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Are we beating poverty? | The World Weekly

For campaigners around the world, one issue continues to command significant attention: poverty. In its many forms, understanding poverty can arguably provide an insight into everything from an individual’s income to their physical and mental wellbeing. Its hindering power reaches into people’s lives across the world, crossing traditional boundaries between wealthy and emerging economies.

On an absolute level, extreme poverty is defined internationally by a family having an income of less than $1.90 per day. In these terms, a positive global picture emerges. “The last 15 years saw a truly remarkable decline in global poverty - more people escaped extreme poverty in a shorter period of time than ever before in human history,” Geoffrey Gertz, post-doctoral research fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The World Weekly.

According to the latest comprehensive World Bank study, between 1990 and 2013 around 1.1 billion people globally escaped the $1.90 threshold – leaving 767 million in extreme poverty. When viewed as a percentage of the global population, extreme poverty decreased from 35% to 10.7% – all over a period when the world’s population rose by 1.9 billion.

Whilst poverty is widely held to still be on a downward global trajectory, falling below 10% of the world’s population, many experts argue that it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030. The World Poverty Clock calculates that extreme poverty is currently being cut at 1.1 people per second – significantly off track from the rate of 1.6 they argue is required to meet the 2030 goal. In large part, they say, this is due to stagnation in poverty reduction across Africa. In fact, the World Data Lab shows that 14 out of 18 countries in the world where extreme poverty is rising are in Africa.

According to the World Poverty Clock, Nigeria overtook India this year as the largest site of extreme poverty in the world. Around 87 million people in Nigeria (50% of the population) are estimated to be living on less than $1.90/day.

“Recent overall global poverty reduction was driven largely by major successes in South and South-East Asia – in large populous countries such as China, India, and Indonesia,” Soumya Chattopadhyay, senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, told TWW. “The emerging and growing pockets of poverty are in Sub-Saharan Africa and so replicating past success by just scaling the policies and practices might not yield those same outcomes.”

A relative picture

Understanding income poverty in terms of the minimum requirement to live in the society in which an individual resides, known as relative poverty, is valued by experts as vital for contextualising poverty. In the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, 40 million people are estimated to live in poverty, according to the latest census data.

UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston was particularly damning on this subject in his recent report on US poverty. He focused much of his critique on the protection of private wealth, and the comparative lack of investment to help arrest “public squalor”; his report describes several areas he visited in rural Alabama and West Virginia with no modern sewage systems.

The Trump administration has roundly rejected the report. Two days after announcing that the US would withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, America’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley branded the report “politically-motivated” and called it “patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America”.

Particular attention was paid to the tax cuts passed by the Trump administration which, Mr. Alston claims, would disproportionately benefit the richest 1% and “stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world”.

“Our republic has no justification unless we are trying to make ourselves a true democracy both economically and socially that works for everyone,” Martin O’Malley, former Democratic governor of Maryland, told TWW. “Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the federal government has been dominated by a view that the economy should work for corporate profit, cutting funding for programmes like healthcare and education.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston delivers his speech during a press conference in Beijing on August 23, 2016.

One of the major lessons from Mr. Alston’s report was the multi-faceted nature of poverty. As well as income, he draws attention to other socio-economic issues in the USA. For example, the US ranks 36th in the world in terms of access to water and sanitation.

“Development is a multi-dimensional process, and there are many other aspects of 'the good life' that people aspire to: good health, a clean environment, physical safety, and political rights, for instance,” says Dr. Gertz.

One key metric is the fate of children. Broad international estimates suggest that every year 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married. Though numbers are on the decline, this practice is widely linked to a restricted time in education for girls, resulting in a vast limitation of their earning potential – compounded by the significant health risks of childbirth at a young age.

Child marriage reduces the earning potential of child brides by 9% and is expected to cost emerging economies trillions of dollars by 2030, according to research from the World Bank.

“Child marriage not only puts a stop to girls' hopes and dreams. It also hampers efforts to end poverty and achieve economic growth and equity,” Quentin Wodon of the World Bank said in an interview. “Ending this practice is not only the morally right thing to do but also the economically smart thing to do.”

Along with long-established factors hindering global capacity to fight poverty such as political instability and conflict, one increasingly recognised challenge is that of climate change. Studies have shown that poorer nations lack the resources to build resilience to the effects of climate change.

In Africa, Chad has struggled recently with earlier, and heavier rains followed by long periods of drought. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is from the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad. She told TWW how they had witnessed “resources shrinking and seasons changing” as they move their livestock across the country to “find water and pasture”.

A boatman pushes his boat through tall grass near Guité in the overgrown Lake Chad. The lake's surface area has shrunk by 90% in the last century.

Ms. Ibrahim, coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, says that the shifts in rainfall patterns has drastically affected agricultural life. “During the dry season we used to milk our cows every day and now we milk one every two days, reducing the quantity of the milk by at least 25%.”

When combined with the growing distance to markets as they search for pasture and the diseases that are affecting her community, she says that their “livelihoods have been changed forever!”

‘Human capital’

Innovative ideas to tackle poverty abound. One study contends that solar micro-grids could be the most affordable and achievable way to provide sustainable energy to the 1.3 billion people around the world who still lack access to electricity. Bangladesh is held up as one potential area of opportunity, with micro-grids already well established in rural areas to provide power to local communities at the point of consumption – though the country still remains heavily reliant on coal power.

The US has seen a “resiliency within some states” to support individual economic development, says Governor O’Malley. Virginia notably, recently voted to expand Medicaid health insurance to 400,000 more residents.

Programmes which address one aspect of poverty, however, may not be enough. “Poverty is the outcome of a constellation of unfavourable factors that reinforce each other,” says Dr. Chattopadhyay. “Dealing with a few factors in isolation may at best temporarily move some people out of poverty, but they remain just as vulnerable to just one adverse condition or shock to fall back into poverty.”

The World Bank has recently been pushing for investment in the population in emerging economies, as part of efforts to improve the value of their ‘human capital’ and lay the foundations for their economic growth - reducing their general reliance on unsustainable natural resources. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim stressed earlier this year that their research was finding that “the more and more effectively you invest in health, education, social protection, the better you will do as an economy”.

Activists stress that, above all, there is a moral imperative to build a fairer, more equal world. “The persistence of poverty is the manifestation of an uncaring and unequal society whose very fabric is damaged,” Diana Skelton, head of mission at non-profit ATD Fourth World, told TWW. Amidst the debate of policymakers, and international philanthropists, it is vital, she argues, that the voices of the poor are not lost “as we strive toward a society free from poverty”.

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