Today is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and also Blog Action Day 2014, with the theme of inequality. Professor David Hulme laments the fact that global poverty still continues to plague our world – despite previous headline-grabbing pledges by the richest nations.
Today, as on all the previous days of the 21st century, around 800 million people will go hungry, 20,000 children will die from easily preventable health problems, 1,400 women will die from causes associated with maternity that are easy to diagnose and treat.
Some 85 million primary age children will not attend school. Every day in this affluent world, hundreds of millions of people experience extreme forms of deprivation that inflict suffering and reduce or terminate their future prospects of having a good life and being productive.
Our grandparents could claim that global poverty was inevitable – there was simply not enough resources, nor the technology to transform resources, to meet the needs of all the world’s people. They may or may not be correct but this is not a claim that we can make today.
Today, the world has enough food for everyone to be feed. The resources and technology to provide basic services – primary education, health services, and welfare payments – are available.
The problem with our world today is that it is organised in such a way that around 1.5 to 2.9 billion people, (depending on how you define poverty), have little or no access to the most basic of human needs. And this is because of the way we run the world – its global governance.
In recent times, the rich and powerful have made big promises about ending poverty. At the Millennium Summit in September 2000, 189 nations, and no fewer than 149 national leaders, met in New York and committed themselves to “…freeing the entire human race from want.”
They signed the Millennium Declaration identifying a set of goals that promised to halve extreme poverty across the world by 2015. That year was to be a sort of “half way house” on the road to totally eradicating global poverty.
Freeing humanity from poverty was no longer to be an aspiration for moral philosophers or visionary leaders – it was to be a mega-project to which all the nations and peoples of the world were committed. After decades of half-hearted debate the goal of global poverty eradication was, apparently, to move to the centre of the international agenda.
While world leaders smiled for group photographs, patted backs and congratulated each other there was a strong case that such an endeavor was long overdue. In a world of unprecedented affluence and material capabilities, why had it taken so long for leaders to agree to meet the most basic needs of more than 1.4 billion people living in extreme income poverty and 2.9 billion human beings who were deprived of at least one basic human need? Why were so many people in rich countries struggling with obesity and suffering from “affluenza” while so many people in developing countries were experiencing severe deprivation?
As our research has revealed, the Millennium Declaration was not the first time that people had talked about eradicating global poverty. What was unique, however, was that this was a global consensus, that quantitative targets were agreed and that commitments were made by heads of government that all countries would contribute to this task through mixes of finance, domestic and international policy change and practical action.
This commitment was confirmed in the Monterrey Consensus of March 2002 when the rich nations of the world promised to significantly increase their financial support for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals while the poorer countries promised to improve their governance and reduce corruption. The stage seemed set for an unprecedented assault on global poverty…and then things began to falter as the new millennium lost its novelty, commitment faded, promises were neglected or forgotten, other international issues were given a higher priority and the world continued with business as usual.
The opportunity created by the “millennium moment” for a truly concerted, global effort to reduce poverty has been lost: it was always only an outside possibility given the political economy of those times and the low priority that those of us doing well – the elites and middle classes of rich and poor countries – place on the welfare of the “distant needy”.
The result is neither a glass half empty nor half full – the glass has a little more in, but we are unsure how much. Yes, there is renewed enthusiasm that has been applied to creating the Sustainable Development Goals, as evidenced by the draft that proposes a massive 169 targets. But that large number of targets also suggests the lack of unity around how to tackle the biggest problems – how the world is governed.
And so, global poverty remains on the international agenda, but generally as a footnote to the issues that are genuinely gaining the commitments of those with power and influence at the global level – terrorism, access to natural resources, financial stability, trade and growth. We need to find ways of putting it up the agenda and that will mean concentrating on what the woman in the street thinks…as much as the professionalised debates in New York and other capitals.
Does this marginalisation of global poverty mean that we should despair and give up?
No, but it does mean that those seeking to improve the position and prospects of the world’s poorest people will need to think both practically and strategically. Practically, with an eye on the short term, they must strive for incremental improvements in policies and resourcing for inequality reduction – increases in aid, more effective aid, making trade a little fairer, implementation of anti-corruption measures and greater financial integrity, strengthened social protection policies and better social services in poorer countries.
With an eye on the longer term and the grander goal, they must strategize on how to promote the diffusion of eradicating poverty as a global norm – through promoting ideas, gaining media and political attention, encouraging norm entrepreneurs and other activities.
And importantly non-governmental and civil society organisations must engage with the public and people living in poverty and not just focus on all the professionalised discussions that surround the Sustainable Development Goals .
These organisations, with large groups of public support can do more than just submit to consultations for the powerful elites but can mobilise their supporters to eventually make extreme inequality in an affluent a morally unacceptable by the vast majority of world citizens in all societies – like slavery, apartheid and not letting women vote. To effectively attack global poverty, the citizens of the world must be able to imagine societies that seek to be more egalitarian and that tackle our growing inequality.