Millennium Goals: Poverty is not a statistic

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, Sep 14 (IPS) - Fighting poverty requires, among other things, tools for measuring the phenomenon in all its complexity. Poverty cannot be defined by having an income of one or two dollars a day, nor is there any advantage in distinguishing the very poor from the "almost" very poor, says the annual report by Social Watch, a global coalition of around 400 citizens' groups and non-governmental organisations from more than 50 countries.

Although poverty basically reflects drastically unequal distribution of income, it also involves unequal access to goods, job opportunities, information and social services and reduced participation in society, says the Social Watch Report 2005, titled "Roars and Whispers. Gender and Poverty: Promises vs. Action", released Wednesday in New York.

"The criterion of less than one dollar a day was established by the World Bank as the so-called international extreme poverty line," says the report, which presents two new indexes to measure social development.

The World Bank estimates that there are 1.3 billion people living in poverty in the world today. But based on national definitions of poverty, another 500 million should be added to that, taking into account middle to high income countries alone, says Social Watch.

The report points out that the one dollar a day indicator does not apply equally well to all regions. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) puts the threshold for extreme poverty at two dollars a day, while in the United States it is estimated at around 12 dollars a day, it notes.

Researchers Sanjay Reddy and Thomas Pogge stated in a 2003 study that the World Bank poverty indicator "does not provide the means to interpret purchasing power between countries or between years".

"Thus it is possible for people who are considered poor in one country to have more products or engage in higher consumption than those not identified as poor in another," they added.

For the team that put together this year's report - Social Watch has been publishing its annual reports since 1996 - the one dollar a day indicator responds to ideological and political motives.

"This indicator has led World Bank researchers to claim that 'globalisation is working,' since it seems to imply that the proportion of people living in poverty in the world as a whole is declining," said Social Watch coordinator Roberto Bissio.

By adopting that indicator, the international community - which decided in 2000 to undertake a frontal assault on hunger and inequality - "takes some distance from the views of...Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who states that poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as lowness of incomes," said Bissio, a Uruguayan activist.

The Millennium Summit+5, which is bringing together over 170 heads of state and government from Wednesday to Friday in New York, is assessing the gap between the real world and the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted at the U.N. General Assembly in 2000.

Even the very first goal - halving the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day - will be achieved by 2015 only in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and perhaps North Africa, says Social Watch.

In Latin America, the slow pace of progress will make it impossible to reach the target by 2015. And in sub-Saharan Africa, "the situation is especially bleak, as the number of people living in poverty actually grew by 140 million between 1995 and 2004," it adds.

The report recognises that the MDGs - which include targets involving health, water and sanitation, education, gender equality and the environment - entail a broader view of poverty. But the 48 indicators chosen by the United Nations to measure compliance with the MDGs do not facilitate comparisons or global assessments, and in many cases statistics are not available from all countries or periods.

When it comes to measuring poverty, Social Watch proposes going beyond income and evaluating a country's capabilities of meeting the needs of the population, using new indicators.

The Basic Capabilities Index (CBI) developed by Social Watch is based on three indicators: the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel, under-five infant mortality, and the proportion of children who stay in school through the fifth grade.

By combining these three indicators that are easily available in all countries into one number, it is possible to compare conditions and reach global conclusions, says Social Watch.

One of these conclusions is that "extreme poverty is not declining and is actually increasing in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and most of Asia, where progress is concentrated in Vietnam, India and China."

The 10 countries that rank lowest on the BCI are Chad, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Madagascar, Bangladesh, Burundi, Laos and Pakistan, while the top 10 are Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Luxembourg, Japan, Iceland and Greece, in descending order.

"We are trying out new indexes and we hope to build serious comparative analyses," Uruguayan sociologist Karina Batthyány told IPS.

Batthyány coordinated the team of Social Watch researchers in Montevideo, where the global network's international secretariat is based.

In different tests, "the BCI correlated positively with all of the development indicators that we work with," in measuring factors like food security, health and education, she said.

By leaving out the income variable, the BCI does not require household surveys by governments, and makes it possible to use measurements at the national, regional or municipal levels.

The other focus of the Social Watch report is inequality between men and women, which continues to exist in all countries, according to the global coalition, which argues that if the playing field is not levelled, no development strategy is possible.

Social Watch's new Gender Equity Index takes into account education, economic activity and "empowerment", or participation in political and economic decision-making, to come up with a figure that is not connected to a country's socioeconomic development level.

Empowerment includes the share of parliamentary seats and ministerial posts held by women, and the proportion of women professionals.

With respect to economic activity, the new index considers the proportion of women in the labour force and the income gap, measured by dividing the total wages earned by women by those earned by men.

And in education, female enrolment rates at all three levels of schooling are taken into account.

"The GEI makes it possible to rank and compare countries, although one of its limitations is the lack of available information," said Batthyány. The index was used to classify 134 countries on a scale of 1 to 12.

The countries that earned the highest possible score (12) were Australia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, followed by Canada, Colombia, France, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, which were given a score of 11.

The lowest-ranking countries were Yemen (with a score of 3), C- te d'Ivoire, Egypt, Pakistan and Togo (4), and Algeria, Guatemala, India, Lebanon, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Turkey (5).

"Gender equity is far from being achieved," said Batthyány. "The opportunities available to men and women are unequal in every country in the world. Almost 70 percent of the world's poor are women."