to collectively celebrate.
Global Campaign Against Poverty (CGAP) in Portugal, which had previously operated in isolation on International human Rights Day, went out of its way this year, staging a three day human rights conference, and probably set the mark for what can be achieved.
None of this action amounts to a breakthrough in the fight against poverty. Half the world’s population still woke up on December 11 facing the stark reality that they needed to get by over the next 24 hours on less than $2.50.
But something may have started to shift. The coming together of organisations across the spectrum – from grassroots Non Government Organisations’ to global governance organisations such as the UN- and the smattering of commercial businesses and education units, means there is new platform of human right defenders. And this new “group” includes, a motivated front to act.
With more feet on the ground, and more voices in the fight, perhaps the momentum can continue. Or as, Naketa West, a barefoot participant noted: “movements like this can make a difference no matter how simple it may seem because many other before us fought for our freedom and we need to keep up the fight.”
The cheering went all afternoon.
See pictures of people going Barefoot Against Poverty around the world