Key Moments in our History

This page is available in Deutsch

From an emergency housing camp to an international movement

In 1956, Joseph Wresinski, a Catholic priest, became the chaplain to 250 homeless families.

They were living in an emergency housing camp near Paris. The conditions Wresinski found there were shocking: more than a thousand people had to make do with only four water pumps; children died each winter from either the frigid cold in their sheet-metal huts, or fires when makeshift heating efforts went tragically awry. Each year, some of these families managed to escape the situation, finding housing elsewhere; and each year it was the worst-off among the families who remained, stuck in an impossible situation.

“The families I met there,” Wresinski would later recall, “made me think of the poverty of my mother. The children could have been my brothers, my sister, or me, forty years earlier.”

In 1957 and determined to end this poverty, Joseph Wresinski launched a community development project with the families in the emergency housing camp, promising them that together they would visit places where important decisions affecting their lives were made — the presidential palace in France, the Vatican, and the United Nations. Wresinski later said, “The families in the camp inspired everything I took on.”

When the families first tried to register as an organization with the local government, they were turned away because they lacked the social standing needed to receive official recognition.

Other men and women from different backgrounds and beliefs came to join them, and over time the group grew into the International Movement ATD Fourth World. Those who came to help formed a new type of volunteer corps with no political or religious affiliation. Members of this Volunteer Corps made a full-time, long-term commitment and, until 1967, they all lived in the camp.

Joseph Wresinski created the name “Fourth World,” a term that has roots in the French Revolution and that refers to those who are excluded from the political process because of their extreme poverty. It was meant to honor the dignity of these families and their refusal to submit to poverty. The letters ATD stand for All Together in Dignity.

Gradually, the Fourth World Movement reached out beyond France. ATD Fourth World volunteers started working with families in poverty in other European countries. In 1964, the first Volunteer Corps member was sent to the New York to learn from the work being done in the War on Poverty. In 1979, the first volunteers moved to the developing world, going to work in Guatemala and in a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1981, ATD Fourth World began work in Africa, with volunteers arriving in Burkina Faso, and a year later in Senegal.

In 1987, Joseph Wresinski completed a report — “Chronic Poverty and Lack of Basic Security” — for the Economic and Social Council of France. Affirming that extreme poverty is a violation of human rights and that people in poverty are essential partners in the work to eradicate poverty, the “Wresinski Report” formed the basis for laws fighting social exclusion in France.

On October 17, 1987, speaking before a crowd of 100,000 people at the Trocadero Human Rights plaza in Paris, Wresinski said, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

Just a few months later, Wresinski died, having satisfied his promise to bring the families he had met to speak with the highest political authorities in France, and with diplomats at the United Nations. In 1989, families living in extreme poverty met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican; in 1994, 300 delegates from 80 countries came to the United States for the first seminar between United Nations human rights experts and people living in poverty.

Our teams continue to bring the voices and knowledge of those in poverty to the places where laws are made around the world; for example, in France in 1998 with the passing of a framework law on the fight against exclusion; in Quebec in 2002, working with partners to create a national plan and law for the fight against poverty; in Guatemala in 2008 as part of a coalition working for a law guaranteeing free public education. In 2012 the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Poverty, affirming that the eradication of poverty is not only a moral duty but also a legal obligation.

Every day, in over 30 countries around the world, people living in extreme poverty take strength from one another’s experiences and work together to build a better future. In 2012, ATD Fourth World members produced the participatory research report “Poverty is Violence: Breaking the Silence, Working for Peace.” From 2011 to 2013, ATD Fourth World brought together over 2,000 people from all backgrounds from 20 countries in a participatory research project on the UN Millennium Development Goals. The conclusions of this research were presented at the United Nations in June 2013 and published in the report Challenge 2015: Towards Sustainable Development that Leaves No One Behind.

Today, ATD Fourth World, an organization that was denied official recognition in 1957 because its founders were people in poverty, holds consultative status at the United Nations, the International Labour Organization, the Council of Europe, and the European Union.