Emmaus International

Joséphine Ouédraogo, a Burkinabé sociologist and Secretary of State in Burkina Faso, tells us about Emmaus, the fight against poverty and the place those most excluded from society should occupy.

Josephine-OuedraogoHow do you view Emmaus?
Emmaus is a global movement whose primary objective is to restore the dignity of “poor” men and women who feel excluded from society. At Emmaus, every individual returns meaning to his or her existence whilst living in the Emmaus community, through sharing with others, work, and placing his or her talents at the service of the community.
The part of Abbé Pierre’s vision of Emmaus that particularly struck a chord with me was the idea that the movement ought to free the poor from the vice of moral and material poverty in whose grip society forces them to live.
A person viewed as destitute, a pathetic down-and-out, loses his or her dignity and is often considered a “nobody”. This mentality has produced a situation whereby on all continents of the world, the rich always believe they are “better” than the poor. Within Emmaus’ communities, an individual who arrives penniless and having been discarded by society, finds a place, purpose, role and identity. The Emmaus movement offers a new status to each of its members by allowing them to use their talents, energy and time to work others free from poverty’s clutches.

What place should those most excluded from society occupy in the fight against poverty?

What does “fighting against poverty” mean ?
All those working in development, mobilised through the international community, have been fighting against poverty for decades using an unfortunately linear, top-down approach. This approach involves financing or developing policies, projects and programmes in so-called “poor” countries and communities. It is fair to say that this approach has already failed, if we consider the very mixed results demonstrated by the 2015 evaluation of the Millennium Development Goals’ implementation.
This failure is hardly surprising insofar as the system that creates wealth is the very same system that creates poverty and exclusion. To put it in more concrete terms, the strategies that are introduced to provide every urban household with drinking water and electricity, to allow one sector of the population to become landowners, to access a mortgage and to obtain capital to start a business or pay for their children’s education and training, for example, are the very same strategies that indirectly create barriers – barriers whichprevent vast swathes of the population from accessing education, healthcare, housing, employment, credit… the list goes on. And it is for this reason that in the majority of countries, the gap between rich and poor only continues to grow.

Who are the “poor” and who are the « excluded»?
Under the conditions described above, the poor are quite simply those excluded from the system of wealth creation and development which governs the world.
Consequently, the challenge is not to seek the best way of combating poverty by simply refining the strategies already in place, but rather to correct or control the system which creates wealth and privilege for some, and poverty and exclusion for others. Doing so is only possible if “the poor and the excluded” gather their strength, join forces, gain recognition as fully-fledged citizens and find ways to express their views and influence society in all countries, at both a regional and global level. In my view, this is the strategic goal which the development and use of a single “political discourse” should pursue.

How do you see the future of Emmaus?
Ever since I began to play an active role in shaping a number of social movements – be that as part of Burkina Faso’s peasant movement which began to emerge in the 1980s, the battles waged by a number of Enda Tiers Monde groups highly active in Latin America, or through my organisation of the World Social Forum, I have harboured a quiet fear which reality has unfortunately proved justified: when social movements develop an institutional architecture, they lose their strength as powerful forces for social change.
Emmaus communities, and particularly those in Africa, must take care not to slowly lose their identity as forces for social and political change, by becoming bogged down with the organisation and implementation of projects underpinned by technical concepts and approaches which view poverty as a defect to be eradicated by any possible means.
Emmaus must remain faithful to the ideas which gave it birth, to its vision of poverty as an opportunity for man to rediscover his intrinsic value, his dignity and his moral wealth, rather thanbecoming entirely consumed by his loss of material possessions.

What are the challenges which Emmaus will have to face?
Emmaus must continually strive to stay on its original path – the path which sees it carry the torch of “dignity” and “solidarity” for all those who feel poor and excluded.
It must do everything in its power to avoid becoming trapped in classic development strategies which place emphasis on aid, finance, social and economic investments and the top-down approach – strategies championed by those who believe themselves to be experts in the fight against poverty.
These challenges are all the more crucial for the Emmaus communities in Africa.  

5th April 2016