A United Nations Objective:
Eradicate Poverty

Poverty continues to affect far too many people in the world even though there has been significant progress in economic growth and living standards over the past thirty years.
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently stated: "Despite the unprecedented prosperity that technological advances and the globalization of production and finance have brought to many countries, neither Governments, nor the United Nations, nor the private sectors have found the key to eradicating the persistent poverty that grips a majority of humankind."

The United Nations Report on the World Social Situation 1997 says:

"While the overall average level of living of the developing countries taken as a group has increased at a rapid rate over the past quarter of the century, this impressive collective performance conceals the fact that large segments of the world's population have not benefited from this general improvement and are falling behind in both relative and absolute terms. A review of recent estimates of the number of people living below a common global poverty line indicates that while the overall incidence of poverty in the world appears to be declining, it still encompasses one quarter of the world's population and in many regions is on the increase".

Though poverty occurs in all countries, the situation is particularly severe in developing countries. According to the United Nations, about 1.3 billion people currently live on less than a dollar a day (generally considered to be the measure of extreme poverty). Almost one billion are illiterate and over a billion lack access to safe water. Nearly 850 million people do not get enough to eat. Women make up 70 per cent of the world's poor. And one third of the people living in the least-developed countries are not expected to live to 40 years of age.

But the world has taken a stand against poverty. The largest gathering ever of world leaders ‹117 heads of State orGovernment ‹pledged at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development to devise national strategies and set timetables for reducing poverty and completely eliminating extreme poverty. The Social Summit, as it has become known, also called for a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2000 to review progress in combating poverty.

Stark statistics

According to the Human Development Report 1997, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), over 960 million of the 1.3 billion people living in South Asia, East Asia, and South-east Asia and the Pacific are poor. The report also estimates that half of the people in Africa will be living below their countries' defined income poverty line by the year 2000. In Latin America, poverty continues to grow. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of poverty as a percentage of the total population. Life expectancy there is only 50 years.

In Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the number of people living below the poverty line (US$4 per day) has increased in less than 10 years, from 10 million to 120 million today, affecting about a fourth of the region's total population. In the industrial countries, more than 100 million people live in poverty.

United Nations activities for poverty eradication

Eliminating poverty globally is an ethical, social, political and economic goal. It can only be reached through a multidimensional and integrated approach that combines programmes and projects targeted at people living in poverty with policies and strategies that meet the basic needs of all, strengthen their productive capacities and empower them to participate in decision-making on policies that affect them. Such efforts must ensure access of all to productive resources, opportunities and public services, and enhance social protection and lessen vulnerability. Sustained and broad-based economic advancement, social development and environmental protection are essential for boosting living standards and for eradicating poverty in a sustained manner.

The United Nations system, by virtue of its global reach, its universal membership, its impartiality and the mandate reflected in its Charter, has a major role to play in eradicating poverty. It continues to concentrate programmes on areas of particular needs best served by the capacity of the Organization.

The United Nations system, including the World Bank, is clearly committed to combating poverty, as is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the donor countries that belong to it. Poverty and poverty-related issues have been core themes of United Nations international conferences since 1990: the World Summit for Children (New York, 1991), the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), the Social Summit (Copenhagen, 1995), the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) and the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, HABITAT II (Istanbul, 1996).

Reaffirming earlier resolutions on poverty eradication and building on action taken at the 1995 Social Summit, the General Assembly proclaimed the period from 1997 to 2006 as the first United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty. In December 1996, the General Assembly decided that the theme for the Decade would be the eradication of poverty as an ethical, social, political and economic imperative ofmankind.

The Assembly also decided that the Decade's objective is to eradicate absolute poverty, and reduce overall global poverty through decisive national action and international cooperation in implementing fully and effectively all relevant agreements, commitments and recommendations of major United Nations conferences since 1990. It recommended that the causes of poverty be addressed through action in the areas of environment, food security, population, migration, health, shelter, human resources development including clean water and sanitation, rural development and productive employment, and by addressing the needs of vulnerable groups. Action in all these areas should aim at the social and economic integration of people living in poverty.

According to the Human Development Report 1997, the eradication of extreme poverty in the not too distant future is a feasible and affordable goal. However, to achieve this goal requires strategies to expedite economic growth in more than 100 countries now suffering from economic stagnation and decline. It also requires implementation of poverty reduction policies and programmes to counter calamities that create and recreate poverty, such as HIV/AIDS.

According to the report, much of the world's population has benefited from major progress in areas of economic opportunity and quality of life. In some developing countries, as much progress has been achieved in the past thirty years as the industrial countries had made in a century. Adult illiteracy has been cut by nearly half, and infant mortality has been reduced by nearly 75 per cent. But this advancement must be put in perspective, the report says. It contends that eradication of absolute poverty will be achieved if there is enough will, wisdom and work.

Many developing countries have been successful in reducing poverty,such as Chile, China, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand,Trinidad and Tunisia. A number of developing countries, including China with a population of over 1.6 billion people, have slashed in half the proportion of their population in income poverty in less than two decades, as measured by their own poverty lines. Ten other countries, including India with more than one billion people, have reduced income poverty by 25 per cent.

"The dramatic record of poverty reduction in the twentieth century shows that we should raise our sight, not downsize our vision, for human development", says Richard Jolly, Special Adviser to the UNDP Administrator and principal coordinator of the report.

International impediments

While the Governments of the industrialized countries have endorsed poverty eradication as a primary international goal, they have not always translated that commitment into tangible actions and policies.

The combined official development assistance (ODA) of donor countries peaked in 1992 and has declined since, according to a 1996 UN report, Finance for Sustainable Development. As a share of donors' gross national product, ODA decreased from 0.34 per cent during 1990-1992 to 0.27 per cent in 1993-1995, and has continued to shrink since then, according to most estimates. This performance contrasts with the target of 0.7 per cent of gross national output, agreed to at the 1992 Earth Summit. Only four countries ‹ Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden‹ have consistently met the 0.7 per cent target.

Debt owed by developing countries to bilateral and multilateral donors is an added obstacle to achieving the economic progress needed to reduce poverty. The problem is that debt payments eat away large portions of hard-earned export credits ‹in 1995, 17 per cent of exports among all developing countries, 18.6 per cent for the severely indebted low-income countries and 20.4 per cent for highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs), according to Trade and Development Report 1997 of the United NationsConference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Even so, the developing countries' total debt stock continues to rise. According to World Bank/IMF guidelines, a ratio of total debt to annual exports of 200 per cent or more is considered "unsustainable", but in severely indebted low-income countries the 1995 ratio stood at 421 per cent, and in the HIPCs at 447 per cent. Past debt-relief policies of donor countries have not halted the dangerous momentum of swelling debt, and although the "HIPC Initiative" initiated by the World Bank and the IMF in 1996 is a hopeful development, the efficacy of the plan is yet unproven.

Trade is another area where the richer countries have not done enough to alleviate the economic burdens of the poorer countries. It is along-standing complaint of the developing countries that the World Trade Organization has moved swiftly to open international markets in sectors where the industrialized countries dominate, but has done little to open markets to products and services in which developing countries specialize. Terms of trade also place the poorer countries at a disadvantage. It has long been known that international terms of trade favour manufactured goods, coming mostly from industrialized countries, over primary commodities, which largely originate in the developing world. Developing countries accordingly have worked hard to step up the volume of their manufactured exports in the last two decades. But UNCTAD's Trade and Development Report 1996 presents evidence indicating that the prices of the manufactured exports of developing countries are falling by an average of 1 per cent per annum relative to those of developed countries.

Elements of an integrated anti-poverty strategy

The United Nations Report on the World Social Situation 1997 sets forth the dimensions of national strategies for dealing with poverty:

a) Promoting the high and sustained rates of economic expansion and employment creation through policies designed to create an enabling environment for poverty reduction;

b) Increasing incomes and participation in the economy by the unemployed and working poor through targeted measures to improve their skills and training and upgrade their health status and living conditions;

c) Expanding opportunities for the poor to engage in gainful economic activity by widening their access to land, credit and other productive factors;

d) Targeting those localities and intervening in those areas where the poor reside and where needs are greatest in terms of priorities for poverty reduction;

e) Addressing the pressing economic and social problems of the aged, the disabled, the infirm and those otherwise unable to engage in productive economic activity through programmes of public assistance and income maintenance;

f) Channelling the benefits from increased participation in the world economy towards the poorest segments of the population through policies promoting an expansion of labour-intensive exports and a reduction of trade restrictions on consumer goods.

According to the authors of the United Nation's World Economic and Social Survey 1997, sustained growth of at least 3 per cent a year is needed in developing and transition countries to reduce poverty and unemployment. At its most recent session, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) endorsed coordination of national economic policies to achieve worldwide conditions of fast growth, low interest rates, low fiscal deficits and greater cross-border flows of productive investments. ECOSOC has also called for effective relief for highly indebted countries, improved market access for products from developing countries and reversing the decline in ODA.

The resources needed to eradicate extreme poverty are "a mere fraction of the resources available, globally and in most countries", says Mr. Jolly. "The cost of accelerated action must be measured against the cost of allowing poverty to grow ‹ that is, against continuing political conflicts and instability, against continuing poverty and disease in large parts of the world, and against affronts to humanity and human sensibilities."

The additional costs of providing basic social services for all indeveloping countries is estimated at about US $40 billion a year over the next 10 years. This amount is less than 0.2 per cent of the world income of US$ 25 trillion. The sum needed to close the gap between the annual income of poor people and the minimum income at which they would no longer be poor is estimated at another US$ 40 billion a year. Thus, to provide universal access to basic social services and transfers to alleviate income poverty would cost roughly US$ 80 billion, or less than the combined net worth of the seven richest people in the world.

In his statement to the high-level meeting of the Economic and Social Council in July, the Secretary-General of the United Nations said, "For the first time, long-cherished hopes of eradicating poverty seem attainable, provided that concerted political will is brought to the task".

[Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information - DPI/1933, November 1997]

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United Nations 1998