In his final report to the UN, Philip Alston, the former Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has condemned the failure by world leaders to tackle extreme poverty.
“Even before COVID-19, we squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic,” Alston said in a statement on the report’s release.
The report, “The parlous state of poverty eradication”, argues that the near universal reliance on the World Bank’s line, currently $1.90 (2011 PPP) per day, is deeply flawed and yields a deceptively positive picture. The Bank’s line shows the number of people in extreme poverty fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 736 million in 2015.
“Over the past decade, the UN, world leaders and pundits have promoted a self-congratulatory message of impending victory over poverty, but almost all of these accounts rely on the World Bank’s international poverty line, which is utterly unfit for the purpose of tracking such progress,” Alston commented.
“The line is scandalously unambitious, and the best evidence shows it doesn’t even cover the cost of food or housing in many countries. The poverty decline it purports to show is due largely to rising incomes in a single country, China. And it obscures poverty among women and those often excluded from official surveys, such as migrant workers and refugees. The result is a Pyrrhic victory, an undue sense of immense satisfaction, and dangerous complacency. Using more realistic measures, the extent of global poverty is vastly higher and the trends extremely discouraging.”
The report argues for a recalibration of the Sustainable Development Goals and the emphasis on economic growth as the engine for eliminating poverty. Alston argues “After decades of unparalleled growth, the primary beneficiaries have been the wealthiest. Rather than an end to poverty, unbridled growth has brought extreme inequality, widespread precarity in a world of plenty, roiling discontent and climate change—which will take the greatest toll on the world’s poor.”
The report concludes that “Poverty is a political choice and will be with us until its elimination is reconceived as a matter of social justice. 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.”
The report was presented to the UN Human Rights Council on July 5, 2020, by Alston’s successor as special rapporteur, Olivier De Schutter.