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A line in the sand – how a human rights definition of poverty can push the fight to the next level


Philip Alston presenting his report at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 22 June 2018. Flickr/UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

By Lucilla Bertolli

Philip Alston will be missed in his role as United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, both for his razor-sharp look at mainstream development policies and for his constant reminders of their shortfalls. During his tenure, Alston effectively bridged the universal human rights framework with social and economic policies and provided a no-nonsense but much-appreciated approach to poverty eradication.

His last report as Special Rapporteur – “The parlous state of poverty eradication” – was released in July 2020, and is a summary of the leading themes that have marked Alston’s mandate: the central role of human rights in the fight against poverty; the need for more government accountability and participatory governance; the inter-dependencies of poverty, climate change, and economic development; and, finally, his critique of the dominant neo-liberal approach to development promoted by some of the leading global development actors, as well as that of high-income countries’ welfare policies.

Alston’s report won media attention in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, by deconstructing the celebrated victories of the supposed virtuous forces leading the fight against poverty today, and it does so by naming-and-shaming those agencies that disseminate the “mainstream pre-pandemic triumphalist narrative that extreme poverty is nearing eradication”. In fact, one of the underlying assumptions of his report is that governments and the international community have still not done enough to address the root causes of extreme poverty. The main reason for this is that the human rights agenda– which Alston argues, has at times become overly theoretical – has been overshadowed by political realism and a disregard for human rights.

A good portion of Alston’s report is dedicated to showing the limitations of the current international poverty line, in which USD 1.90 PPP has been set as the global threshold to determine who is living in extreme poverty around the world. The World Bank calculates the line as the average value of national poverty lines in the poorest 15 countries, but, Alston argues, the bar has been set too low and fails to capture the full extent of poverty today.

Many financing mechanisms rely on this standardised measure to inform, or sometimes justify, bilateral or multilateral financial allocations, as well as to showcase donors’ contributions towards the much advertised and talked about fight against poverty. Meanwhile, when it comes to domestic policies, national poverty lines are often a tool to divide society between those “worthy” of receiving income assistance and those who will have to rely on the market to satisfy their needs. Nationally calculated lines vary wildly between countries: for example, it is just under USD 35 per day in the United States,[1] but is USD 0.66 in Malawi. These lines are not just in line with inflation but are based on a series of different assumptions which mostly have nothing to do with a “reasonable conception of a life with dignity”[2], as Alston puts it.

He shows how these fundamental assumptions are at best patronising, and at worst damaging, and are unrelated to the wide range of human rights entitlements that are enshrined in universal frameworks. There’s the “cell phone paradox”, for instance: why shouldn’t a cell phone – which is an essential tool for accessing information, services, purchasing goods and going through all sorts of security verification processes – be regarded as an essential good in high-income countries and consequently be included among the proxy indicators defining the international poverty formula, Alston asks? And why shouldn’t they be regarded as essential goods everywhere, particularly where essential government services are 50 or more kilometres from your home, one could add?

It is clear that even if technical in nature, poverty lines are political in their use. They have the power to define policies and budgets and even win elections. As political tools, poverty lines can easily be adapted to different needs: following Alston’s harsh remarks about Malaysia’s unrealistically low poverty line in August 2019, the government quickly revised its formula, in July 2020. The poverty line was boosted from USD 0.6 to about USD 1.4 per day and the poverty rate increased from 0.4 to 5.6 per cent overnight.[3]

This shift shows that there is nothing scientific about most measurements of poverty, nor are they based on human rights considerations. They are subjective and, ultimately, have political implications too. If nothing else, poverty lines give an idea of how serious a government really is in its fight against poverty. As Alston explains in his report about Malaysia, the lower a poverty line, the less poor a country can outwardly appear. An inevitable consequence of this is that poverty reduction policies become less of a priority. Such machinations are therefore harmful to a country’s citizens.

Alston, from his UN Rapporteur’s advantaged point, could observe the pockets of chronic, inter-generational poverty in urban slums and rural areas around the globe, no matter what the poverty line was. These are the most terrible and visible faces of poverty; however, there is a full spectrum of poverties out there varying in degree, depth, duration etc., which are not as visible and yet can deeply affect one’s fulfilment of his or her own basic human rights.

Alston makes direct reference to widespread unequal access to resources based on gender, status, and race, and advocates for a right to social protection floors – a set of basic social security guarantees that ensure access to basic human rights over one’s lifetime[4] – which would spare “hundreds of millions left without medical care, adequate food and housing, and basic security” from “the worst consequences.“[5] A human rights and life-cycle approach to social protection precisely respond to the glaring truth that everyone can be poor at one point in his or her life. Anyone can lose their main source of income; anyone can suffer the economic impact of a nasty divorce or a global pandemic!

But even the apparently simpler battle of preventing the non-poor from becoming poor seems not to be on track for an easy win.  Still largely dominant, myopic poverty-targeting policy choices fail to protect us all from unexpected covariate risks such as COVID-19.  Although the World Bank estimates that the pandemic will further impact the global poverty rate with a 0.7 per cent increase compared to 2020 projections (encompassing an extra 49 million people), [6] the real extent of the number of people living in poverty is likely to be much wider and worrisome than the World Bank has indicated, for, again, the poverty line is set too low and many of those living in poverty will be above the line. In essence, many of the vulnerable won’t be seen.

Towards more accurate definitions of poverty

So, if poverty cannot be defined and measured with accuracy, can we at least perfect a working tool to direct and inform our efforts?  Alston seems to argue that Sanjay Reddy’s option for a context-specific approach with a fixed “set of reference capabilities”[7] that a person must have in order to be non-poor, is a promising one. However, despite moving from a “dollar per day” to a “food in the belly” measurement determining the conditions in place that will allow you to feed yourself every day, this approach does not yet satisfy a view of poverty as a violation of human rights and a phenomenon that can affect everyone.

A better option could be to build on the UNDP’s multidimensional definition of poverty. This measurement effectively expands the range of capabilities required to live a dignified life and shifts the paradigm from trying to define poverty to trying to define the steps that governments must take in order to support an individual to not only successfully move out of it but also to not return to it. This new human-centric perspective in the definition of poverty may, however, lead us to a striking discovery: that the extent of poverty is immensely underestimated and that many of us could be on the brink of falling into poverty. Only after we admit this to ourselves, and we understand this fundamental truth, can we start building the new social contract that Alston seems to be advocating for, in which states and markets work together to help fulfil our basic right to live a dignified life.

[1] United States Census Bureau, 2019 data.

[2] Alston (2020) Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights: The parlous state of poverty eradication.

[3] “World Bank welcomes Malaysia’s poverty line revision”, Malay Mail Online, 17 Jul 2020, 07:14 PM MYT

[4] www.ilo.org/secsoc/areas-of-work/policy-development-and-applied-research/social-protection-floor

[5] Alston (2020) Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights: The parlous state of poverty eradication.

[6] Mahler, Lakner et al. (2020) The impact of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: Why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit: World Bank

[7] Alston (2020) Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights: The parlous state of poverty eradication.

Our blogger, Lucilla Bertolli, is Development Pathways’ Technical Lead for a pool of experts supporting the Government of Malawi in upgrading its social protection systems.

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