Getting too tough on the excluded

  • 2001-03-15
  • Mike Walford
It was very disturbing to read the report ("Vilnius turns on beggars," No. 246), on the somewhat brutal proposals being considered by the ruling coalition in Vilnius municipality regarding the problem of beggars.

Of course nobody likes to see beggars. It makes people feel quite uncomfortable in a world where there is enough wealth in existence to make this entirely unnecessary.

Contrary to the discourse of the "undeserving poor," which appears to be a British invention of the 19th century, beggars do not enjoy begging. Researchers in human geography have noted that the best survival strategy for the completely destitute is to ensure that they are as visible as possible in a place where there is a good possibility of attracting attention from those in a position to alleviate the problems of short-term survival, which in the world-view of a beggar is surviving the next night.

The destitute are being as entrepreneurial as they can in circumstances that are not of their choosing.


Better ideas

Rather than surround this particular social problem with a range of moralistic discourses that amount to blaming the victim, politicians are elected in a democracy because they are expected to come up with appropriate policies to a range of problems, which in this case are socio-economic.

To try to sweep the problem under the carpet doesn't make the problem disappear. It often exacerbates social problems that lead to social discontent later, sometimes to the extent of causing political crisis. Politicians are expected to take a mature attitude to social problems, not make cheap political capital from those least able to defend themselves.

The disappointing proposition of Vilnius municipality contradicts the hope expressed by The Economist report on Lithuania (14-20 October 2000), which suggested that Lithuanian politicians are fast maturing.

I remember from my very first visit to Lithuania in 1997 being surprised at seeing the begging on the streets; what was shocking was the types of people forced into this situation, mainly the very oldest and/or the most disabled people in society.

The expression on the face of a desperate old woman sitting on supermarket steps in the outskirts of Kaunas when I gave what to a Westerner was a very small amount was one that has stayed with me and in a strange way inspired me to conduct social and cultural planning research on Lithuania.

I have since learned that what the Hungarian political scientist Attila Agh has described as a "triple transitional" phase, has been especially painful for all Central and East European countries.

It is well recognized that the weakest sections of society have suffered the most and that their desperate response has been to beg. Younger and fitter people have undergone a different form of social displacement. Some have found their way to the capitals of the West, and others have become involved in the sex industry or drug running.

Some of this socio-economic crisis was due to the West forcing inappropriate economic measures on Eastern Europe. For this, local politicians cannot be blamed.

Local politicians must however be held responsible for suggesting Draconian measures to social problems that stem from an imaginary belonging to the Middle Ages rather than a 21st century democracy.


Polarized

The biggest surprise on my first visit to Lithuania was the large amount of clearly illegal activity going on that was obviously untaxed. An obvious economic indicator is conspicuous consumption to confer status; gangs of young people arriving at center-city bars in top-of-the-line Mercedes that only the wealthiest in Western Europe could afford indicates an underground economy of huge proportions. When I checked, official estimates turned out to confirm my suspicions.

As a public policy issue, addressing this fundamental economic problem will enable both country and municipality to plan effective care for all its citizens, through proper anti-poverty strategies, which will remove the need to beg at source.

Lithuanian politicians on the right clearly need to understand that membership in the European Union means a firm commitment to the principles of social justice and social inclusion. In that regard, issues of social security are a "security" element perhaps more important than NATO membership in the eyes of many Western voters.

This means that a problem for politicians of all persuasions in Lithuania is to ensure that the tax-base is secure and that social security arrangements are adequate to provide a basic living income for all citizens. Social justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done - especially in the European context.

Using tourism as an excuse to disavow deep social divisions is highly spurious and very transparent, particularly at a time when the notion of "sustainable tourism" involves a recognition that the best areas for tourism are those that have strong measures to counter social exclusion.

This is where cultural planning links with social policy and economic policy provides synergistic benefits by taking holistic approaches to the whole way of life in cities or regions. Rather than overreacting to short-term problems, longer-term solutions are sought in which the process of reaching planning and policy outcomes is seen as very important in its own right, by helping to build a deeper rooted civil society.


Out of the club

It is also worth putting this debate into the current European political context. The well-known and widely read British daily paper The Guardian reported on Nov. 29 about the desire of the EU to have Poland police a so-called "lace" curtain of fencing and border patrols, marking the boundary where the European "club" doesn't yet extend its invitation, including to Lithuania.

This is a strong indicator that the enthusiasm in Western Europe for enlargement has waned recently and experts see the whole process as taking much longer and being more politically fraught than was originally the case.

Under these circumstances it is important that Lithuanian politicians of all persuasions recognize the need to engage in "best practice" across all arenas of public policy making. In the context of what some may disregard as "simply a few beggars", the seemingly simple physical displacement of those already deeply socially displaced, rather than working out new caring arrangements for them in partnership with the third sector, could have unpleasant political outcomes at much higher levels.

Following "best practice" guidelines will ensure that those wishing to see Lithuania included in the EU at the earliest possible opportunity are in the strongest possible position to argue the case. This is especially important in a political environment where doubt is creeping in.

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