Fighting poverty: From dependency to empowerment

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poverty.jpg [Z S/Flickr]

To win the fight against poverty, make the poor your partners. This is the core message from leading contenders for the 2015 Civil Society prize organised by the European Economic and Social Committee, writes Gonçalo Lobo Xavier.

Gonçalo Lobo Xavier is Vice-President for Communication at the European Economic and Social Committee.

The committee has shortlisted five candidates from a field of more than 100 for this year’s prize which will be awarded at a ceremony in Brussels on 10 December. The five, one each from Germany, Finland, France, Ireland and Poland, present snapshots of what is being done by thousands of voluntary groups and NGOs across Europe. Each of the five tackles the 2015 theme “Combating Poverty” in its own way. 

But the same arguments and proposed solutions recur. Escaping from poverty requires first and foremost a home, proper healthcare and a job.  But even the working poor are at risk. There is a clear consensus among candidates that the hand-out mentality of many poverty-reduction programmes has to change.  The poor must be empowered and motivated as full and equal participants if they are to recover self-esteem, practice self-help, and apply the social skills needed to secure their future.

The contest for the 2015 Civil Society prize is the seventh in a series launched by the European Economic and Social Committee in 2006. This year the prize money has been raised to €50,000 from €30,000. The success of some of the projects described below has already been confirmed by the fact that they are being replicated in other European countries and even beyond. Reaching the shortlist for the 2015 EESC prize raises their profile in their home country, helping with fund-raising and recruiting volunteers. It also raises their status across Europe as examples of best practice for others to consider.

The five short-listed initiatives are:

Armut und Gesundheit in Deutschland provides healthcare for hundreds of homeless people in and around Mainz. It operates a mobile medical unit which brings healthcare to the locations where the homeless live. Besides medical treatment from a range of specialists, the service offers nursing and care and counselling services. Visiting patients in their familiar surroundings creates a relationship of trust and participation, which also translates into a higher level of compliance with the treatment on the part of patients. The mix of staff includes doctors, social workers and educationalists.

Armut und Gesundheit has equipped clinics for the poor in Brasov (Romania) and Thessaloniki (Greece). In 2015, it joined up with an NGO called Sea Watch, a private venture patrolling the Mediterranean, to assist refugees in distress during dangerous sea crossings to Europe.

In Finland, Y-Foundation provides affordable housing for the most vulnerable in society, including homeless substance abusers, people who are mentally ill or recovering from psychiatric problems, homeless ex-prisoners and those evicted from homes for unpaid rent. Y-Foundation sees housing as a basic human right.

Homelessness in Finland has an extra dimension compared with most of Europe – its extreme winter climate. The foundation owns more than 6,900 apartments across Finland, mainly in Helsinki and the four other main cities.The foundation says its basic duty is to support health and social welfare by providing affordable good-quality rental housing to people who have difficulty finding accommodation in the open housing market. Rents for flats owned by the foundation are 30% lower than market prices in Helsinki and 10-30% lower elsewhere.

The main component of the Uniterres programme is a network of solidarity shops or “social grocers” whose aim is to provide the poor or low-income groups with a choice of affordable quality food from local producers. Uniterres uses short supply-chain social grocers to offer products from local farmers, often caught in a poverty trap themselves, at prices which are on average about 20% of normal retail prices. The food is sold in self-service stores, modelled as closely as possible on a normal food shop.

With solidarity as its core value, the Uniterres initiative enables vulnerable people to improve their diet and gain more independence in their choices and decisions. It is also a tool for supporting the local economy and targets sustainability. Funds injected locally are spent locally.

Third Age is an Irish community-based organisation which enables older people to remain active and engaged in society for as long as possible by helping themselves and others.

One of its programmes, called Failte Isteach (“Welcome In” in English) was launched in 2006 to meet a growing but unfulfilled need to teach new migrants basic English. Immigrants faced daily difficulties with integration because of their poor understanding or lack of English. Many faced isolation, social exclusion, poverty and lack of access to the jobs market. Failte Isteach has helped overcome this obstacle. It now offers 42,000 hours of free classes in conversational English, provided by older people. This programme has grown in nine years from a local rural activity to a national initiative, whose classes are attended by more than 2,200 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers each week.

Born of the social upheaval that accompanied Poland’s transition from communism of a market-based economy, the Barka Foundation has offered a second chance to many who got left behind in this process – long-term unemployed, the homeless, the poor, addicts, ex-prisoners and mentally disabled. The aim was to give them the professional and technical training, education levels, and social skills to get a job as members of mainstream society.

Barka’s activity is based on local initiatives bringing together programme participants with local authorities, civil society organisations, the private sector, housing associations, educational institutions and local labour offices. Through its integrated system of support for education and social entrepreneurship, the foundation has set up 100 partnerships in local communities. These are social integration centres, which function as vocational training institutions to assist the long-term unemployed get back into work.

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