“The most fundamental struggle: building knowledge to liberate people from poverty”. (Wresinski)

11 November 2020

In this commentary, Jennie Popay (from the COVID-19 Other Front Line Alliance Co-ordinating Team) puts the Other Front Line Global Alliance into the wider context of global inequalities and knowledge justice.

Before COVID-19 emerged, around 25% the world’s population were living in poverty according to the world bank, including 10% in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 a day).

Half were children, a majority were women, and many were working for poverty wages.  Indigenous people are 6% of the world’s population but 15% of those in extreme poverty, as are many of the 10 million ‘stateless’ people.  Whilst poverty is concentrated in the global South, levels are high in all countries.  In 2018, 10% of the USA population, including 11 million children, lived below the official poverty line. In the UK almost a quarter of the population including over a third of children were “officially’ poor!  And these are two of the world’s richest countries.

People may quibble about definitions and argue about precise numbers, but the reality is that before COVID-19 wreaked its havoc, billions of children, women and men, living in every country in the world, had inadequate access to the resources, services and political power required to live fulfilling healthy lives: income, decent housing, food, fuel, education, health and social care, social connections, control over decisions impacting on their lives. As a result, they were already experiencing poorer health and lower life expectancy than more advantaged groups.  

The most visible front line of the COVID-19 pandemic is those working in hospitals and keeping essential services going in clinics, nursing homes, neighbourhoods and in people’s homes.  But the billions of people impacted most by the social injustice that scars all our societies are The Other Front Line. It is now obvious to those willing to ‘see’ that as in all previous pandemics, the negative impacts of COVID-19, and of many of the policy responses to it, are cruelly exacerbating pre-existing social, economic and health inequalities.  Even where policies have mitigated negative impacts for the most disadvantaged all the signs are that they will be short-lived.  In the UK and Australia for example, governments increased welfare benefits temporarily as growing numbers of people, widely perceived to be ‘more deserving’, lost their jobs.   

Most governments are drawing heavily on ‘science’ in responding to the pandemic–albeit they may not always do what scientists advise!  Professional knowledge has also been prominent.  But what about the knowledge of those on the Other Front Line of the pandemic?   Joseph Wresinski, a prominent anti-poverty campaigner argued that we all have a duty to “give pride of place” to “the knowledge which the poor and the excluded have from their first-hand experience of the twin realities of poverty and the surrounding world which imposes poverty on them”. 

But this duty is not easy to fulfil. Today in most societies relatively little power is attached to the “experiential” knowledge people acquire in their daily lives: and the more disadvantaged the group, the less valued their experiential knowledge, the more likely it is to be ignored, obscured and/or supressed.  Considerable effort on the part of scientists, politicians and others goes into maintaining this false but opportune distinction between expert knowledge and ignorance or anecdote.  

Taking seriously the knowledge acquired by those with direct experience of poverty and injustice is a matter of justice and human rights.  It is part of what Wresinski termed the “most fundamental struggle – to build knowledge to liberate people from poverty”.  They have a right to use their knowledge to shape the action taken by governments and other to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Their voices should be heard as countries and international agencies begin to construct the ‘new normal’.  To enable this to happen means challenging the long-standing dominance of scientific evidence and professional ‘expertise’. It means advocating for knowledge based on the lived experience of inequality and injustice to be treated as equal to, albeit different from, other expertise in decision-making processes locally, nationally and internationally.  It means responding constructively to the challenges to science and professional knowledge that experiential knowledge frequently embodies.  Since the pandemic emerged, UN agencies, NGOs, Civil Society Organisations and research institutions in many countries have taken up this challenge, gathering stories about the experience of COVID-19 amongst group most adversely impacted and using these accounts to influence policy.  

The Other Front Line Global Alliance hopes to contribute to this growing movement for knowledge justice. Despite the difficulties to be overcome over the past few months, a growing cadre of people are now involved in the Alliance as Other Front Line journalists telling stories from the COVID-19 Other Front Line around the world. The Other Front Line journalists and other Alliance members will meet together across geographical and language barriers to share experiences, identify common interests and use the stories to advocate for action that will increase social justice as we move out of the pandemic. If you are interested in getting involved please get in touch.