Addressing Poverty – High Level Political Forum 2018

A blog by SI UN Representative Bette Levy.

“I attended two side events regarding poverty. While the approaches were very different the bottom line of both was unless we eradicate ‘relative poverty’ we would be leaving the most marginalized behind especially women and girls.

The statistics speak for themselves. 80% of the world population lives in countries where income differentials are widening, where the inequality gap is widening, and the top 1% get 82% of the wealth. Half the world or over 3 billion people live on less than US $2.50 a day and 80% live on less than US $10.00 a day. Where 80% of the world’s population is living on the equivalent of less than 10% of the world’s wealth. 22,000 children die every day due to poverty and poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five (3.1 million children) each year.

In developing countries one out of six children (about 100 million) is underweight and one in four are stunted. Around the world, 815 million people regularly go to bed hungry, according to a report from the United Nations food agencies. In America, an estimated 48.8 million Americans, including 16.2 million children live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, about 1 in 5 children go hungry at some point during the year. According to the World Poverty Clock we are off track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The target rate to escape poverty is 1.6 but in reality the current escape rate is only 1.1.

Side Event 1 “How to Define Poverty with Those Left Furthest Behind?”

The sponsors of this side event were ATD Fourth World, Oxford University, the permanent missions to the United Nations for France and Ecuador, the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) and the Independent Group of Scientists (IGS) in charge of the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR).

The concept note: “”Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere’ – the overarching goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – perfectly reflects the recent progress made in considering dimensions other than monetary ones when conceptualizing poverty. To further refine our global understanding of what multidimensional poverty truly is, more research is needed to map out all these overt and hidden dimensions of poverty”. “At its heart is the increasingly widespread conviction that poverty is about more than a simple measure of financial well-being. Unfair housing, discrimination, a lack of voice in political processes – poverty is multidimensional”.

The speakers included: Jean-Paul Moatti (IGS) (moderator), Jeffrey D. Sachs (Columbia University), Robert Walker (Oxford University), Javier Herrera (IRD), H.E. Ambassador Helena Yánez Loza (Ecuador), Maryann Broxton (ATD Fourth World USA), Claire Melamed, (Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data), Milorad Kovacevic (UNDP) and Peter Messerli, (GSDR Expert Group).

The tone of the discussion was set by Jeffrey Sachs’s opening remarks, where he stated it was inadequate to measure ‘extreme poverty’ by using the World Bank’s standards, if we hope to achieve SDG 1 and have people ‘Safely Staying Alive’. The World Bank uses the income-based level of $1.90 per day. What we do know is that poverty kills and that there is deprivation of individuals, however we don’t keep adequate statistics on how many, who they are (disaggregated), or where this is happening.

Individuals living in poverty don’t have decent prospects or opportunities to break the cycle. While the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and the SDGs focus on extreme poverty, we really need to tackle relative poverty as well. If a person is living on the streets in the poorest developing country or the streets in a highly developed country … the daily lives for the individuals are not different but the circumstances around them are different, that’s why it’s important to consider the experience of the individual and what their daily life is about. How did the person become homeless, what opportunities are there for them to escape poverty? Relative poverty is a household that is living below half of the local median salary. Again, this is different depending on where you are living (i.e. low income in San Francesco is below US $117,400).

The majority of the panel was researchers and academicians, however; MaryAnn Broxton from ATD came to her role through lived experience. Therefore, her work has more to do with the day-to-day existence of those living in poverty. ATD Fourth World focuses on cause and consequences, the fact that people in poverty often face subjugation (power over people) and perhaps most dishearteningly, the criminalisation of poverty. There are often arrests for petty crimes such as vagrancy, loitering, urinating in the street.

Several speakers pointed to the need for people in poverty to be resilient.  There was a sense that education was the answer and the key to resilience … not just primary education but more importantly secondary and tertiary education as well as more research.

The liveliest discussion came during the Q&A when a participant pointed out that no one discussed the need to collect and analyse disaggregated data (women, gender, disabled and ageing). The impacts on these specific populations is significant due to many countries having restrictive rules that force people into poverty, such as widows. Once the topic was brought up there was a brief but lively discussion on the relevance and importance of collecting this data.


Side Event 2 “ Did Austerity create a “lost decade” for sustainable development and human rights? Evidence and proposals from the national level”

The second side event explored the impact that austerity policies are having on human rights, inequality and sustainable development. The event included speakers from Spain, Egypt, Greece, Brazil, and other countries impacted by austerity. It gave us an opportunity to reflect back on the Voluntary National Agreements (VNRs) that were presented during the High Level Segment, and assess how in tune they were with the socio-economic realities in those countries.

The basic premise of the concept note was that “rights-based, progressive economic policies are critical for the realisation of all SDGs – in mobilising resources for transformations the Agenda seeks. This event analyzes the prevailing trend of fiscal austerity in economic policies around the globe, with case studies from countries presenting VNRs this year, and national perspectives on the varieties and stages of austerity. Are these policies compatible with countries promises under the Agenda 2030?” 

This event proved to be one of the most stimulating with opportunities for learning. I tend to shy away from financing events but was drawn to this one because it compared the reality (austerity budget) with what governments were reporting  (VNR) to actual human rights.

Right off the bat they opened with a slide that brought it all home … AUSTERITY DEEPENS INEQUALITIES! The truth in those three words made it all crystal clear. Austerity is a global issue not just for the ones that make the news (Greece and Spain) but currently 124 countries are planning austerity budgets. 80 middle-income countries are planning austerity measures.

According to Lora Vidović, Chair of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions, they completed a study on Human Right and Austerity and what they found was that austerity has cumulating effects on human rights obligations and in Greece, they found a disproportionate impact on women’s human rights. Another example was Ireland while the economy has bounced back and there has been employment growth, the Irish people are still impacted and there are still issues with school, and housing remains unaffordable. We heard that in Brazil the impact is that the economic level is the same in 2017 as it was in 1992.

The cost of austerity is long-lasting as it plays havoc on the human rights of people and often as the examples above note, not redeemable.

I started this blog talking about the difference between relative poverty vs. extreme poverty and then about austerity. These thoughts have transported me back on my own childhood. As I look from that perspective I remember hearing the term austerity budget for the first time, my town was relatively affluent and those words would strike fear in the hearts of all. There would be years when the town residents would vote against the increases the school board requested for the school budget and the word austerity budget was the buzz word around town. Here’s where relative comes into this. The school always ranks in the top 20 schools in New York and within the top 100 in America  (then and now), school taxes are very high and there are programmes in stem, theater, the arts and all subjects in between, teachers are highly qualified and well paid and classroom size is reasonably small.  So whilst the town operated like this was a major crisis situation, in reality, what it meant that the football team did not get new uniforms, or that there were no late buses for after-school activities such as clubs or sports. Remembering how people moaned about the austerity budget, I can’t imagine how we would have coped if austerity meant choosing to have police or a hospital, to have food on the table or clothes on your children.  Whilst austerity does deepen inequalities, and poverty has overall damaging consequences we all look at this through our own lens. It is essential to educate ourselves about these consequences and how to ensure that human rights are not sacrificed. We can’t as I usually do shy away from these difficult discussions”.

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