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Robert Walker, “Do We Accept the Right to be Extremely Poor? Results from an Empirical Enquiry”

Robert Walker is currently a professor of Social Policy at the University of Oxford in England and an adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty. His work examines the way in which the pain of poverty extends beyond material hardship. Rather than being shameless, as is often claimed by the media, people experiencing poverty almost invariably feel ashamed at being unable to fulfill both their personal aspirations or societal expectations due to their lack of income and other resources. Walker calls this a key global challenge and advocates a new response to poverty based on global human rights legislation.

Walker is also the author of The Shame of Poverty, a two year qualitative investigation of the nature and consequences of shame associated with poverty conducted in seven settings located in rural Uganda and India; urban China, Pakistan, Korea the United Kingdom and Norway.  The research presented results consistent with the thesis that the shame is always associated with poverty and that this may reduce personal efficacy and contribute to the duration and prevalence of poverty, a process that may be aggravated by policies that stigmatise recipients of social protection.


Watch the full video of Dr. Walker’s talk below.

 Walker was interviewed over email by UNC student David Farrow.  Click here read the full interview.

The following is an excerpt from the interview.

“David Farrow (DF): In 1999, Amartya Sen called upon the international community to treat the impoverished as agents rather than patients. To what extent do you think academics and policy makers have undertaken this normative shift?

Robert Walker (RW): I prefer the term ‘the impoverished’ to ‘the poor’ in the sense that it hints at the predominance of structural causes for poverty rather than individualistic ones. However, use of the definite article creates a unified category submerging the individuality of people experiencing poverty. I tend to use the term ‘people experiencing poverty’. As to shifting the focus from patient to agent, a positive change in political-speak can be seen by comparing the different approaches to developing the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. When in public and on our best behaviour, we virtually all buy into this reconceptualization. When we are talking in private, desperate to tackle a phenomenon that continues to kill, maim, pain and humiliate, we often forget such considerations. Talking within the World Bank, I empathise with the view that ‘we just have to get resources into their hands it doesn’t matter how’; but it does matter, just ask people in poverty!”


This event was part of the 2014-2015 Duke Human Rights Center@FHI initiative on “The 99 Percent: Poverty, Justice and Human Rights,” and supported by a grant from Humanities Writ Large.


September 30, 2014
6:00 pm - 7:30 pm
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Smith Warehouse, FHI Garage, Bay 4
114 S Buchanan Blvd
Durham, NC 27701 United States
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