Emmaus International

To prepare the 2016 World Assembly, Gustavo Dans, an Uruguayan researcher, tells us about Emmaus, the fight against poverty and the place those most excluded from society should occupy.

Gustavo Dans

How do you view Emmaus?
Founded by Abbé Pierre in 1971, Emmaus is a secular movement that preserves values which are crucial at a time when such herculean challenges are facing humankind. The fight to ensure that all individuals, in all countries of the world, can access fundamental human rights, is a major contribution to guaranteeing equal rights at a global level. But Emmaus is also the very embodiment of many different values – solidarity, respect for others, respect for human life, and the sharing and pooling of skills and knowledge.
It must have been incredibly difficult – and it must no doubt be difficult today – to preserve these values in a society submerged in an economy of exclusion and inequality; a society which glorifies ruthless competition, individualism and consumerism. These are destructive phenomena which must be immediately checked, and against which Emmaus is rising up in protest. As an alternative. The movement is proposing to “serve he who suffers most, first” and to “awaken consciences and wage a collective struggle until the causes of all poverty have been destroyed”.
Crouching in this trench of dignity, the movement must shoulder its political commitment and the consequences thereof.

What place should the poor occupy in the fight against poverty?
We know very little about the mechanisms which produce poverty and inequality, beyond those structural factors which the very essence of the capitalist system. A capitalist system whose very raison d’être is to ensure the concentration of political power, wealth and knowledge in the hands of an elite.
Actions taken by institutions, public bodies and members of the private sector, tend to classify the poor according to sex, lifestyle, age, level of education and place of residence. Dividing the poor into such categories only serves to increase both their social and geographical isolation.
Given that the poor have been deprived of many things, policies designed to combat poverty have traditionally focused on giving things to them, including money, access to public services and food. In some cases, priority has been given to integrating the poor into society through the creation of productive enterprises and temporary employment. Such moves have only increased the differences between poor people: despite the best efforts of such initiatives, the poor have not been rendered equal – rather the differences between the various categories of poor people are increasingly marked.
The first step in the fight against poverty must be to recognise the poor individual as a subject of law. He must be encouraged to organise independently and to participate in initiatives aimed at furthering the development of his community, through the creation of arenas within which he can call for and propose public policies. Such a process will both restore and attach new value to his culture and knowledge.

How do you see the future of Emmaus?

“The task of organizers and activists is to help people understand and to make them recognize that they have power, that they’re not powerless. People feel impotent, but that has to be overcome. That’s what organizing and activism is all about.” Noam Chomsky in an interview with the Italian journalist Tommaso Segantini.

Emmaus has participated and continues to participate in fora which allow civil society stakeholders to come together and grow stronger. Emmaus must deepen its commitment to this “outward” dimension of its work, and extend that commitment to other areas. In forming part of a broader movement, Emmaus must not seek to impose its own identity on joint initiatives, or demand that this identity remain entirely unchanged. Rather, it must accept that joining forces with others will prompt change “inside” the movement, as well as the inevitable need to review its priorities, in order to render its work at international level more effective.
However, the question remains: Which partnerships should we form, and which goals should we seek to achieve?
The specific way in which Emmaus operates within these civil society fora will be determined by its work at local level, and with the people and communities that are part of its groups – the groups whose small actions can trigger big change. Emmaus’ legitimacy as a movement is derived from its concrete work on the ground and its ability to evaluate social experiences seen on the smallest scale, to view them in a broader context and to use them to anticipate the future of humankind.

What are the challenges will Emmaus have to face in the future?
Its major challenge will be to equip itself with a democratic, open and decentralized structure. This structure must be flexible enough to allow Emmaus to detect signals emitted by the societies in which it is present, in order to adjust its goals and its structures to suit them, and make the best possible use of its limited resources.
As a result of its history and development, Emmaus is a movement with a strong French-European identity. The global nature of the fight to eradicate poverty and defend human rights requires that the movement cast off this somewhat narrow identity and deepen its understanding of our global society. In order to do so, it must listen to other voices, recognize other analytical frameworks, other political praxis and other cultures. This process cannot be imposed “top down”, with nothing more than equal representation in the movement’s governing bodies. It requires more than simply strengthening groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America and increasing their regional impact. Their leaders must receive further training, they must be integrated in to society’s networks and must have the resources necessary to meet at reasonable intervals and plan their work.
These groups, and this work, must fuel Emmaus International, and lend strength and legitimacy to its operations by allowing both its technical capacity and its policies to grow and develop.
This is why the movement must have a decentralized and flexible structure, in order to ensure it does not crumble beneath every little difficulty which occurs at local level, or by a global phenomenon. Moreover, it must use this structure and these difficulties and phenomena to refine the content of its programmes and the ideological principles on which these are based: it is always healthy to question our ideas and our practice in order to grow.