Harvard Law School professor addresses global poverty, human rights

Akansha Singh

Harvard Law School Prof. Lucie E. White discussed the intersection between global poverty and human rights to about 30 Northwestern students and faculty members at Harris Hall on Thursday.

In her lecture, “Global Poverty as a Human Rights Violation? A Pragmatic Question,” White emphasized the need to redefine the human rights doctrine.

For a decade, White has collaborated with Harvard students and faculty at the University of Ghana to study innovations in economic and social rights advocacy.

Brian Hanson, director of the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, said the lecture is part of the Global Development Series.

“The mission of this initiative is to bring academicians to NU to spur conversations,” he said.

Poverty presents the greatest moral challenge, White said. Nearly 300 million people, mainly children, have died since 1989 from preventable poverty-related diseases, she said.

“Global poverty is an enormous tragedy of such scope and depth that the human rights advocacy has to be understood in a pragmatic way,” she said.

White emphasized there are three frameworks – normative, formal and pragmatic – to understand the role of human rights advocacy. The normative framework develops from the perspective of the subject, she said.

According to White, only nation states are responsible for any deprivation of human rights in a “cognizable” human rights claim. Nations must provide their own remedies to problems of poverty. However, recognizing global poverty as a human rights issue has its challenges because global poverty is not caused by one nation, and there are no good remedies for it, she said.

“The way to move out of the formal dilemma is to move the spotlight towards looking at the people who are doing the work at the grassroots level,” she said. “Tactics and talks can be combined in many creative ways.”

White focused on the work of the Federation of Youth Associations in Ghana, a group that worked to address a local garbage disposal problem. She cited this work as an example of innovative strategies in dealing with global poverty.

“This engendered a sense of hope for those people who were trapped by the pervasiveness of global poverty,” she said. “This kind of work projects a vision that challenges the traditional paradigm.”

Weinberg junior Nikki Okrah said the lecture was a fresh point of view, different from what she had heard before.

“It gave a new perspective on aid and demonstrated bottom-up approaches in organizing efforts for developing countries,” she said.

SESP sophomore Joan DeGennaro said she enjoyed the lecture.

“This was another great addition to the Center for Global Engagement speaker series,” she said. “It was a unique opportunity for learning outside the classroom.”

White concluded her lecture with a statement that might not have been expected from a law professor.

“It’s not just about litigation,” she said. “The new paradigm crafts a framework based on networking, participation and monitoring.”

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