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In The Name Of Poverty


new internationalist
issue 310 March 1999

In the name of poverty...

THE WORDS ARE CERTAINLY THERE – the past few years have seen an abundance of reports, targets, measurements and action plans produced on the subject of poverty eradication. Officially at least, it is a major priority for the beginning of the next century. But until those experiencing poverty are properly consulted and their needs put at the centre of such plans – and until we are all prepared seriously to address the central issue of the world’s increasing inequality – well then, words are only words...

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People experiencing poverty say that change will only happen if they are listened to. Empowerment, equality and, of course, economic change, are the three ‘Es’ on which any poverty programme must be based.

‘To the country’s leaders I say: give us back our voice, you have stolen it. Give us back our dignity and allow us the tools with which to help ourselves.’ UK Coalition Against Poverty

‘The poor do not want you to impose your programmes to empower us. We know how to empower ourselves. We want your support for our decisions.’ Karuawathie Menike, People’s Rural Development Association, Sri Lanka

‘We need a global movement to secure the quality of life of local people and access to credit, health, education. Develop- ment and globalization, as we have clearly seen in Indonesia, are not the way to solve poverty.’ Dani Wahyu Munggoro, LATIN, Indonesia.

A poor woman in Nairobi, Kenya, was asked what event she would change in her life. She replied: ‘I would be born a man’. Breaking the barriers: women and the elimination of world poverty (DFID 1999).

‘We need a change in attitude; if only people could stop looking down on the poor and recognize they have the same rights, the world would be a better place.’ ATD Fourth World, France

‘The single most important factor in eradicating poverty is the way we think. We have to explode the myths that make it seem hopeless and/or lead us down the wrong path, and arm ourselves with a clear vision of real causes and alternative solutions.’ Food First, US

‘To overcome poverty we need the poor to have control over land and resources.’ Chathi, tribal from India.

‘Access to financial services, especially credit for self-employment, targeted at the poorest of the poor, especially women, is perhaps the most powerful tool in combating poverty.’ Shan Ali, Grameen Bank, Bangladesh

‘Economic policies which generate growing inequality are the biggest barrier to the eradication of poverty.’ Food First, US

‘People have to be given access to education, healthcare, safe water, adequate nutrition and family planning if they are to be helped to break vicious cycles of poverty.’ Casa Alianza, Honduras


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To eradicate poverty, the physical, psychological and political conditions must be right. These include peace, security, and a responsible attitude to the world’s resources, as well as an openness to sharing them equally. Some governments are taking poverty seriously, involving grassroots people as well as government officials in drawing up poverty plans and setting targets. In such cases, results are already beginning to show, proving that the eradication of poverty is largely a matter of political will.

In 1994 the Government set up the 8-7 Poverty Reduction Programme, which aims to eliminate absolute poverty by the year 2000. The State Council funded several anti-poverty units and allocated $1.8 billion towards alleviating income poverty and increasing expenditure on basic education and healthcare.

[image, unknown] Costa Rica
Costa Rica has the lowest poverty levels in Latin America. The proportion of poor people was reduced from 28 to 20 per cent between 1989 and 1995. At the same time, the provision of jobs and a public spending programme reduced inequality. But there is still much to be done about including poor people in the debates.

The Government has a National Anti-Poverty Strategy which aims to reduce the percentage of the population consistently poor from 9-15 per cent to under 5-10 per cent. This involves every government department and was drawn up by means of a public process that had 241 submissions, mostly from small community and voluntary organizations.

4.56 million families are officially defined as poor, though the Government estimates that poverty declined by 4.2 per cent between 1991 and 1994. The Government has implemented a social-reform agenda which aims to improve life for the poor majority. Access to social services will be improved and there will be a sustainable approach to the management and use of natural resources. A Social Reform Council with wide-ranging involvement of all sectors of the poor has also been established.

In 1995 the Government set up a National Task Force to formulate a comprehensive Poverty Eradication Action Plan. This has involved the participation of many civil-society organizations and has four major components: infrastructure development, human resource development, good governance and rural development.

United Kingdom
The Government has identified poverty and social exclusion as a key issue, though it does not yet have any formal anti-poverty strategy with goals and targets. It has set up a Social Exclusion Unit and and a Low Pay Commission. Direct communication with people in poverty remains ad-hoc.

United States
A Welfare Reform Act implemented in 1996 reduced national government spending on social development and cut the level and duration of benefits, though there was an increase in the minimum wage – the first for a decade. Estimates suggest that by 2002 the Act will result in 2.6 million more people living below the federal poverty line.

Details from Social Watch (Instituto del Tercer Mundo),
Jackson 1136, Montevideo 11200, Uruguay.
Fax: + 598 (2) 401 9222
e-mail: [email protected]
Website: http://www.socwatch.org.uy

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All the global conferences in the 1990s made agreements to reduce poverty. At the United Nations Social Summit in 1995 the world’s governments committed themselves to poverty eradication as ‘an ethical, social, political and economic imperative of humankind’. The 20:20 Initiative, also endorsed by the Social Summit, stipulates that governments should mobilize 20 per cent of their budgets – and donors of their aid budgets – to cover basic social services for all.

Below, the NI sets out some of the targets – and estimates how likely they are to be achieved.

In 1996 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted the goal of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015.
Achievability rating: 9/10

Possible – but will it happen? It would take a concerted effort on the part of the international community and all the governments of the world to make this a real priority. So 9/10 as a possibility but 0/10 if the political will is lacking.

Life expectancy
By 2000 to reach a life expectancy of at least 60 years in every country. By 2005 to reach a life expectancy greater than 70. And by 2015 to hit 75 or more.
Achievability rating: 0/10

Dream on: Life expectancy has improved considerably in the last 20 years and is likely to continue to do so – but not in all parts of the world. Nearly a third of people in the least- developed countries are not expected to survive to the age of 40.

Child mortality
By 2000 to reduce under-five mortality by a third from the 1990 level or to 70 per 1,000 births, and by 2015 to less than 45 per 1,000 births.
Achievability rating: 6/10

A touch more realistic this one, but still too many children die of hunger or preventable diseases, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The under-five mortality rate is still 95 per 1,000 births in the South though it is 18 per 1,000 in the North.

[image, unknown] Health
By 2000 to achieve universal access to high-quality and affordable primary healthcare. Eliminate polio, guinea-worm disease, iodine deficiency disorders and vitamin A deficiency.
Achievability rating: 5/10

Full marks for polio and iodine deficiency. There’s a lot less of it now. But it’s always much easier to have specific targets than universal ones, such as ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare. That involves governments spending big money, when actually the current trend is to cut back on health spending and to privatize services.

By 2000 to achieve universal access to basic education and the completion of primary education by at least 80 per cent of primary-school age children and by 2015, universal primary education in all countries.
Achievability rating: 4/10

Oh yes? And where are debt-burdened countries in the Majority World going to get the money from to spend on education? Gender inequality By 2005 to close the gender gap in primary and secondary school education and by 2020 reduce female illiteracy by at least half from its 1990 level. Achievability rating: 5/10 Quite possible in some countries; extremely unlikely in others. Between 1970 and 1995 adult illiteracy declined by nearly half from 57 to 30 per cent – two-thirds of the remaining 840 million illiterates are women.

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New Internationalist issue 310 magazine cover This article is from the March 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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