ATD Fourth World Movement - A record of poverty
The ATD Fourth World Movement was set up by Father Joseph Wresinski in 1957, when one or two families in abject poverty revealed that there was a whole section of society living in exclusion. ATD has worked ever since to ensure that these people are respected and that they can extricate themselves from their situation. It wants the families to live in dignity, have the means of bringing up their children and contribute work and experience as their share in the country's future, and it wants them to take part in the plans made for society and to have the same opportunities for self-expression and representation as other groups.
The Movement finds out about the Fourth World and spreads its story. It tries to analyse the machinery of exclusion and recommend ways of handling it. It offers a great deal of training in the field and it centralises all the information, observations and personal testimonies collected from the most deprived families, retracing their experience and their hopes.
It has teams of permanent volunteers in Africa (Burkina Faso, the CAR, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal), America (Canada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and the USA), Asia (the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Taiwan), the Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion) and Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) and correspondents in 112 countries.
Father Joseph Wresinki's own words - taken from a book of interviews with Gilles Anouil in 1953 - serve to illustrate the philosophy of the Fourth World Movement.
'If you want more players to join the game, there is no point in just dealing the cards again. You have to change the rules.'
'The Movement is not trying to solve the problem in anyone else's place. Everyone has to work out his own solution.'
'We are calling for a global effort with the poorest members of society ... it is difficult to make people realise that everyone will benefit from it.'
The Courier met Jean Tong/et the ATD Fourth World Movement delegate to the European Communities, to find out more.
• Mr Tonglet, can you, first of all, tell us about the Movement, how it started and what its ideas are 7 Why is it called Fourth World ?
- Our ATD Fourth World Movement is an international movement which combats the most abject forms of poverty. That is to say that, wherever we are in the world, we try to reach the people whom economic and social development projects have passed by, people who have never seen anything of the general progress of the West. You find such people in the rich countries too. Back in the so-called 'glorious thirties' when there was supposedly full employment, there were people living in slums (in the 1950s), and exactly the same situations are occurring in the countries of the Third World today. On some continents, Africa, for example, where the informal sector is expanding, there are jobs for fewer than 10% of the working population. In other places, Asia especially, there is talk of development, but the price of the top-speed development of the dragons of South East Asia, as we all know, is the exclusion of the weakest members of society. And the same processes have the same effects here and everywhere else.
Reaching out to the 'most tired'
Our idea is really to get to the people Africans sometimes call the 'most tired'; which is a good description of those who have been excluded. We want to reach those who cannot keep up, the weariest, poorest and the most underprivileged members of society, whom we on the continent of Europe call the lower proletariat and the British and Americans call the under-class. The terms vary widely. We ourselves talk about the poorest and the most underprilvileged. We have come up with the term 'Fourth World' which we added to our title in the 1960s. We were mainly in Europe at that stage, virtually only in Europe and the USA.
We were convinced that the idea that poverty concerned only the individual, isolated some people from the rest as if they had nothing to do with them, was wrong and that, over and above any cultural differences and communication problems, what we were up against was in fact a collective, global phenomenon.
We started by bringing back into use terms which modern sociology had left on the sidelines - a term like proletariat, which was obviously not a new word because Marx used it. Then, we started talking about the Fourth World at a time when Alfred Suave had just coined the term Third World, and we did so in a frame of mind similar to his. We invented the term Fourth World in 1968-69, after historical research into the Cahiers du Quart Etat, more precisely the Quatrieme Ordre des Mendiants, des Infirmes, des Vagabonds et des Journaliers at the time of the French Revolution, in 1789.
The three letters A, T and D were in the Movement's first titles and you might like to know how that came about. The first association, which Father Joseph set up for slum families, was called Action and Culture Groups of the Friends of the Fourth World in the Paris Area, or something along those lines and, when it went to register with the authorities, it was turned down, because most of its organisers were former offenders, in a way, people whose poverty had brought them into conflict with the law. So Father Joseph had to appeal to friends to vouch for the association and one of them, Jacques Beaumont, a Protestant pastor, suggested that we add the words Aide à Toute Détresse (Aid for All Distress) to the title, to show that the organisation did more than cater for immediate needs, such as food.
But we are gradually phasing out the term now. For historical reasons, we have kept the initials, particularly in France, but of course this can sometimes create confusion, because it can easily be taken for an organisation that provides immediate assistance, which is not what the Movement is all about.
• You must have to tread a very fine line between enabling the poor to express themselves and helping them get organised, which is absolutely vital, and being some kind of an institution ?
Not just another charity
- I think that both of these functions were present at more or less the same time. The pace was different, but the courses were parallel. The founder of the Movement arrived in this place of poverty and identified with it. 'When I got there, I felt two things,' he always said. 'I found my people. I was back where I had come from.' And he gathered those people together and asked them to speak their minds. 'That was when I realised that, if i wanted to change the situation of these families, there was no point in just creating another charity and going on dishing out soup and things like that,' he said. 'I had to go for a complete change of course and ground.
'And this triggered all the work on culture and knowledge and the sharing of knowledge and training and led to the creation of street libraries and vocational training workshops for people without a trade in Africa and on the rubbish tips of Guatemala and in the cemeteries of the living dead in the Philippines. And then there was a third thing, the idea that it was up to me to get these people to appear in public, in the places where our future is shaped.' rather Joseph put it in a rather imaginative way. 'That was the day I realised that I had to get my people to climb the steps of the UN and the Elysée and the Vatican.' And we are still concentrating on being with the poorest people in society now, being constantly alert to the latest trends in poverty. It means we have to move about, leave some districts and go to others, leave some countries and go to others and cater for new developments.
We certainly do ensure our presence, of course, but not just being present. We make our presence tell through actions in many different areas, but, above all, when it comes to listening to what these people have to say. Our demands are very high. Right from the start, our founder, Father Joseph, said that all volunteers involved in the work of the Movement had to undertake to write down everything they learnt about these people every day and we have built up an incredible mass of writing, an incredible record of the daily life of the very poor over the past 35 years. All of these, that is to say, the sum of all this knowledge, are in a place we call 'the Register'. It is a unique body of knowledge and very useful, because otherwise there is very little material on the poor and their opinions. There are the records of people who have worked with the poor and of religious institutions set up to combat poverty and so on, but there is very little evidence of what the poor themselves actually have to say. They don't write it down. Legal record offices perhaps can tell us most. The rest is lost. People use our records to reconstitute family history from monographs and there is more theme-oriented research too, such things as in-depth investigation of the family in the midst of abject poverty.
And we work with the institutions too. This is something we began very early on, back in the 1960s. We had our two first conferences with UNESCO in 1961 and 1962 and then we tried to develop contact with other bodies, including French bodies, of course, which was a long, hard job, but one day it all led to some kind of public recognition of our role as a spokesman and representative.
In 1985, mounting poverty, as shown by the emergency measures taken in the winter, which involved the setting up of soup kitchens and so on, led to the French Economic and Social Council realising that there had to be some more serious thinking on poverty and that there was more to it than opeining up metro stations and dishing out soup. That was when Father Joseph was asked to produce a report on abject poverty. We tried to develop our action through other international bodies from then on and we soon went to the Council of Europe, because it did not take us long to realise that more had to be done to get poverty recognised as a violation of human rights. We also developed contact with the ILO, because fighting poverty of course means ensuring access to jobs and employment, and with UNESCO, because the fight for culture has always been one of the cornerstones of the Movement. The first action all our teams take all over the world has always been cultural. There have been other actions too but the starting point has always been something cultural, be it with children and babies or with young people and adults.
Meeting with the European Community
We had to meet the European Economic Community too. It all began through the friendship of Albert Coppé, then a member of the Commission, who received Father Joseph. That was the decisive meeting, which led to a first study in which the Movement tried to put a figure to the number of the poor in the European Community, and then there was another meeting, with Mr Hilary this time, and the adoption of a first European antipoverty programme. Jacques Delors has also received us on a number of occasions and we had a very long audience with Edgard Pisani to discuss development policy.
Work goes on constantly in the field, data are gathered systematically, the knowledge is organised and this is the basis, the broadest possible basis, on which we can negotiate with the various authorities. We categorically refuse to confine ourselves to poverty issues, although that is always what people want us to do. In 1980, we set up an inter-political group in the European Parliament, the European Fourth World Committee. If we listened to the MEPs, we should spend our whole time giving opinions on the poverty programmes and the Community's exclusion initiatives and so on, but, if we did this, we would miss out on all sorts of other reports, directives, recommendations etc. which are of great interest for the future of the poorest people in society and often of far greater interest than poverty control programmes.
You are often seen as defenders of the Fourth World in the countries of the North and some people think that you do nothing at all for the South. Can you tell us what you are doing for the countries in the South and how you see the link between North and South here ?
In fact, our ties with the countries of the South are both longstanding - in terms of the contracts - and recent. In 1958-59, when the Movement was just beginning, Father Joseph and the first volunteers sought contact in other countries of Europe, if only to help clarify what they themselves were experiencing at Noisy-le-Grand and borrow other people's ideas and look at solutions tried out in the Netherlands and Switzerland and Great Britain. And links outside Europe were soon established too. We ran exchanges with the USA in the early 1960s, as part of the American poverty control programmes launched by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In 1967, for example, I know that Father Joseph went out to India to meet people working in the slums there. He would have liked to send volunteers out to the Third World straight away, but it was out of the question at that stage, because there weren't enough volunteers and the Movement probably wasn't ready, so that sort of thing didn't start until 1978. The Movement first started its action in both Guatemala and Thailand in 1979 - the year in which we ran a campaign right across Europe in what we call the people's universities of the Fourth World (training centres for fourth world adults), with the idea of combating racism and fostering friendship with foreigners, because we could sense worrying tendencies emerging in public opinion - especially, perhaps, in public opinion in the poor sections of society. We had refugees from South East Asia in some of these people's universities, and they told us about life in the refugee camps. Some people said that we should be out there too, that the Fourth World Movement should be present in South East Asia, so we sent out volunteers.
• Some say that poverty could be the 'wealth of nations' others that penury must be transformed into controlled poverty. This idea of the dignity of poverty is a common one, but many people in the South object to the idea and think it is just another piece of side-stepping by the North! Has your Movement developed a particular line of thought on this ?
- What we have found in every latitude is that the biggest threat to the poorest families is still a failure to recognise their human dignity and usefulness. Are they good-for-nothing or are they good for something? That's the way people put it and it is a philosophical question which can well be applied to the West too.
Frankly, I very much doubt that there is any point in expecting an eventual and still hypothetical return to economic growth to create jobs for Europe's 40 million social outcasts. Indeed, I do more than doubt it. I am convinced that we need something new, for the traditional model of paid employement is a thing of the past. The world model for western-style development is a thing of the past too and we are moving towards another form of development, which does not mean that people have to be kept poor. That is why we have always made a distinction between penury and poverty, although it is one which has not always been properly understood. In Europe, we go one step further, particularly in Community circles, because we don't even talk about poverty any more. Exclusion is the word and it seems to me to be very dangerous, because I can see us gradually sliding into a situation in which the concept of exclusion covers a host of people who are more or less excluded, practically speaking, for a host of reasons other than poverty and who are far better placed in terms of public opinion and lobbying than the actual poor. MEPs and national MPs and general advisers in French departments find categories like the disabled and the aged far more interesting and politically manageable than the poor.
• Thereby running the risk of losing sight of the genuinely poor and deprived in the vast category of outcasts.
- Absolutely. And with the additional danger of there being no assurance whatsoever that we can actually reach the poor handicapped and the poorest old people in categories defined in this way. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, in the end, the important thing as far as we are concerned is for the people themselves to be able to choose. Those who want to continue to have access to jobs should be able to do so, but some way has to be found of catering for the fact that there will no longer be enough jobs to go round.
A Ministry of Cooperation director said of an ATD Fourth World scheme in Upper Volta that 'the State cannot finance the run up to development' and it is a great pity, because a scheme which does not give the beneficiaries the time or the means to prepare for development, could well be uncaring, in fact, by intervening in people's lives and totally ignoring their sensibilities and being blind to any reactions. This betrays profound disrespect. The so-called helpers have no idea that there could possibly be any ideas or any sensibilities to respect. It does not occur to them that people are free to decide for themselves whether or not to go for a scheme or whether to adjust it, counter it or refuse it. Just thinking about that would already constitute a revolution, but it is still a far cry in the Third World and over here too. Partners get together and come up with projects and they only wonder whether and how to involve the poor afterwards - which is quite different from looking upon them as partners from the outset.
• You mentioned contact with the International Labour Organisation just now. One thing bothering a lot of people at the moment is social dumping. Some say it is a good thing, because it means work for the Third World, and others say that, alas, it creates unemployment over here. Suppose the ILO asked you, in the ATD Fourth World Movement to think about this one day. Do you already know just where you stand ?
- We haven't analysed this subject specifically so far, but there are two things. I should like to say. First, the best thing we in the Community can do for the recognition of ILO norms, particularly in the social sector, is to apply them ourselves. In many cases, young people at work for example, I fail to see the logic of undoing at Community level what has been agreed in the ILO. As far as the Third World is concerned, the question is the inclusion of social clauses in the international trade agreements which is the way we should be moving.
Interview by Dominique David
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