Saturday, July 11, 2020

Billions are in Poverty

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights from 2014-2020, had these departing words to say

Under the World Bank’s $1.90 (£1.50) a day international poverty line, the number of people in “extreme poverty” fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 736 million in 2015. 

It is a target which aims to ensure a mere miserable subsistence. The best evidence shows it doesn’t even cover the cost of food or housing in many countries. And it obscures poverty among women and those often excluded from official surveys, such as migrant workers and refugees.  It has been a highly unrealistic picture of progress against poverty 

It is attributed to economic growth, justifying a “pro-growth” agenda characterised by deregulation, privatisation, lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, easy movement of money across borders and excessive legal protections for capital. In my six years investigating governments’ anti-poverty efforts for the UN, I encountered this convenient alibi time and time again. Everything from tax breaks for the super-rich to destructive mega-projects that extract wealth from the global south are lauded as efforts to reduce poverty, when they do no such thing. Presenting the agenda of the wealthy as the best road to poverty alleviation has entirely upended the social contract and redefined the public good as helping the rich get richer.

 The progress narrative has been used to drown out the appalling results so often brought about by this perversion of pro-growth policies. Many of the countries that have achieved great growth in GDP have also experienced exploding inequality, rising hunger, unaffordable health and housing costs, persistent racial wealth gaps, the proliferation of jobs that don’t pay a living wage, the dismantling of social safety nets and ecological devastation. 

 Billions of people face few opportunities, preventable death and remain too poor to enjoy basic human rights. About half the world, 3.4 billion people, lives on less than $5.50 a day, and that number has barely declined since 1990. Even high-income countries with ample resources have failed to seriously reduce poverty rates.

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