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Submitted by Veena Das on

Graham, thanks for clarifying further the issues regarding rights and responsibilities. I would like to suggest that the issues go deeper than simply following the accustomed paths of moral philosophy. Here is why.
First, there is considerable debate on what are the obligations of an individual toward those who live in poverty and the collective ,whether at the level of philanthropically oriented organizations, humanitarian organizations or the state.
Second, the claim that there is broad agreement that we are under some obligation to help the poor stands in need of further clarification with regard to the claims of the distant poor. Ethicists such as Peter Singer have argued that the distant poor have no such claims because it would be impossible to define conditions under which such obligations would be enforceable at the level of the individual.
Now we might say that this is precisely the reason that we must shift from a discourse of charity or aid to a discourse of rights . However, historical and anthropological work has shown that the granting of rights went simultaneously with far greater surveillance on the poor on the part of the State. The very fact that eligibility conditions had to be “verified” through inspections of the households of the claimants with visits by social workers meant that the poor had to “perform” their poverty. Recent work by Clara Han in a low in income neighborhood in Santiago, Chile shows that the bundling of conditions with rights led to the experience of humiliation as households were “inspected” to determine if they met the criteria. It was only the actions of those who shared the same everyday life through kinship or local proximity which helped the poor to deal with what Han calls critical moments.
So imposing of conditionality in granting rights from the State results in tremendous distortions in the way the poor are able to construct themselves as those with dignity. I am afraid that the long history of constituting the poor through the lens of either aid or charity, even when recast as rights cannot completely get rid of the earlier history of stigma. The priorities of many of the poor and he Dalits are to get respect – we must consider if the policies (governmental or imposed by other organizations) inadvertently lead to the stripping of this respect trough the mechanisms of delivery that are imposed. This issue is internal to the design of policy, not its unintended consequence.
Most conditions – e.g. that the poor must be made into working poor to be deserving of State welfare – work with little knowledge of how the poor need to balance various pressing obligations and deal with environments that are extremely hostile. The simple fact that if you live in one of the poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, you will not find any supermarket in your neighborhood and certainly no easy access to fresh food stores means that mothers of young children have to put in long hours of travel in addition to time spent in back breaking jobs in order to find a decent meal for the child. Unconditional cash transfers would at least get rid of the whole government bureaucracies who, as we can see increasingly, simply become the instruments of power in the lives of the poor.
Nevertheless I agree that the issue of what responsibility the recipient has is an important one. If an organization devoted to promoting school education finds that money provided for schools is being spent on alcohol by the family, how should we pose this issue in ethical or policy terms? In ethical terms it does seem that we need to consider the possibility that the promotion of what we think is a good cause (righting a wrong) should be regarded with some caution. After all when certain missionary groups made conversion as a condition to give food or provide schooling, they were working with the assumption that conversion would save the person from some terrible future such as going to hell. We might think it obvious today that the objectives we set are more enlightened and rational – but it will only be retrospectively clear whether the push to immunize all children, to send them to school, or coerce them toward good eating habits as well as the means to achieve these goals were correct or what distortions they produced While moral relativism is not a defensible position if we assume that different worlds are hermetically sealed from each other – perhaps giving some regard to the preferences of the poor and their views of the world might be crucial for relativizing our confidence in our own priorities.
So instead of thinking of moral issues only as thought experiments, how about allowing some experiences of how aid is actually given or finding out what the poor want and how they want those objectives to be fulfilled into our discussions? At least in some places like India, the poor have organized for certain purposes, participated in the democratic process and used courts of law for putting some of their own concerns forward – perhaps learning how to become the “unpoor”.