A Long-Term Partnership with the Poorest People:

Breaking the Chains of Exclusion

Olivia Scannell


"Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. It is our solemn duty to come together to ensure that these rights be respected."1 

-Joseph Wresinski

The existence of extreme poverty is not inevitable and is a violation of human rights – a view held by The International Movement ATD2 Fourth World which works towards its eradication through partnership with people suffering chronic poverty. ATD challenges the knowledge / power hierarchies in society in so far as it believes that all individuals and groups of people can mutually benefit and learn from each other and that few projects go beyond "consultation" to equal partnerships. Since extreme poverty is a multi-faceted phenomenon, ATD initiatives touch all areas of human activity. This article will share some motivating experiences, highlighting the relevance of partnerships to the unfolding of learning societies.


What Is Meant by Extreme Poverty?

Several terms are used in the international community to refer to extreme poverty. The Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action agreed to at the World Summit on Social Development in 1995 uses the terms "absolute poverty" or "extreme poverty," as distinct from "overall poverty."

Poverty has various manifestations, including lack of income and productive resources to ensure an ongoing livelihood, hunger and malnutrition, increased morbidity and mortality from illness, limited or no access to formal education and other basic services, homelessness and inadequate housing, unsafe environments, and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also defined by a lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social and cultural life. The obvious characteristic of life in extreme poverty is therefore an accumulation of mutually reinforcing types of insecurity. Not only do these types of insecurity have unavoidable effects on each other but, as they increase and intensify, exclusion becomes worse and starts to erode family and social life.

The following definition was proposed by ATD in 1987, and subsequently taken up by the French Social and Economic Council as well as by several national and international authorities:

"The lack of basic security means the absence of one or more of the factors that enable families to assume basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights. Such a situation may vary in extent, its consequences can vary in gravity and may to a greater or lesser extent be irreversible. The lack of basic security leads to chronic poverty when it simultaneously affects several aspects of life, when it is prolonged and when it severely compromises people’s chances of regaining their rights and reassuming their responsibilities in the foreseeable future."

This interpretation clarifies the similarities and differences between situations of poverty and situations of extreme poverty; both appear to be due to similar phenomena, varying essentially in number, extent and duration. It also pinpoints the continuum between poverty and extreme poverty; the persistence of multiple types of insecurity over a long period (sometimes several generations) can contribute to the deterioration of a situation of poverty into extreme poverty.

More concretely, while many families live in disadvantaged conditions, some are worse off than their neighbours, becoming increasingly isolated from their community. For example, in 1997 in Guatemala, three hundred families regularly took part in ATD activities. One of the most excluded families lived in a hamlet in the East of the country. Municipal projects had provided electricity and running water over the previous two years, but this family did not benefit from either project – they simply were not taken into account for the first, and could not afford the participation fee for the second. People living in poverty cannot choose to take up their basic human rights (civil, political, economic, social, and cultural). If one right is denied, it prevents access to all the others; the rights are interdependent and indivisible such that there would be no point advancing education rights if a child has nothing to eat, has poor health and can’t live with their family. Equally, the right to vote would not be effective without a free press and access to information.3 


ATD Fourth World: All Together for Dignity

Joseph Wresinski (1917-1988) grew up in poverty, intimate with financial hardship, shame and violence. He learned about the dignity of the poor from the gestures his mother made to defend her children and those who were even poorer. In 1957, he entered a shantytown of 300 families near Paris as a priest. The abandoned and rejected state of the people he met reminded him of his own childhood, giving him a sudden feeling of meeting his own people. He made the choice to share his life with this "people," wanting to build a project for society with them. He revolted against the charitable assistance that society offered as the only solution to poverty. His vision was for a future where people’s rights would be respected and extreme poverty and social exclusion banished. With the families in the shantytown, a few people who came to live with them and some friends who supported them in society, Wresinski created an association that would later become the International Movement ATD Fourth World.

The first ATD action was to open a library and a pre-school in the shanty town, where other organisations were giving food, clothes or other material help. In 1960, a Social Research Institute was created to mobilise researchers and activists to develop a rigorous and scientific understanding of poverty, its causes, its manifestations and its consequences. From the beginning, Wresinski wanted the poorest to be present and heard in the local, national and international forums where decision-makers meet. These facets: grassroots action based on partnership with the poorest, research and advocacy remain the three main foundations of ATD today.


How Does ATD Act as a Learning Society?

Firstly, what is meant by a learning society? Let us consider the following as a definition which emphasises the inclusive and reciprocal relationships that occur in such a society: a learning society is composed of communities willing to recognise that each person has the capacity both to teach and to learn. Members feel mutually dependent in these roles because they share a common purpose or commitment. They embrace diversity and learning from each other’s life experiences as a means of challenging their own understanding, thus liberating new ways of developing their collective ability to interact with their environment. Members of learning societies are willing to take risks and to act with integrity based on their learning.

How does ATD put these principles into practise? Internally, it has an atypical organisation that embodies the principles of a learning society. There is a corps of 350 full time volunteers or "core-workers"4  who come from all walks of life, from different training and academic backgrounds, cultures, political persuasions and spiritual traditions. They live and work together in small international teams in more than 26 countries across the world, exploring ways to develop a society based on human values, with the poorest families acting as the key reference in all planning and evaluation. Core-workers share responsibility without using a traditional hierarchy, and this provides many challenging learning opportunities in such a culturally diverse group. Each person has something different and valuable to offer. Roles develop around the individual and not vice versa. A core-worker might move from doing secretariat work, to learning with children, to representation in the international institutions. The range of their commitment and their geographical location is not limited by qualifications or experience, as they mutually support each other’s right and capacity to learn.


How Does ATD Incite Change in Society’s Institutions?

The ATD corps plays a linking role to nurture and support the creative initiatives of a much wider web of people called "friends" who join ATD to act against poverty in society. The main thrust of this wider societal project is to question individuals as actors in their workplaces and communities: "are you really taking the poorest people into account in all your decision making, policies and processes?" Placing the poorest at the centre destabilises the existing hierarchies and induces institutions to learn and evolve.

Three friends of ATD joined together to challenge the practices in Electricité de France (EDF) - the company where they worked. They saw that in France, as in many other countries in winter, poor families are left in the cold and dark when electricity is cut due to unpaid bills. The policy of power cutting without dialogue was hard to reconcile with the mandate of the electric power company (a public corporation) to supply electricity to all, or with the rough times the families they knew had gone through. How would it be possible to put such an issue on the company agenda? Over a period of 9 years, they developed projects that brought the reality of what poor families experience into the workplace. They gradually gained union, employee and management understanding leading to a commitment to change. The company’s initial position was that "we are not social workers" and have no way of differentiating between people in default of payment because they are poor and those who could pay but choose not to. Slowly the company discovered it could identify whom its poor customers were by checking how long and how often people had their electricity cut off. Management moved to a position of starting a regional experiment with ATD, in the early 1990’s, to treat the poor families as customers and therefore as negotiation partners. The number of electricity cuts in reaction to unpaid bills dropped dramatically without financial loss and the experiment later formed the basis for national policy.5

Friends of ATD challenge the organisations they are involved in, based on a personal commitment to the poor people they meet and learn from. They seek to instigate a dialogue between the poor and the structures from which they are excluded, seeking a common language that respects both parties and leaves neither feeling humiliated. The friends find support within organisations so that the poor are able to have a formal voice within them. Experience shows that when an institution responds to the poor, it can rediscover its core values and learn how to perform its mission better, to the mutual benefit of all.


Building a Partnership with the Poorest to Create an Open Learning Environment

"The richness of life can only be explored by listening to a full range of voices."

-Christopher D. Cleary

Building partnerships with poor families and communities has long been advocated by people at the grass roots level as a key factor in poverty eradication and social integration. This was recognised at The Copenhagen Summit which formulated recommendations for Governments to work in partnership with all "development actors," in particular with people living in poverty and their organisations: People living in poverty and vulnerable groups must be empowered through organisations and participation in all aspects of political, economic and social life, in particular planning and implementation of policies that affect them, thus enabling them to become genuine partners in development.

It is a great challenge to allow people to really think together and not for each other. There is a big difference between consultation and a partnership in which all participants are equally important in defining a joint vision and pathway. To what extent do the advocators of partnership really put it into practise and create appropriate supporting mechanisms? Structural obstacles need to be overcome in order for real partnerships to occur. The most frequent ones, inherent in many so-called development projects, are the tight limitations on time, and the conditions for funding that do not correspond to the priorities of the poorest. The pressure for short-term outcomes hinders the necessary step of building a relationship of trust, which is an essential pre-requisite to partnership with them. There is little involvement of the poorest people in evaluation of projects in which they have been "partners." Furthermore, project assessments weigh too heavily on quantitative information; when qualitative indicators are introduced, they need to go further to include questioning about those still not reached.

In an ATD health care project in a community of Guatemala afflicted with a high rate of infant mortality, parents were unable to control the nutrition of their young children. They felt powerless with sorrow and shame. A project was planned to fight malnutrition but surprisingly, in the beginning, very few of the poorest families took part in the project. Through a trusting relationship built up over time, the core-workers understood that focussing directly and solely on combating malnutrition would stigmatise the parent’s inability and increase the feeling of failure. A pre-school was opened instead, in view of the community’s aspiration for the children’s education and its ability to mobilise itself for this purpose. A nutrition program was included, enabling the parents to involve themselves in following the overall development of their children. Most importantly, it sent a strong message to the parents that, together with others, they were capable of meeting their children’s health and malnutrition needs.

Specific measures designed to improve poor people’s situation can be counterproductive if they are not part of a comprehensive policy. They are an obstacle to partnership when they "cream off" dynamic and articulate participants, who move on, leaving their community behind. Involving the poorest as genuine partners will not succeed as an add-on feature. Partnership should be conceived as an integral part of all programs and projects from the outset and at every stage. Their creativity comes through, by basing projects on their aspirations, and not on their problems. They also have the ability to seek out the participation of those even poorer than themselves.

In the process of meeting each other over a long time period, building a partnership and sharing knowledge, people are led to re-examine their pre-judgements, attitudes and vision of the world. They agree to enter into a reciprocal learning process with none of the limitations or security of an educational institution.


Two Experiences of Partnership Forums that Encourage Learning Communities:

The Fourth World People’s Universities, the Power of Dialogue

For everybody to learn, it is not sufficient to distribute knowledge better; new ways of producing it need to be found. -Alwine de Vos van Steenwijk8 

Fourth World People’s Universities (FWPU) are a forum where people experiencing long-term poverty can meet on an equal footing with others in society. The word university comes from the Latin universitas, which initially referred to a "community of masters and students." They were often itinerant and the teachers claimed the right to a diploma that authorised them to teach omnia omnino omnibus, which means, all disciplines, in all places and to all people. In this way, the ideal of a university was as a place of learning through solidarity. To learn is a social gesture before being a cognitive act. I learn, you teach, we learn together omnia omnino omnibus – everything, everywhere and with everybody.

The FWPUs are crossroads of experiences, presented here as an example of some of the ingredients necessary for mutual learning. In a similar way to the Learning Circles described by Margaret Wheatley,9 FWPUs engender critical thinking to develop a collective intelligence. On a monthly basis, individual preparations between core-workers and the participants are followed by small group preparations, and then by a regional group meeting, to which relevant actors in society are invited. These meetings take place in the Fourth World Houses10  and in local meeting places which allows the poorest to feel ownership of their "space for reflection." The informal and supportive atmosphere is created by an initial time to share news. An achievement can be celebrated by all, news of the absent is brought by their friends, a difficult experience can be voiced. All areas of life are deemed legitimate learning experiences (except personal life, which is kept private11 ). Trust, generosity and a commitment to seek to understand rather than to judge is the foundation for this open ambience. Questions at such meetings might include: Where are the spaces for dialogue in my community? What values and knowledge do I pass on to my children? What is the importance of beauty, art and culture in our lives? In what ways am I an actor in my own community?

It may take years before a person is prepared to step out of their house to join such a group, and representation of their views by friends is encouraged. Barriers to participation include all the insecurities that make daily survival a priority, fear that it might be too complicated (for many learning is integrally linked with a painful education experience), cultural taboos, poor health, cost of transport and lack of childcare. It is important that people feel free to express themselves in their own language, and that participants break down the prejudices through which they filter what they are hearing. Life experiences are so different that the logic that works in general society might be totally alien in the world of poverty and vice versa. The FWPU requires an intensive investment in a progressive process to develop confidence and clarity in all participants’ opinions and to promote an equal and constructive dialogue.

A universal aspiration in all families is that their children live a better life than they themselves. This aspiration motivated a FWPU group in France to participate in the elaboration of a school orientation law. Parents invited a school counsellor and a primary school teacher to meet with them in an open discussion forum. Parents expressed their difficulties and the efforts they made to allow their children to go to school in the best conditions. Afterwards, they decided to write an "open letter" to continue the dialogue, structure their thinking and enlarge the discussion to those who had not been able to participate. Five people formulated the letter, one of whom, Mr. T.12 , could not write. The group listened to cassette recordings of the discussion forum, and the core-worker underlined the passages to be retained. Mr T. and the core-worker then prepared the first draft together, which provided an unexpected opening:

During the FWPU, Mr. T. had said, "In the housing estate, there are parents who are not interested in their children’s school." I had understood his reflection as a judgement on parents who were not concerned about their children’s future. He insisted on putting this phrase in the "open letter." I asked him why. He replied "Because I don’t know how to read or write, so how do you expect me to give my attention to school?" With his approval, I took the idea in his phrase and made it accessible to the teachers. His question was fundamental: "How can one play a role in school when one cannot read or write?" He would never have been able to pose this question to the teachers without the intermediary of the "open letter," in which he expressed a preoccupation that was shared by many other parents.


The open letter resulted in a request from the teaching milieu for ATD to facilitate three training sessions on the relationship with families in great difficulty. The members of the FWPU were proud to inverse the roles and welcome teachers, school counsellors and even an academic inspector to train with them. The question was how to create a true dialogue in which the custodians of knowledge could experience that they have something to learn from the parents who never come to or have a voice in school meetings. They chose a theatre-forum13 and prepared the beginning of a scenario: Some parents receive a note from the headmaster. They have been summoned because their child has been absent for 15 days! The child said he had lost his school things and knew his parents could not afford to replace them. He was not attending because his teacher had told him off and had even beaten him. The parents, furious, go to school…

The parents, normally so tense when summoned to school, were at ease in the informal familiar setting and were able to improvise their roles. The teachers, on the other hand, were less comfortable. They were rather destabilised by this manner of reflection, wanting to make comments or to modify the scenario to remove the beating. The first teacher to play his role in front of the families and his colleagues was courageous indeed. This teacher’s openness helped to unravel the knot and to establish a dialogue with the parents. Showing a great respect for the parents, the teacher broke free from a defensive attitude and really tried to listen. The success of the theatre-forum was to show (and not to explain) to the teachers the intelligence of the parents (the person who played the mother could not read or write, but had impressed everyone with her repartees). The teachers saw that dialogue was possible and enriching in these conditions. As for the parents, they began to overcome their fear of talking to the teachers. Developing mutual respect between parents and teachers is crucial to breaking down poor children’s learning inhibitions in the alien and often hostile school environment.14 

The poorest have an integrity in their learning processes. They have an instinctive tendency towards experiential learning, relating knowledge to concrete realities and applications. Their participation is indicative of how they are able to tap largely unrecognised intuitive knowledge sources to create and innovate based on the opportunities presented to them.

One of the main challenges faced by the people’s universities is how to develop a level playing field in which all members are able to discuss seemingly incompatible views on certain realities. The diversity of participants includes those living in poverty as well as the professionals who have power over the important spheres in their lives. Consider, for example, the parents in the UK, who meet with social workers that represent the institution that has taken or, is threatening to take, their children into care. This creates strong emotional barriers for the parents. The professionals’ dedication to rigidly defined institutional responsibilities can also be problematic in distressing situations. How do the FWPUs transcend these challenges to achieve an equal learning dialogue?

Through breaking out of isolation and belonging to a group of people with similar experiences, those in poverty are able to put their learning into context and support each other in positive expression and constructive interaction with society. In preparation, the forum focuses on real life examples, and not on theory — which does not (even if it should) always represent the experiences of people living in poverty. Professionals are asked to attend first and foremost as individuals, and secondly as representatives of their institution. This gives them a greater freedom to listen, learn, interact and express their views. The forum seeks to create a common understanding, and does not set out to fight people’s ideologies. It is for FWPU members to learn together and then to become engines of change within their own communities and institutions. The forum acts as an impulse and inspiration. The group of people who meet regularly then provide support for resulting actions and projects.


The Street Library: An Island of "Positivity"

Children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge [...] but active builders of knowledge - little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world."

- Jean Piaget

The Street Library, an art and cultural action, highlights another example of a partnership approach to unfolding a learning society. Culture in its wider sense has been defined as "the ensemble of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional traits that characterise a society or social group. In addition to art and literature, it encompasses lifestyle, fundamental human rights, value systems, traditions and beliefs."15  The poor are relegated to a position of material dependence and judged as having no right to invest in this domain – precisely the area which leaves them the most isolated.16

ATD facilitates cultural actions as a catalyst to bring people together. In exploring one’s traditional roots or discovering an ability for artistic or symbolic self-expression, a person connects with their own humanity. Unlike academic expression (public speaking/writing), "art" appeals to the intuitive brain, creating a peaceful inner space for self-discovery in a turbulent environment and a level platform for communication and building relationships.

The Street Library is a process of mutual learning. Books open up the world to underprivileged children, allowing them to escape from their isolation. In return, the Street Library facilitators acquire a real knowledge about the situation and potentials of these children and their parents. It becomes a path both towards recognising the aspirations of these families and the obstacles they must overcome, and towards promoting understanding and friendship between them and the people from other walks of life. The Street Library endeavours to stimulate the learning capability and creativeness of the children, especially those who have the most difficulties. The priority is given to those viewed as "least capable" who set the rhythm and focus for the rest of the group. This is the guideline for the preparation of each session as well as for the training for the facilitators. The Street Library is a community project: it is based around the children, but it is also a space where the families and friends allow themselves to find freedom and peace.

The Street Library takes place once or several times a week on the same days (outside school hours) to create a regular rhythm. This shows that the facilitators are serious in their action and that they treat the families as important whilst giving the children an activity they can look forward to. It allows the parents to show their support, either in allowing their children to attend, by cleaning the area or by keeping materials for the following session. The regular Street Library venue is always "on the children’s own turf" in collaboration with their parents: it could be in a field in rural Guatemala, a small slum in Thailand or on a sidewalk in downtown New York.

Facilitators bring mats, a choice of colourful illustrated books covering a wide range of interests and written in the local language, and some good quality art and craft material. When they arrive, they walk around the community inviting the children to come, exchanging news with their families. The children are always free to choose when they come and go. Initially there might be a group storytelling time, followed by reading alone or in twos and threes. Accompanied by a parent or facilitator if they wish, the children discover new fields or re-read an old story that fascinates them. The second part of the session is an art activity that might be based on a story the children have liked or on a current event. Local artists and artisans are invited to come and share their skills and passion. Activities include painting, making puppets, gardening, woodwork, making links with other street libraries around the world (e.g. by computer), theatre productions or writing and illustrating books. The children discover these activities through quality tools and materials, which creates an atmosphere where they feel respected. They gain confidence to explore new media and show pride in their results.

The street library uses a pedagogy of optimism or "positivity," in a non-restrictive, non-competitive environment that can be more child-led than in traditional schools. There is no rigid curriculum, but instead children are encouraged to expand their self belief through developing a passion or competency. Success in surmounting difficulties develops their emotional abilities to approach challenges with confidence and thus take creative risks in their future lives. The Street Library aims to break the exclusion experienced by the children and their families, by strengthening the links with other people and institutions with whom they come into contact.

Amelia and her family live in a large cemetery in the Philippines. There are many mausoleums, with chapels in front, where they make their homes. A busy road runs past and as no one is legally allowed to live there, the children put up a ladder to climb over the high wall on the days when they are able to go to school. The cemetery is an important place in Filipino society and on occasions such as All Saints Day in November, people come to picnic, laugh, tell stories and spend time with the spirits of those who have gone before. They are grateful to the men, women and children who carefully tend the graves, but know little of their lives.

Amelia never runs out of ideas, she tells jokes, develops friendships, loves to sing, draw and write messages. She naturally draws other children in her wake. It is because of this, that she was chosen as a delegate to go to the International Children’s Forum.17 When the School Principal found out, she asked the street library facilitators to meet her. The teachers had often noticed Amelia’s family’s payment delays, lack of materials and absence of the parents in the meetings. They found her shy, passive, introverted and of below average ability. How could it be, therefore, that she was chosen to represent her country’s children in an international forum, where she would have to take the floor and collaborate with other participants? Would she be safe from danger?

Through the eyes of the facilitators, the Principal discovered the Street Library and the place Amelia occupied in it: "I see that in the Street Library, a child like Amelia feels free. You hold these sessions in an informal manner; the children do not have the pressure from the school’s demanding standards. Furthermore, you join them in their own environment, so they feel at home. Thus you got to know Amelia in a different light from the way we did, and it was for this that you have chosen her as a delegate. This was a discovery for us too. I am very happy that this opportunity was given to Amelia, I hope she will come back with more self-confidence, and be less wary of mixing with others in school." The Principal organised a ceremony at school, wherein her family and a core-worker participated. The Principal announced the news, saying that everyone was proud that Amelia would represent their school, and their country. The children sang to wish her a happy trip. Then the Principal gave Amelia a token and a piece of advice: "Be always helpful during the Forum. Especially to those who seem to be the weakest." Amelia’s principal recognised the value, not only to one child, but also to the whole school community, of building bridges between the different learning environments.

For many children trapped in poverty, the world of education and books is in constant contradiction with the world of home and family, with no reinforcement between the different kinds of learning. Their cognitive universe is split so that they grow up doubting themselves too much to experiment. The goal of the Street Libraries is not to replace formal education but to bring these two separate realities together.18

It is a challenge to appeal to teachers and educators to take the time to understand the lives of the children and their parents, when the school environment is becoming increasingly competitive and pressurised. It is not just the responsibility of the poor to "fit the education mould" or fail. Rather, it is through partnerships with poor children and their families, that educators can begin to believe that change is possible, so that every child can be given the best opportunity to learn. For example, Claude Pair was the head of the regional school system that catered to the impoverished ex-mining communities in the north of France. He worked with an ATD core-worker and poor families from the street libraries to understand their children’s failure at school. They found a common language between the school institution and the families that overcame the impasse of blame between "school failings" versus "family failings." This led to changes in Ministry of Education guidelines and the teacher training curriculum.19



"The very poor tell us over and over again that a human being’s greatest misfortune is not to be hungry or unable to read, nor even to be without work. The greatest misfortune of all is to know that you count for nothing, to the point where even your suffering is ignored. The worst blow of all is the contempt on the part of your fellow citizens. For it is this contempt which stands between a human being and his rights. It makes the world disdain what you are going through and prevents you from being recognised as worthy and capable of taking responsibility."20

-Joseph Wresinski

There are many factors which affect poverty: political policies and instability, the competition underlying some of the macro-economic trends of globalisation, race and gender discrimination, rural and urban trends, to name a few. But the attitude of human beings is at the heart of these seemingly uncontrollable phenomena. The conservative norm by which the majority of individuals and societal groups judge each other’s capacity to learn and impart knowledge is a major inhibitor for the development of a pluralist society.

Each culture has a different conception of what it means to be a dignified member of society; what is common is that the poorest people are the ones universally perceived as falling short. The humiliation they suffer and the contempt they fear is what leads to social exclusion, which is experienced by people living in both developing and industrialised countries. Exclusion and poverty are destructive forces that render a person’s humanity unrecognisable and almost unreachable. The obstacles to developing an inclusive learning society are not, then, purely external. To break down this exclusion necessitates a holistic approach to making links and acknowledging the equal dignity, humanity and potential in each person. It appeals to all individuals and groups to change their view of people in poverty, to step beyond the labels of "failure," "ignorant," "uneducated." An important role of any true learning community is therefore to actively demonstrate its faith in each person’s capacity to make a valuable contribution. This opens up an avenue where social and cultural diversity is embraced as a strength.

Through advocating and implementing true partnership with the poorest, ATD incites a broad change in society — one that often steps outside standard institutional logic. At the same time, it is important to emphasise ATD’s inclusive approach. It aims to work with all people and all institutions, believing that each has potential to learn and that all have a vital role to play. People in poverty teach us that excluding any player from the table takes away a valuable resource and weakens the rest of the community. In their daily struggles to survive, the poorest become very capable network builders. Given the right environment and support, they can be instrumental in identifying root causes of social injustice, coupling it with the power to unite a wide range of people.

ATD believes that even the poorest people can play an important role in the foundation of learning partnerships, which evolve into learning communities where each person can act as teacher and learner. Its experiences highlight the possibility for the non-poor to learn from the poorest people. Ultimately this cannot be an intellectual exercise but must be a personal one based on experience: through a personal commitment to volunteer or through developing a greater sensitivity to the poverty hidden in all communities.

Whether through People’s Universities, Street Libraries or any other forum where traditional knowledge hierarchies and behaviour patterns are challenged, people become open to innovative, new learning dynamics only when they admit the value of diversity. The bringing together of disparate groups, which include those who are generally considered as having nothing to offer as well as their powerful counterparts, is essential for any healthy learning society. Such interactions will inevitably take different forms in different cultural contexts. Entering into a partnership with people who are humiliated and isolated, not only breaks down the barriers of exclusion, but gives the whole of humanity hope for a future where every human being is respected and lives in dignity.



1 This phrase was inscribed on a commemorative stone on the Plaza for Human Rights and Liberties (Trocadero Plaza, Paris, France) on 17th October 1987. This date has since been proclaimed as the annual World Day for the Eradication of Extreme Poverty.

2 The International Movement ATD Fourth World <www.atd-quartmonde.org> or <web.ukonline.co.uk/atd.uk> has 200,000 members world wide, roughly half of whom live in extreme poverty themselves. ATD has also established the Permanent Forum on Extreme Poverty in the World, a network of individuals and about 2,000 grass roots anti-poverty organisations from 120 countries. ATD comes from the French "Aide à Toute Détresse" (Help to All in Distress) one of the early names of the organisation by which it became known in Europe. Asian and some English speaking branches have revised the acronym and used it to say "All Together for Dignity." The term Fourth World refers to people in every country who, due to their poverty, are under-represented and unable to make their voices heard. The name was coined after the Fourth Estate of the French revolution: to give a positive identity to families living in persistent poverty and struggling to make a better life for all.

3 Elena Flores and Victor Solé, Co-ordination d’ONG pour la dignité humaine, ref. Revue Quart Monde, Sept 2000, Paris, Editions Quart Monde

4 The numbers and composition of this corps is continuously evolving as individuals and families commit between two years and their whole lifetime to being full-time volunteers.

5 Rosenfeld (2000).

6 Former core-worker. "Unleashing Hidden Potential" (UHP) Seminar: Revealing and developing the creativity, learning, thinking and communications skills of children living in persistent poverty. December 1999, U.S.

7 Copenhagen Summit, Programme of Action, para. 24 and 35.

8 President of the International Movement ATD Fourth World between 1974 and 2002, ref. Revue Quart Monde, June 2000, Paris, Editions Quart Monde

9 "Restoring Hope to the Future through Critical Education of Leaders", in Vimukt Shiksha, April 2001.

10 The ATD centres, where the poorest families are encouraged to feel at home

11 Dignity and equality in a relationship is hard to maintain when one party has to reveal their personal life, merely to obtain their basic rights. In FWPU, the poorest learn they don’t have to expose all in order to be heard.

12 All names of those people living in extreme poverty have been changed or shortened to protect their identity.

13 Augusto Boal invented the "Theatre of the Oppressed" in the heart of disadvantaged populations in Peru. In Europe, the technique was developed as the "theatre-forum" by the Centre d’Etude et de Diffusion des Techniques Actives d’Expression.

14 A full account is given in a publication of the results of a two-year research project to cross the knowledge of ATD members living in poverty with that of university professors: "Croisement des Savoirs", Paris, Editions de l’Atelier / Editions Quart Monde, 1999.

15 World Conference on Cultural Policies organised by UNESCO, Mexico, 1982

16 For example, when working with illiterate families in Nepal, World Education testified to their high level of "oral literacy." Knowledge was passed on via the stories that parents told. During the UHP seminar, David Kahler, head of World Education, and the core-workers realised that for very poor families, even that tended to disappear: families in the most difficult situations tend to see their life stories as shameful and do not tell them to their children.

17 86 children from across the world met in Geneva to present their joint appeal to Mary Robinson, High Commissioner of Human Rights at the UN, on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. To find out more see the Tapori International Children’s network, see <www.tapori.org>.

18 UHP seminar.

19 Rosenfeld (2000).

20 "The Very Poor, Living Proof of the Indivisibility of Human Rights," Editions Quart Monde, 1994.



Rosenfeld, Jona M. and Bruno Tardieu. 2000. Artisans of Democracy. University Press of America.

Editions Quart Monde, Paris:


About the Author

Olivia Scannell <atd17bnk@asiaaccess.net.th> is originally from England where she moved from a background in scientific training to industrial management. Dissatisfied with the aims of business, she became an ATD core-worker where she rediscovered the joy of learning with children of travelling communities on the outskirts of Paris, France. She is now engaged in learning with people living in poverty in Bangkok, Thailand.