Credible Rights Based Alternative VS Economic Alternative

I wrote this text as an answer to some questions Nazmul Ahsan (Senior Program Officer at ActionAid Bangladesh) asked to the colleagues. Maybe it could be useful to clarify some issue at stake in our program work.

Does Economic Alternative can create credible rights based alternative? it is complementary or supplementary?

First of all, I think is necessary to agree about the terms. In the ActionAid Human Right Based Approach manual, People’s Action In Practice (available here: http://bit.ly/1QQxCaQ) only feminist economic alternatives is defined, as “innovative solutions that seek to address the gender biases in the present economic system (at both micro and macro levels) and that recognise the significance of unpaid care work”, while alternatives are defined as “ideas which stretch the scope of our existing interventions or frameworks – promising something different for the future, something positive, something that changes systems”.

Whithin this framework, we must consider as economic alternative only a structural change, as, for instance, a more fair fiscal system? Maybe not: further in the handbook the scope of economic alternative is narrowed a little bit; we read “A lot of our work in promoting economic alternatives for women will focus on young women, reducing the multiple responsibilities of care work they juggle and helping them find new forms of sustainable income“.

Holding that true, we can say that economic and right based alternative are intertwined and complementary.

Intertwined because, for instance, a fairer tax system is both a right based and an economic alternative; the same is for a minimum income scheme.

Complementary, because, for example, strengthening small business held by people in poverty, is an economic alternative (to overcome poverty), that, along with other economic alternatives (as strengthening occupability), is necessary, but not sufficient to overcome poverty. For example, not all people could run a small business or find a decent work, because of illness, age, or discrimination.

In the same way, right based alternatives are necessaries, but not sufficient too. A minimum income it’s right to create a safety net for people in poverty, but it isn’t an answer for a young or adult women or man who would like to have a job. To put another example: a universal health system is a fundamental right based alternative, very useful to prevent people to fall in poverty, but it’s not sufficient to overcome poverty in itself.

Where the economic alternative hit to change the structural cause?

Somehow I’ve answered this question above, showing how right based and economic alternatives are intertwined.

It’s clear that the micro economic alternatives doesn’t change the system, but insert some people into the system; they are alternative because they change – or may change – the power relations.

I can add that, from an historical and empirical point of view, the two side have a circular feedback: people who are improving their economic position, will probably fight for their rights (not only economic), while universal civil, political and social rights give all opportunities to have economic alternatives.

What are the key aspects we need to ensure in our work on creating economic alternative?

I think this question deals with many many issues, but I try to answer with three points:

1) Economic alternatives (in the broad and narrow meaning) have to be effective. If a family starts a small business, it has to be sustainable in the long term, and give the family the very opportunity to escape poverty.

2) Economic alternatives has to be also environmental and social sound. This goal, of course, many times clashes with the first point, but an unjust economic activity is, by definition, not an alternative.

3) Said that, the “problem” of the economic alternatives (and, I think of most of the economic realm) is that many changes – not all, but many – are beneficial to someone and detrimental to others, at least in a comparative way. This point has to be kept in mind, notwithstanding it’s quite impossible to deal with it and, at the same time, do something in this field.

Under the threshold. We settle it now

I wait for Mrs Maria (we will use this fictitious name out of respect for her privacy) in a room of the Levi Library, a beautiful and welcoming space in the heart of the Barriera district of Milan, on the extreme outskirts of Turin. Maria is the first participant in the ActionAid project “Ora facciamo i conti” (the Italian sentence means both “we settle it now” and “let’s do the math”). 

To put it all, I am a little agitated: right from the start, Maria amazes me for its energy. I was afraid that the meeting issue would make dialogue difficult, but it’s flowing, as between two people sitting in the same train compartment. We are talking about children and rent, studies and passions, the difficulties of making the ends matter, work, travel, and choices.  Maria is one of the 950 people who in Turin saw the application accepted to receive the new purchase card. Since she applied in August 2013, she had to wait nine months to receive it, but her family has had an additional monthly income of just over 300 euros since May this year.

Maria is also one of 475 randomly selected people to participate in an “activation project”. These projects are specific actions that the municipalities must activate in support of the measure, but no funds have been allocated. Therefore, the Municipality of Turin relies on other existing programs, managed by the same municipal structure, but financed externally, as in the case of “lavoro accessorio” (ancillary work, a project in which the person receives a small remuneration to carry out work with associations). Or it seeks to increase the operation of social services; or, finally, it relies on activities or projects carried out by private organisations, as in our case.  If the person who receives the new purchase card does not participate in the “activation project”, they lose it.

Maria is therefore talking to me because she has to, but she doesn’t show it. On the contrary, she says that group work, which I briefly presented to her, will be an opportunity to learn new things.  

The group work consists of six meetings, during which participants will discuss the use of money and address some issues of financial literacy. Each participant will then be able to avail themselves of financial advice and psychological accompaniment free of charge.

Maria has not had a formal and stable job for two and a half years: she has left the labour market due to a set of small health problems and care for her children and has not re-entered it. Like her,  another 55,000 women are unemployed in Turin. In total, with men, you get to 118 thousand people (ISTAT data for the Province of Turin). It is a significant number – the highest rate of all the North Centre’s metropolitan provinces – and one of those that has grown the most since 2007, which means that many of the “newly unemployed” are not used to it.

Precisely the exponential increase in people in poverty since 2007 motivated ActionAid to strongly support the proposal to insert the REIS (Reddito di Inclusione Sociale, i.e. minimum income) in the next budget law, also launching an online petition.

While continuing to work with social card beneficiaries with monitoring and participation activities within personalised activation projects, ActionAid recognises that this measure is too categorial and lacks an organic vision of the fight against poverty. That is why we support a proposal aimed at all families living in absolute poverty in Italy, combining a mix of rights and duties with a strong component of social inclusion.

This post was published on the ActionAid Italia page.