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Is food more important than political freedom?
Some argue there is a conflict between political and economic rights

What's the issue?

Food and freedom: some people in the world have both, some have one or the other and many have neither. In the USA, the land of the free, millions of people live in conditions of degrading poverty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts economic rights on an equal footing with political and civil rights. But governments around the world, including the richest of them all, do little to provide an adequate standard of living for all their citizens.

What people think

  • "I'm a very proud American citizen, and I believe there is nothing greater than the political freedom offered by my country... Even in the land of plenty, we must expect to work to receive".
    Brittney Moraski, age 14, Michigan, USA
  • "Call me an elitist if you want, but I agree with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). His stance on poverty was that a starving mind was a greater crime than a starving body".
    Jonathan C. Allen, Massachusetts, USA
    (Read these and other comments in full)



This programme in the 'I have a right to...' initiative was first broadcast on 20 October 2000. It was presented by BBC World Affairs Correspondent Rageh Omar and produced by Charu Shahane.

"I want to know why when I put the TV on I can see a commercial or something about the people over in another country being hungry while we have hungry people here in Washington. We've got kids here who's families are hungry and starving. Why can't we be recognised so we can benefit from housing, food and clothing. Can somebody tell me why?".

When Julia Miller was homeless on the streets of the United States capital Washington for ten years, she had the right to vote, but she was hungry. She had the right to join a trade union, but she didn't have a job. In this programme I'll be asking whether any rights should have a priority - in particular whether political freedom is more important than food.

"About the age of twelve I left home for a number for reasons, things happening in my home. So then I had to survive, so I learned a lot about being in the streets. I've never been to the point where I would eat from dustbins, like I saw some other people doing, I was blessed that people gave me food. I know how to survive. I'm still moving, I'm still struggling today and I try to help everybody that I come across, because I know how it is to be homeless and have nothing".

Who should provide for Julia? Doesn't she have a right to food, a right to shelter, a right to basic health care? Well in the richest country in the world it's largely left to charitable organisations, such as the interfaith group, SOME, - the acronym of So Others Might Eat - to provide for people like her.

Every day a team of volunteers comes to serve meals...

"I am David Bright and a volunteer for SOME. In SOME's main dining room we serve breakfast and lunch here seven days a week".

"I'm one of the people from Andrews Airforce base. This is our Tuesday, the third Tuesday of the month, we do lunch time. The good people of Andrews sent in today ninety-five casseroles. We also brought in about eight gallons of orange juice, eight bags of clothes, four bags of toys".

"OK, you'll see as they come in they'll pick up a plate and they'll go down the other end and have a seat. This young man will seat them and the people who come, we treat them with respect. They generally respond to that, so we have very few problems here. We give them a good meal - you saw the menu - we got cookies today".

According to government estimates, around two million people spend time homeless in America every year. Among them are women with children, victims of violence, people with serious mental illnesses, drug addicts, alcoholics, and those who simply can't afford to pay their rent. Millions more don't have enough money to pay for their food as well as their utility bills, such as electricity or gas. They may use soup kitchens for meals. They many also visit a food pantry which distributes basic foodstuffs such as bread, milk, and dried and tinned goods. Linda Donaldson is the director of advocacy and family services at SOME:

"In the richest country in the world we still have a problem with the distribution of health care, shelter, food. I think there certainly isn't a supply problem for food here in the United States, but there's a very serious problem with access. In the poorest section of the District of Columbia there is no major grocery store where people who are poor can buy food. It's an access issue. The same thing with health care, especially with this economic boom that we're experiencing. It certainly isn't true that a rising tide lifts all boats. I would say that there are lots of people who don't even have boats, so they can't be lifted".

"Give him a hand…"

Dion Lyles recently became the assistant kitchen manager for SOME. It wasn't so long ago when he found himself with no job and no home.

"I was homeless. I became homeless, lost my job and besides not having a place to live, I had no way to feed myself and I heard about SOME from other people, so I started coming to SOME myself and I was told that they offered housing and a lot of other services, so I checked up on that. I eventually got a job with SOME as a part time night manager and was asked about three months ago to come over here and be assistant manager of kitchen. And so that's it and here I am today".

The reality of homeless, hungry people getting by on handouts and voluntary care sits uneasily with the image of the land of the free. As Julia Miller told us earlier, it's not just in the developing world that people are struggling to get by. At the United Nations, the Commission on Human Rights has set up a working group on the right to development which is spearheading a change in thinking. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is Mary Robinson:

"I think there's an increasing recognition, which I welcome, that we have under valued the set of rights which we call economic, social and cultural rights and indeed the right to development as set out in the declaration on the right to development of 1986. When I say that the focus of attention for the human rights community at large for the period of the Cold War was to focus on civil and political rights, on issue of torture, prohibition of freedom of expression, preventing political activity, killings etc. All of those are extremely important, but equally important are the legal commitments under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, under the covenant on economic and social rights, to progressively implement economic, social and cultural rights: right to food, to basic health care, to safe water, to education. Increasingly we are recognising that both sets of rights are intimately linked, that you can't further human rights unless you adopt this balanced approach. And if that balanced approach of being strong in supporting both civil and political rights and also economic and social and cultural rights happens and the human being is at the centre of it, that's what we call the human right to development".

It's an increasing recognition but own which has a long way to go before it is embraced not only by world organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank, but also by national governments, because it places a huge burden on them to provide more for their citizens, more food, more shelter and more health care. At present, says the renowned Indian economist, Amartya Sen - a leading intellectual force behind the idea of the human right to development - the US government is actually violating its citizens' human rights by not providing adequate medical care:

"In the Human Rights sense, yes, that is if you think the human right to get health coverage, you could even say. The United States is not alone in doing that, but it is probably the only rich country which does not provide that right in the world. One has to be very careful how one places that, because the moment you say that you are violating rights, people say, but there is no such right in the United States. Then you have to say, well we're not talking about real right, we're talking about human rights".

In America most people's health cover is tied to their jobs. The only government provision is for those over sixty-five and those who are very poor or disabled. If you don't have a job, or if your employer doesn't provide health insurance, you may have to go without. On the other side of the road from SOME's dining room is its free health clinic. The group's director, Father John Adams, is proud of the services it provides:

"This is our eye clinic which is all beautiful new equipment, it was all donated. We have one day a week where we pay an eye doctor to come and we have other eye doctors that come and volunteer their time from universities. So this is a Godsend to have, an eye clinic".

It was to a clinic such as this that Dion Lyles decided to go when he became ill. The sad fact is, he says, that if you don't have health insurance, the alternative is to suffer:

"My friends who don't have health insurance have to deal with the illnesses that they have, be whatever it might be. Some places do have free clinics, but not a lot of places in (Washington) DC are like that, so they just have to live with it".

But why is it that charitable and other non-profit organisations are doing what in many parts of the world governments do - and their people expect as a right? Linda Donaldson believes the answer lies in America's origins, that historically many Americans blamed the poor for being poor:

"I think about the Protestant work ethic and the value of work and the value of self sustainability and how that seems to have carried over in many of our American traditions. And we have not...a more compassionate stance towards people who's needs arise from their situations, not from personal deficits. I think we still look at personal deficits versus the environmental factors that cause poverty".

As estimated forty-four million Americans are uninsured and the number is growing. Recently the World Health Organisation rated the USA thirty-seventh in terms of quality of health care. Those countries with universal healthcare systems generally had better results and the USA was ranked fifty-fourth in terms of the fairness of financial contributions towards healthcare. But, says Gail Shearer, the director of health policy at the Consumers' Union in Washington, health coverage for all Americans is still a long way off:

"There have been efforts to get national health insurance in the United States ever since the 1930s, but there have been decades and decades of fights over this and we haven't been able to reach a consensus of how you pay for a national health insurance programme. Over the last twenty or thirty years the insurance companies, the doctors, the health maintenance organisation, the pharmaceutical companies, they have been able to use their power and their money to resist major progressive changes in health policy in the United States".

The sick, with no health insurance often go to places like DC General, a charity hospital which has served Washington DC's poor for two hundred years.

It's emergency room is one of busiest in the city. This lady has CLPD, which is a kind of obstructive pulmonary disease and we're trying to evaluate her for admission and I just need to go and see her chest X-ray to see what's going on because her oxygen levels were very low.

The Chief of Emergency Medicine here is Doctor Howard Freed.

"We see on average a hundred-and-forty patients a day in the range of fifty to fifty-two thousand patients a year. Here you are looking just at how many have commercial or private insurance, which is the main group in the United States. Around one or two per cent of our patients have insurance, about half have some form of government coverage and then about forty-eight per cent are what are technically called self-pay, but sometimes called no-pay. These patients who really don't have any insurance, most of that is uncollected".

Doctor Freed says that every day many patients who've been turned away by other hospitals end up at DC General, which today is struggling for funds itself and is threatened with closure.
If you're rich or insured in America, doctors are happy to treat you, if you're poor or uninsured many might turn you away and you just suffer. You can find some compassionate doctors who treat patients for no payment, says Howard Freed, but that is not enough:

"One of my uncles was a physician in a small community and after he passed away and the family went into his home to collect his things, in the basement they found hundreds and hundreds of unopened packages and gifts from patients that he would happily accept and then throw in the basement and not even look at. So certainly there are providers with terrific compassion and the economic wherewithal to provide a lot of uncompensated care. On the other hand it is perfectly legal for one to be quite selfish about it. I believe that access to good health care is a basic human right. There is no question that we can afford it here in the United States".

"We are at a time of incredible prosperity. We are a country with tremendous political freedoms. There is reason why in the United States there should have to be a trade-off between political freedom and economic freedom and economic rights to health care. We have the potential to have it all and it's just a question of overcoming the special interest and mounting the political will to bring health care as a right to all Americans".

Gail Shearer of the Consumers' Union. The new human rights thinking is about "having it all". It reasserts the ground of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which says that all rights are equal, putting political and civil rights on the same footing as economic, social and cultural rights. And it stresses that they are also interdependent; you can't achieve one without the other. It was just the Cold War rivalries that muddied the territory, says Christine Chinkin, human rights legal expert at the London School of Economics:

"If you look at the Universal Declaration itself, you have got both sets of rights in the single document. It's in the 1960s when you get the separate covenants for the civil and political rights and the economic and social and cultural rights, which was essentially the political compromise to the fact that there was this tension between the major players. So then there was the agreement that OK we'll have two separate documents and the wording and the enforcement measures are stronger in the civil and political rights covenant, feeding into the West's argument that therefore this is really the dominant one. And it was really post Cold War, end of Cold War, that it's become again more possible to assert the indivisibility of the two sets of rights".

And that idea of interdependence is key because it means that governments can't claim to offer their people freedom or food, they've got to give them BOTH.

"If you fail to provide people with an adequate protection of the economic and social rights, if you fail to provide basic housing, basic food, access to employment, access to education, their enjoyment of civil and political rights is also highly likely to be impeded".

This is a double-edged sword. Just as it challenges Western nations to deliver on their citizens basic needs, it also challenges those countries which have failed to deliver political rights to their citizens. There was a view, particularly amongst communist countries, that certain civil and political rights would only come after a certain level of development had been reached and this attitude lingers on.

"You can't say things that are too extreme. That's illegal. You have to love the Party and the country".

An unlicensed taxi driver in Beijing goes about as far as anyone will in China in decrying his lack of freedom of speech. But today people in China need a voice and the opening up of the economy over the past decade has turned their lives upside down.

In modern China, jobs are no longer guaranteed, factories have closed and people made redundant survive on subsistence payments. Kong Li lives in a flat in north east Beijing with her husband and daughter who is twenty.
She remembers how things used to be:

"When students graduate today they have to look after themselves. Before it was better, when your child graduated the state would assign them a job. But the development has been so quick that now there are too many people, the migrants get all the jobs. Even graduates can't find work".

But Mrs Kong has no concept of demanding that things should be different. She can't imagine that her government could provide more for her.

"If you're not satisfied, well, bad luck. That's what the state has decided. There are policies. If you're not satisfied and you dislike not having enough money - well there's nothing you can do about it".

Kong Li lost her factory job over a year ago and now receives a state pension, which she say is not enough to live on. Now that she's past fifty she says there's no chance of her getting another job.

"You have to rely on yourself, there's no other way, the state can't do anything either. If you don't have enough money, you just have to borrow. Borrow from friends. You have to borrow from friends to pay your medical expenses. You have to borrow from friends to pay school fees too and you can't delay otherwise your child can't go to school".

So who looks after China's poor today, particularly the multitudes of rural poor? Marcel Roux is the former head of the Medecins Sans Frontier mission to China and now works to help street children there.

"We must understand that since the opening up of China to the World Trade, there is a big change in Chinese society and everything has become private. Now you have to pay for any medical care which is not often good at rural level and you have to pay for education. In some areas there are a lot of children who no longer can afford to go to school and these days there are a lot of children that have never been to school. Today in China in practice, you can say that social rights for education or for proper medical care are existing only if you have the money. It looks like a capitalist society, you can compare it with the American society because it's almost the same".

China's emphasis on rights has been the reverse of the United States. It claimed to put food before freedom, basic needs before political rights, the masses before the individual. But the move to a free market economy has threatened many areas of state provision. The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, points to the growing divides in the country, between the affluent boom areas and the vast swathes of extremely poor rural China:

"These are big challenges to China and they bring up questions because China has made very significant progress on economic and social rights, but has not made progress to the same extent - and indeed in some areas has gone back on freedom of expression and freedom for religious belief, freedom of association.
And part of what I'm trying to do is to bring home the need to recognise the integration of both sets of rights that really a sustained advance will be when it is an advance of both sets of rights".

But there are still governments which say that political rights as understood in the West, aren't as important as economic rights if you are doing well enough. Governments like Singapore's, for example. While clearly having a far smaller population to provide for, this island state has achieved what neither China nor the United States has managed to, by providing a very high standard of living for the majority of its citizens. But do its people miss not having full political freedom?

This is Speakers' Corners, Singapore-style. It's loosely modelled on the historic Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park, where people are allowed to stand up and say whatever they want. But there are major differences. In Hong Lin Park speakers have to register in advance with the police. Their chosen topic is vetted and religion and politics are banned. Also no foreigners are allowed to speak. Our speaker is complaining about the high rents in government-owned apartment blocks:

So what big deal, I can't go there to address political issues, oppositions still have no platform to express their views. For this young PR executive the restrictions on Speakers' Corner are typical of a society where criticism of those in power is frowned upon.

Over a coffee in one of the island's smart cafes, he explained why he was willing to talk to us, but not to reveal his name.

"We have seen situations where if you speak openly against a certain authority and you put yourself in a situation where you may not be able to find a job related to that authority or to the government. I have to safeguard my job, my security. I have no worries about getting robbed on the streets, I can quit my job today and I'm pretty sure within a week I can find an new job. The education system is very vibrant, it's very competitive, but the fact of the matter is free speech still must play a role in our development. We are just lagging behind in that area".

Some young people in Singapore are becoming impatient with their lack of free speech, but most people are happy with the way things are. Ovidia Yu works in advertising and believes that the rights to a job, to a good education and to a high standard of living are more important than the right to freedom of speech. Ovidia thinks that the unlimited free speech allowed in much of the West is dangerous.

"I think that total freedom of speech might bother me more. I know that's the wrong kind of thing to say to you isn't it? But you read about total freedom of speech and how people can't stop - people in America for instance can't stop people getting up big rallies with the neo-fascists and holocaust deniers and anti abortionists and anti-gay movements. And you can't stop these people from saying things and sending out hate mail because they have freedom of speech. They are protected. And that I find more scary".

Across Singapore there are many who share her view. In one of the richest countries on earth, with hugely impressive public systems for health, education and welfare, many people feel they have what they need. The ruling party has been in power here since independence thirty-five years ago. And within the country's tightly controlled form of democracy, there are just two opposition MPs out of eighty-three elected to Parliament. One of them is Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People's Party:

"Singapore is a nation country, predominantly Chinese and of course they originally come from China. In China there's no background of democracy, no background of human rights, it's a purely feudalistic oppressive country and people who migrate to Singapore, their main concern is to make a good living here and not to come over here to build a politically acceptable country. They are more concerned with their livelihoods. So I think everybody is striving to make material improvements first".

Such a mindset was reinforced by the ideas of Singapore's ex-Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who subscribed to a school of thought that actually said political and civil rights hamper economic growth. The economist, Amartya Sen, says there is simply no evidence of that being true:

"It never was a robust contrast, even when Singapore and South Korea were going faster than any other country in Asia. The fact was that the fastest growing economy in Africa was Botswana, a major defender of democracy, through thick and thin in Africa. So the Asian evidence, which was in any case sporadic, was contradicted directly by African evidence".

Professor Sen is known for his observation that no democracy has ever had a famine - and is not likely to, as people with political rights have the means to object to their plight, while a free press keeps the government more aware of what's happening. And, he says, the peril of pursuing economic development without political rights was amply demonstrated by the crash of the Asian financial markets in 1997.

"It is not surprising that South Korea came into difficulty when there was an Asian economic crisis. Because while there wasn't a famine, people who were suddenly thrown to the wall did miss the fact that they didn't have a political system to protest and holler. Not surprisingly in the same period democracy became a much bigger issue in Korea and of course it had moved very firmly forward under Kim ......(the former leader) by making democracy as the big slogan".

Political rights are there to give people a voice, to give them the capacity to complain. If you can't complain you can't make things better and you can't claim your rights. As our young PR executive in Singapore says:

"I know that he wants to do what is best for the country. They live in the same country as I do and at the end of the day, what is good for me - I would like to have a say in how to achieve that end".

The human rights standards do not prescribe any type of political or social system, they just set out the basic standards that should be reached, it's up to each country how it does it. But there are choices. Providing for civil and political rights is just as costly as providing for economic and social rights. Courts and lawyers cost a lot of money, just as hospitals and doctors do. In human rights terms it's not a matter of good countries and bad countries anymore, but areas where all can improve. Mary Robinson again:

"Sometimes foreign ministers of countries come to see me and they want to talk about human rights problems elsewhere in the world. I usually start by talking about the human rights problems in their country and then we go on and perhaps discuss other issues".

Other issues like press freedom and fair trials, perhaps, but also healthcare and housing and poverty. And perhaps even people, like Julia Miller in Washington:

"I do think the government should provide for ones on the street, the homeless, you know and we need help. Why can't we be recognised so we can get benefits, so we can benefit from housing, food and clothing? I need to know why, why?".

The new framework for human rights thinking tries to put people at the centre, so that Kong Li in Beijing can claim the same rights as Julia Miller in Washington, both in terms of political rights and economic rights. But it's clear that differences will remain - not only in terms of what governments can deliver, but also in terms of what individuals themselves expect.


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