Rights: COVID-19 dashing hopes of ending poverty by 2030, says UN expert

The COVID-19 pandemic will push 176 million more people into extreme poverty and dash hopes of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.

This is one of the main conclusions highlighted in a report presented by Mr Olivier De Schutter, the new UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, to the 44th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council this week. The report was prepared by his predecessor Mr Philip Alston.

According to the report (A/HRC/44/40), the impact of COVID-19 will be long-lasting, but much- needed structural responses have been sorely lacking.

According to the World Bank, the pandemic will erase all poverty alleviation progress over the past three years, and will push 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line.

Far from being the "great leveller," COVID-19 is a pandemic of poverty, exposing the parlous state of social safety nets for those on lower incomes or in poverty around the world, said the report.

"Growth alone, without far more robust redistribution of wealth, would fail to effectively tackle poverty," said Mr De Schutter.

"Based on historic growth rates, it would take 200 years to eradicate poverty under a $5 a day line and would require a 173-fold increase in global GDP."

That is "an entirely unrealistic prospect, not least since it does not take into account the environmental degradation associated with the economic growth, or the impacts of climate change on poverty itself," he said.

"I welcome this report, which illustrates that poverty is not a matter only of low incomes," said Mr De Schutter.

"It's a matter of disempowerment, of institutional and social abuse, and of discrimination. It is the price we pay for societies that exclude people whose contributions are not recognized. Eradicating poverty means building inclusive societies that shift from a charity approach to a rights-based empowering approach," he added.

According to the report, more than 250 million people are at risk of acute hunger (due to COVID-19), and that poor people and marginalized communities have been the hardest hit in almost every country, both in terms of vulnerability to the virus and its economic consequences.

The report criticizes what it says is the mainstream pre-pandemic "triumphalist narrative that extreme poverty is nearing eradication."

"That claim is unjustified by the facts, generates inappropriate policy conclusions, and fosters complacency," it said.

According to the report, it relies largely on the World Bank's measure of extreme poverty, which has been misappropriated for a purpose for which it was never intended.

More accurate measures show only a slight decline in the number of people living in poverty over the past thirty years.

"The reality is that billions face few opportunities, countless indignities, unnecessary hunger, and preventable death, and remain too poor to enjoy basic human rights," said the report.

Huge progress has been made in improving the quality of life for billions of people over the past two centuries, but it does not follow that "extreme poverty is being eradicated."

According to the report, many world leaders, economists, and pundits have enthusiastically promoted a self- congratulatory message, proclaiming progress against poverty to be "one of the greatest human achievements of our time," and characterizing "the decline [in poverty] ... to less than 10 per cent, [as] a huge achievement."

Others have paid tribute to the role of economic growth and capitalism in lifting a billion people "out of dire poverty into something approaching a decent standard of living."

But these determinedly over-optimistic assessments generate many questions, said the report.

It noted that almost all of these celebratory accounts rely one way or another on the World Bank's international poverty line (IPL), under which the number in extreme poverty fell from 1.895 billion in 1990 to 736 million in 2015, and thus from about 36 to 10 percent of the world's population.

"The United Nations has ensured the IPL's status as the dominant benchmark by enshrining it as the main reference point in both the Millennium Development Goals and the SDGs. In addition, the Bank's financial and intellectual clout ensure that almost all of the most glowing accounts of progress use its IPL statistics."

Certainly, the line is a highly admirable initiative that has likely done more to raise awareness and foster collective intent than any other single effort.

However, the picture it provides is far from complete and it is important to recognize its principal limitations, said the report.

Many of these have been acknowledged by Bank officials, by a Bank-appointed expert group, and even by the economist responsible for developing the modern IPL.

"Yet the limitations nonetheless represent a strong indictment of the single-minded focus on this particular line and its use by many commentators - and the Bank - to underpin a misleading picture of progress against poverty."

The current line is derived from an average of national poverty lines adopted by some of the world's poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike many national lines, it is not based on any direct assessment of the cost of essential needs.

It is an absolute line, constant in value, calculated and expressed using purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars, which are designed to adjust for the costs of goods in different countries in a way that market exchange rates do not (notwithstanding the many challenges to the validity of the PPPs), said the report.

The current line of US$1.90 2011 PPP per day represents what that amount could buy in the United States in 2011.

Expressed in local currencies for the most recent years available, the line translates to living on 7.49 yuan per day in China, 1.41 euros in Portugal, 22.49 pesos in Mexico, 50.83 rubles in Russia, 355.18 naira in Nigeria, 910.15 pesos in Chile, or 36.27 rupees in India.

"The IPL is of course well below the national poverty lines of most countries, and accordingly generates dramatically lower numbers in poverty," said the report.

"Whatever its merits, the IPL should not be treated as the pre-eminent basis on which to determine whether or not the world community is eradicating extreme poverty, let alone as the benchmark for SDG 1 on poverty," it argued.

It also said much of the progress reflected under the Bank's line is due not to any global trend but to exceptional developments in China, where the number of people below the IPL dropped from more than 750 million to 10 million between 1990 and 2015, accounting for a large proportion of the billion people "lifted" out of poverty during that period.

"Using a more defensible line generates a radically different understanding of progress against poverty."

According to the report, using more realistic measures, the extent of global poverty is vastly higher and the trends discouraging.

Rather than one billion people lifted out of poverty and a global decline from 36 percent to 10 percent, many lines show only a modest decline in rate and a nearly stagnant head-count.

The number living under a $5.50 line held almost steady between 1990 and 2015, declining from 3.5 to 3.4 billion, while the rate dropped from 67 percent to 46 percent.

While SDG 1 calls for a rate of zero under the IPL by 2030, the Bank does not foresee an end to poverty even under that line.

Assuming that every country grows as it did between 2005 and 2015, the Bank projects a poverty rate of 6 percent in 2030. Under a $5.04 line, projections show 28 percent of the world, or 2.35 billion people, in poverty in 2030.

These projections will deteriorate immensely as COVID-19 continues to ravage economies and public health, said the report.

Despite vast resources, many high-income countries have failed to seriously reduce poverty rates under national measures, which are often in the double digits, and in some cases, poverty has risen alongside increasing homelessness, hunger, and debt.

Between 1984 and 2014, poverty rose in countries such as Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. One in seven children in OECD countries live in income poverty, and child poverty rates increased in almost two-thirds of those countries in recent years.

Impact of COVID-19

According to the report, the impact of COVID-19 will be long-lasting, but much-needed structural responses have been sorely lacking.

According to the World Bank, the pandemic will erase all poverty alleviation progress over the past three years, and will push 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line.

"Rather than resolving to address the inadequacy of their public health and social protection systems in response to the pandemic, many governments have seen COVID-19 as a passing challenge to be endured, ignoring the indispensability of large-scale economic and social restructuring," said the report.

The public health community's mantra for coping with COVID-19 encapsulates the systemic neglect of those living in poverty.

The pithy advice to "stay home, socially distance, wash hands, and see a doctor in case of fever" highlights the plight of the vast numbers who can do none of these things.

"They have no home in which to shelter, no food stockpiles, live in crowded and unsanitary conditions, and have no access to clean water or affordable medical care," said the report.

Far from being the "great leveller," COVID-19 is a pandemic of poverty, exposing the parlous state of social safety nets for those on lower incomes or in poverty around the world, it added.

Poor people are more likely to be exposed to, and least likely to be protected from, the virus. They experience the impact of lockdowns, layoffs, and closures far more dramatically. The majority of "essential workers" are poorly paid, badly protected, and unsupported by emergency assistance.

"In the understandable rush to re-open economies, they risk becoming sacrificial lambs," said the report.

It noted that in some of the world's richest nations, health care systems have proven grossly inadequate, and race, gender, religious, and class discrimination have skewed access to housing, food, education, and technology in ways that have yielded radically different outcomes.

Gaping North-South disparities have been exposed. And many national and local governments, constrained by austerity policies, lack the will, resources, and administrative capacities to step in effectively.

"Meanwhile, multilateralism has been gravely wounded, and with a few exceptions, international solidarity has been conspicuously lacking."

If social protection floors had been in place, the hundreds of millions left without medical care, adequate food and housing, and basic security would have been spared some of the worst consequences.

"Instead, endless pressures to promote fiscal consolidation, especially over the last decade, have pushed social protection systems closer towards nineteenth century models rather than late twentieth century aspirations."

When combined with the next generation of post-COVID-19 austerity policies, the dramatic transfer of economic and political power to the wealthy elites that has characterized the past forty years will accelerate, at which point the extent and depth of global poverty will be even more politically unsustainable and explosive, the report argued.

The report further noted that the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda aim to provide a "shared blueprint for peace and prosperity."

They were adopted in September 2015 with great fanfare and are the dominant framework through which poverty eradication efforts and development policy are structured at the global level.

But five years later, it is time to acknowledge that their aspiration to provide a "supremely ambitious and transformational vision" is failing in key respects, said the report.

The report recognized that the SDG process has been a "game-changer" in important ways and been used to very good effect in many settings.

"The goals have made a very significant contribution to promoting awareness, galvanizing support, and framing the broader debate around poverty reduction. They have been especially valuable in contexts in which they provide the only available entry point for discussions of contentious issues."

Nevertheless, the time has come for a re-evaluation in light of deeply disappointing results to date and a range of new challenges.

"The dramatic up-tick in poverty from COVID-19 and the accompanying economic debacle should provide an impetus to revisit the 2030 Agenda."

The SDGs should not be abandoned, nor should the status quo be set in stone. The pressing challenge is to reflect on ways in which the overall package, including targets and indicators, can be re-shaped and supplemented in order to achieve the key goals which otherwise look destined to fail. Business-as-usual should not be an option, said the report.

Ending poverty

According to the report, continued large-scale global poverty is incompatible with the human right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to life alongside the right to live in dignity.

"The failure to take the necessary steps to eliminate it is a political choice and one that leaves firmly in place discriminatory practices based on gender, status, race, and religion, designed to privilege certain groups over others."

The report said that in re-calibrating the SDGs and launching a sustained campaign to really end poverty in all its forms, the following steps are crucial: re-conceive the relationship between growth and poverty elimination; tackle inequality and embrace redistribution; move beyond the aid debate and promote tax justice; implement universal social protection; center the role of government; embrace participatory governance; and adapt the international poverty measurement.

"In evaluating poverty eradication, the international community should stop hiding behind an international poverty line that uses a standard of miserable subsistence. The UN should have the courage of its convictions and acknowledge that the scale of global poverty is far more accurately reflected in its own indicators and reporting."

Extreme poverty is and must be understood as a violation of human rights. Protestations of inadequate resources are entirely unconvincing given the determined refusal of many governments to adopt just fiscal policies, end tax evasion, and stop corruption.

"Poverty is a political choice and will be with us until its elimination is re-conceived as a matter of social justice," said the report.

"Only when the goal of realizing the human right to an adequate standard of living replaces the World Bank's miserable subsistence line will the international community be on track to eliminate extreme poverty," it concluded.

By Kanaga Raja.

Source: SUNS - South North Development Monitor, SUNS #9157, Friday 10 July 2020.