Duke's Human Rights Center and the University of Oxford joined forces Tuesday to search for the answer to a critical global question of whether extreme poverty is acceptable.

Robert Walker, a professor of social policy at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and an adviser to a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, spoke of the hardships of poverty across the world as part of DHRC's Poverty, Justice and Human Rights series. Specifically, Walker argued that extreme poverty is costly to everyone—as those living in poverty are socially limited in their self worth and economically limited in their spendings.

Robert Walker

“Shame and poverty are inextricable, and this has lasting effects on the pain and duration of poverty,” Walker said in his presentation.

A 2010 World Bank survey indicated that 1.22 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, the threshold for extreme poverty.

Walker discussed several attitudes towards poverty from across the world and analyzed how they negatively affect the demographic in question. This includes a program for re-entering the work force that became a “ladder of shame” in Norway and a survey in Puerto Rico that found that 72 percent of citizens thought the primary cause of poverty was laziness.

Despite having a nuanced attitude towards poverty and the shame associated with it, every country’s poor were subjected to “shame, despair and a lack of cultural efficacy” from varying institutions, Walker noted. This, he argued, resulted in a loss of agency and self worth that perpetuated the limited socioeconomic capital associated with poverty.

“[Walker] asked very deep and different questions about our complicity in perpetuating poverty, and in shaming people in poverty,” said James Leloudis, a professor of history at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is co-teaching a course on the history of poverty with Robert Korstad, a Duke professor of public policy and history.

Some attendees were more ambivalent towards Walker’s argument. Junior Daniel Woldorff, a student in Leloudis and Korstad’s class, did not feel that any new ideas about global poverty were presented.

“I think his work was admirable, but it didn’t elucidate any part of the problem,” Woldorff said.

The event also highlighted some of the UN’s programs and campaigns geared towards eradicating extreme poverty worldwide. This included the Millenium Declaration to halve the proportion of global citizens with an income of less than $1 by the year 2015, and a 2013 resolution to establish guiding principles for enhancing the human rights of those living in poverty through policy.

Although welcome, many of these programs do not take the more nuanced aspects of life in poverty into account, Walker said.

“There’s still a great gap between income as a conception of poverty and other things to do with power in a human rights viewpoint,” he said.

Although many countries have taken nominal measures to eradicate poverty, lasting stigma towards the poor lead to a continued belief in the right of poverty, Walker noted. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful that a solution can be found in the form of social—rather than economic—policies.

“We hope that we can challenge this and do something about our fellow human beings whose life is a life of hardship,” he said. “Our world is beginning to suggest that policies that are shame-free are likely to be more effective-to promote a sense of human agency and self-confidence."