Collins Nweke taking his oath of office for a third term, January 2019 / Photo: Daniël De Kievith

How to fight poverty and not the poor

Collins Nweke is a Councillor in the Belgian town of Ostend. The Nigerian-born communal politician narrates his experience of fighting poverty in his community and he reveals the institutional practice that has deliberately kept many families from accessing state support due to them

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By Hon. Collins Nweke*

We had our first son shortly after moving to Belgium. By the time our second son was on his way, we had moved to Ostend from Bredene. When we approached our social worker about birth allowance, he told us bluntly that we were not eligible.

Why? I asked curiously. Well, it’s for permanent residents, he told us. I told him that was strange, because in Bredene we had it all arranged by our social worker. And we had not even lived in Belgium for a year. “That’s Bredene, Mr. Nweke,” he sounded formal and stern. “In Ostend, non-permanent residents are not entitled to a birth premium” I told him I disagreed and wanted to formally dispute it…

Less than a week later, our social worker invited us back and had our birth premium paid. I told him that I knew a few others in our situation who had been denied their rights. I wondered how he was going to fix the anomaly. He looked me straight in the eyes and sat down. Closing his office door, he took me through what I now recognize as my first introduction to the Belgian culture of “political compromise”.

Here was the deal: If I could let go of those who had been denied their rights in the past, he would make sure everyone gets their birth premium in the future. That was in 1996. Fast forward to 10 years later, in the 2006 – 2012 legislature when I became a councillor for the Green Party at the Council for Social Welfare (OCMW/ CPAS).

There were other examples of the denial of citizens’ rights by the same OCMW that should protect their rights. The OCMW council would knowingly reject the rights of citizens to social assistance. The reasoning or strategy was that they will not know their rights and will not go to court. Even when they went to court, the verdict will take some time. Some of those involved would have left the country by then. For those who may still be around, it is a strong message that the OCMW is not Santa Claus.

These are bits and pieces of disgusting practices that had won Ostend the crown of poverty capital of Flanders over the years; especially when it comes to child poverty. The Green party has always raised these dehumanizing practices from the opposition up to 2018. With limited success!

Now in the local coalition ruling government, what should stop us from dismantling the dehumanization?

Isn’t it poverty that must be fought, not the poor?

The poor have been hit hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic. And so are the struggling small business owners! In the Special Committee for Social Services (BCSD), we are doing everything we can to ensure that the broad Corona support for Ostend residents who are having a hard time ends up with the right people. This way we encourage people who can no longer pay their invoices. We deploy social workers to show those who need it the way to the Social House.

In short, we want to provide material, social, medical, medico-social or psychological help to people who can no longer afford their daily expenses or expenses related to medical care due to the Corona crisis. Files are analyzed individually.

By way of example: certain employees who have lost part of their income or who are faced with extra debts, employees in the sub-economic sector, employees working part-time – with a focus on single-parent families, job students, certain self-employed, people with disabilities, . .. are recognized as the needy. According to a recent council release, the interventions specifically cover the following:

  • Assistance with housing. Including the costs with the exception of the rental deposit.
  • Energy assistance. Energy consumption, including social and budgetary guidance or other support.
  • Psychosocial help. Reimbursing the costs of professionals recognized for the treatment of intimate partner violence, anxiety and psychiatric problems.
  • Health assistance. Interventions in hospital bills, medicines, … and the purchase of mouth masks, gels and gloves.
  • Help with digital accessibility. Digital support to promote online steps, social contacts and school support in particular.
  • Financial help. Unpaid invoices as a result of a decrease in income.
  • Basic needs. Interventions in transport costs, the purchase of clothing, the purchase of medical glasses, …
  • Help for the families in difficulty. In the context of the fight against child poverty.

Through its actions and negligence, the OCMW Ostend has built up generations of poor over the years. Worse, those who were in danger of falling into the poverty spiral were shortsightedly ignored. The last OCMW board led by Vanessa Vens played a fair but insufficient active catch-up.

The current Council, led by Mayor Bart Tommelein and BCSD chairman, Natacha Waldemann, have taken the bull by the horns. They provide leadership and direction. And that’s important. Decisions within the council committee are largely taken by consensus. Decisions are not driven by the ideological right versus the left, but by right versus wrong.

If we really fight poverty, Ostend will win. The high poverty level has taken time to build. Logically it will take some time to eradicate too. But two years after the start of this legislature, we can honestly say that we have made a good start. And independent analyses and statistical data have confirmed the fact

Collins Nweke is Councillor, Special Committee for Social Services, at the Ostend City Council

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