OpEd By the UNICEF Representative to Montenegro, Benjamin Perks.
Almost 100 years ago a boy named Toma died of hunger in a village in Mojkovac. Milovan Djilas recalled: “The entire village took his death as it’s own grave fault: the child might have been saved somehow”. Overcoming childhood poverty himself, Djilas became a leading Yugoslav socialist theorist and a global intellectual. His childhood experiences shaped a public Yugoslav view that collective action is required to stem hunger.
Unlike today, there was no statistics in Toma’s time though probably at least 1 in 5 children did not reach the age of 5 because of hunger or disease in the beginning of the 20th century. The first data in 1951 showed a child mortality rate of 1 in 10 and today it is less than 1 in 200 and hunger no longer causes death.
Poverty and inequality
But we still have Toma’s today. However their poverty is relative rather than absolute. They are distant from average living standards and basic opportunities. They are likely to eventually become poor parents who raise poor kids in an intergenerational cycle of poverty. They are not affected by hunger but by education and health disparity, poor connectivity and micro-nutrient deficiency created by food quality-not quantity. More than 1 in 10 Montenegrin children live in poverty. Child poverty is different because its impact lasts forever & hits hardest in the period from 0 to 5-when 85% of brain development occurs. It’s impact then cannot be reversed later.
We cannot fulfil the human rights of today’s Toma’s if our view on child poverty is more relevant for 1916 than 2016. Child nutrition has four basic measures: underweight, overweight, height for age and weight for height. Northern, poor or rural households fare no worse than other children on any of those measures. The two problems of under 5 nutrition in Montenegro is growing overweight (almost 1 in 4) and Roma underweight (affecting 7% of children compared to 1% of the general population)
Integral approach needed
Poverty has many negative impacts in this society, but poverty alone does not seem to drive hunger in Montenegro, which is normal in a middle income European country with strong families and decentralised ownership of rural land. Far from normal however, is the recent escalation of exposing poor families in social and broadcast media as passive gift recipients.
In some cases where hunger occurs it is because strong family networks have broken down-at worse through mental health problems, addiction or domestic violence. This requires complex and sophisticated social work interventions and not food parcels given in the full glare of social or broadcast media.
Parading vulnerable families in the media as helpless recipients of aid is an assault on the dignity and selfhood of the individual and the human rights aspirations of our society.
No benefit from a one-time , widely exposed gift can mitigate the cost of stigmatizing children for life in a small community. The family problems usually remain the same long after that gift has been consumed.
Abandoning old ideas and embracing new ones
Giving to the poor is noble and with good intent. But it belongs in private, must be continuous over time and address real problems to transform futures for the better. It should not be the main lens through which society views the poor or poverty.
But giving to the poor is only scratching the surface. Poverty is not simple, and those who think it is, don’t understand. The complexity of poverty, its roots causes and possible solutions need better quality of debate from media, civil society, academia and the parliament. Poverty-along with the inseparable issues of health and education should surely be fundamental to political debate in any society. But sometimes it feels like they have been airbrushed out in Montenegro as any basic assessment of media events and or transcripts of interviews of politicians or civic leaders would show.
Montenegro has strong values of social solidarity and justice, we need to feed this with a renewed vision and debate about how we can help the Toma’s of our generation to live with dignity, hope and the opportunity to realise their potential and break the cycle of inter-generational poverty.
Benjamin Perks is UNICEF Representative in Montenegro