No cause for optimism in global poverty rates


Twelve years ago, with the support of the United Nations, world leaders agreed to work together to achieve universal education, promote gender equality and halve extreme poverty by 2015.

Known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the initiative has been described as the “most successful global anti-poverty push in history”.

But how much have the goals really achieved? Five years after they were adopted, their achievements were discussed at the World Social Forum held in Brazil in 2005.

Then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez used his time to speak to discuss the elimination of poverty. Critiquing the UN’s approach of overlooking the acute needs of people and seeking mild reforms instead, he calculated the MDGs’ hunger eradication goal would be met only in 2215.

In contrast, Venezuela was eliminating poverty through implementing socialist policies of free education, housing and education for all citizens.

Poverty remains one of the most serious issues the world faces. In 2009 the World Bank estimated that a quarter of the world’s population live on less than US$1.50 a day. The same report estimated that more than three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in a 2004 report that 34,000 children die every day from causes such as diarrhoea and malnutrition. WHO also estimated that 18 million premature deaths a year are related to poverty; roughly a third of all human deaths are a result of preventable poverty.

The UN has now put forward proposals to change the way poverty is measured. The new indexes give a very optimistic picture of progress the MDGs have made.

In a recent TED talk, Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, said there was light in the end of the tunnel for poverty and that by 2030, a “zero point” of extreme poverty will be reached.

His evidence for this was statistics gathered by the UN. Bill Gates was quick to tweet his response and cheer to the “new factivism” — evidence activism — proposed by Bono.

This year’s UN report on global poverty shows equal vagueness and unprecedented optimism. It says poverty is rapidly declining globally and presents a full-blown success story.

Depending on your preferred outlook, poverty has either increased historically or decreased. If you think that what matters are the absolute numbers of poor in the world, or the relative percentage of the poor with overall population growth, you could argue it has dropped.

But how is it possible to conclude, especially with more metrics, that the population living below whatever line, be it the ridiculously low US$1 a day or the US$2.50 a day, or even the higher but still incredibly low US$10 a day, have decreased?

Of course, by counting poverty in terms of practical hardship in more detail, maybe many people can be said to be actually better off in terms of other important goods than money — disregarding the fact that some are living under US$1 per day.

Better off than others, but still nowhere near good. The new statistics can only say that with a new counting device, people who were recently considered poor have now been excluded. Many people who are living in the same state of poverty as they were before are now excluded from the charts.

But the corporate media’s publishing of the new success rates of poverty makes it hard to trust either side. The fact is still that people in our world starve to death and die from easily curable, preventable diseases. And the fact is still that our world is governed by economic growth as the sole indicator of what the world needs, not human needs, not by far.

It is estimated that 80% of the world’s population live on less than US$10 per day. Recently Oxfam released a report stating that the wealth of the richest 100 people in the world would suffice to eradicate global poverty four times over.

The change needed is obviously one that challenges the structure of the world order as it is today. And if the assessment is that neoliberal, economic, and private capital growth by the richest 1% is the motivational force that governs our global institutions, then focus should first of all be about how to change this.

A first step is to reflect and choose whether you think economic growth sounds like an important goal by itself or whether you think that human interests are more valuable.

Venezuela announced in 2010 they were at the forefront of meeting their MDGs. Venezuela’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations told a press conference that “worldwide, the millennium targets were under serious threat due to the global economic and financial crisis spurred by a capitalist model that had brought growing inequality, poverty and injustice. But in Venezuela, the economic situation was promising.”

Venezuela also focused on giving political power to the majority, so that they could organise their own workplaces and neighbourhoods and transform them.

Venezuela has been joined by many other Latin American countries in forming the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which is aware of the need to unite against capitalist ideals of free trade and instead build social welfare and mutual economic aid.

There is nothing natural about poverty. Given the amount of wealth that exists in the world, the goal of ending global poverty is achievable. But it will never happen through encouraging neo-liberal economic policies, but by following the words of Chavez who famously said: “The only way to overcome poverty is by giving power to the poor”.