The Unheard Truth

Financial Times

  The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights By Irene Khan with David Petrasek WW Norton £13.99 272 pages FT Bookshop price: £11.19

What’s the best way of ending world poverty? Is it enough to boost economic growth? Or are other big changes, such as ending state repression and discrimination in developing countries, essential? As secretary-general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan is one of the world’s foremost human rights campaigners.

She believes that achieving higher living standards is only part of the solution. Western governments, multinational companies and others all have responsibilities that go beyond the old promises of more development aid or glossier corporate-social responsibility programmes. The Unheard Truth is Khan’s contribution to what is a big debate in development circles. She admits that her argument is “not new”, citing as an ally Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist – “incidentally, a fellow Bengali”.

Nevertheless, her voice is a clear, radical addition to the discussion.Khan sees four factors as vital in tackling the problem: ending deprivation, insecurity, social exclusion and political “voicelessness”. Yet the tendency to define poverty in terms of income levels means that these get short shrift in government and United Nations programmes, as well as in books by top economists. “Material benefits alone do not guarantee political power, end discrimination or improve security for poor people simply because they have increased their income above $2 a day,” she argues.

The horrifyingly high mortality rate of women in childbirth in developing countries is identified as the “ultimate illustration of the circle of human rights abuse” that perpetuates poverty. Over 99 per cent of maternal deaths are in developing countries, Khan observes, backing a UN official who argues that, if men gave birth, the issue would be taken more seriously. She is also tough on less emotive issues.

The UN, business groups and others, have for years tried to build consensus around voluntary guidelines to prevent western companies abusing environmental and human rights in developing countries. Not good enough, says Khan – new international rules are needed. Likewise, the “Millennium Development Goals” – the UN’s targets for tackling poverty, which have become a focus for many campaign groups – are flawed because they pay only lip service to human rights while concentrating on growth.

The Unheard Truth is important in a different way, too. When she took up her Amnesty job in 2001, Khan was heralded as the organisation’s first woman, and its first Asian, secretary-general. This month she leaves Amnesty for pastures new so this book is also about cementing her legacy.

This is likely to be based less on the two attributes of birth she started with, than on her efforts to put poverty and economics issues at the heart of a global human rights agenda. Such an approach reflects the priorities of campaigners in developing countries as much as those of their more influential comrades in Western countries. Her argument that poverty is the “new frontier of human rights” will stick in the throat of more traditional activists who believe that freeing prisoners of conscience is their key task.

The book has problems. It is repetitive and a bit hectoring, and would have benefited from more of Khan’s own life experiences – for example, her school years in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, her Harvard degree, and work in UN refugee camps. Instead all we get are rather formulaic snippets. The book is not an autobiography – but a few personal insights would have made it an easier read. That said, Khan is strong in arguing why her position belongs in the mainstream anti-poverty debate. This wider airing will help her case.

Hugh Williamson is the FT’s Europe news editor