17 October 2007
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


“Today, despite considerable progress, we find ourselves still far-short of our goal to eradicate global poverty,” a top United Nations development official told correspondents today at a Headquarters press conference to commemorate the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Under the theme of “People Living in Poverty as Agents of Change”, this year’s observance marked the twentieth anniversary of the first rally against extreme poverty in Paris organized by Father Wresinski, the founder of ATD Fourth World, an anti-poverty organization.

Addressing reporters, John Schölvink, Director of the Division for Social Policy and Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, explained that poverty eradication efforts had taken place in East and South Asia and the Pacific, but, other regions had experienced setbacks since the 1990s.  The scourge was particularly well entrenched in sub-Saharan Africa and the facts spoke for themselves:  some 980 million people lived in extreme poverty, surviving on less that $1 a day.

He added that the debilitating effects of such conditions must also be understood in terms of social exclusion, denial of human rights, lack of access to education and health care, inadequate nutrition, unsafe water and sanitation and low capacity for social, economic and political participation.

The ethical imperative to eradicate poverty was at the core of the comprehensive United Nations development agenda, he continued, adding that social and economic development was the path to sustained reduction.  The creation of productive and decent employment was critical in that effort, as it would place those living in poverty at the centre of eradication strategies.

Providing an on-the-ground perspective, Kanokkarn Nakpassorn, a community worker in Bangkok, Thailand, spoke about her work with ATD Fourth World, noting that the only way to overcome extreme poverty was to allow people living in it to express themselves.  She described her experience with parents and children in her country and others, including the Philippines, Taiwan, France and the United States.  Poor people “have something very important to tell us, and much to contribute to society at large”, she stressed.  Today’s Call to Action challenged people from all backgrounds to recognize that “the poor are the first to fight their poverty every day”.  The International Day recognized the courage of those living in extreme poverty and the solidarity of those working beside them.

Jean-Maurice Riper, the Permanent Representative of France, who had left a Security Council meeting on the work of the Peacebuilding Commission to attend today’s press conference, said he had reminded the Council that it had created the Commission specifically to fight extreme poverty.  The International Day served to raise the awareness of poor people’s fight for dignity.  He had not come to speak in their place, but rather to amplify their voices.

He explained that France had always supported the United Nations role in poverty eradication.  Indeed, France and its European partners were committed to spending time, effort and money to fight poverty in developing countries.  His country had helped highlight the relationship between extreme poverty and human rights, and had especially stated that the former constituted a violation of the latter.

Stressing the importance of helping United Nations bodies direct their efforts, he said France annually had presented a resolution on the mandate of Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty Arjun Sengupta and would propose renewing his mandate next December.  Moreover, France and nine other countries had proposed a resolution at the Human Rights Council on the principles for guiding the expert’s work.  Those principles targeted areas such as civil and political rights, the right to food, access to water, housing, justice, education and health.  Consultations led by Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights, would end on 31 October; the results would then be examined by the Council in Geneva.

On the national level, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had established a High Commissioner for Active Solidarity against Poverty, a cabinet member post held by Martin Hirsch, who was well-known for his work with the poor.  Mr. Hirsch had presented a national plan on 3 October that focused on promoting access to jobs, particularly through a programme that would provide a minimum revenue for people searching for work; integrating inner city youth into the working world; and increasing subsidized housing and emergency shelters.

Moreover, the Government had already organized various national and European level events, he continued.  Among other initiatives planned for next year, he said an inter-agency committee would hold a national conference on exclusion, a European round table would help create an integrated social inclusion strategy at the European level, and his Government would propose developing recommendations to Brussels.

Maria Barrerra, a 16-year old representing the Christian Children’s Fund, spoke about her experience living in a colonia, or border community, in south-eastern Texas.  She described how she had become close with her sponsor from the Fund through the years, whom she had known since age 4, and said many residents in her area were migrant families.  She considered herself blessed to be surrounded by her family, which included her parents and three brothers.  Inspired by her grandmother, who had started “watch meetings” to report problems, Ms. Barrerra today volunteered in her community and hoped to make a difference to others.

Taking a question on what the International Day had achieved over the last 20 years, Mr. Ripert responded that the observance on 17 October increased awareness about the social reality of those living in extreme poverty.  Noting that northern countries tended to consider poverty a problem of the South, he stressed that poverty was a social problem that touched all societies.  As such, it must be tackled on a global basis.  Secondly, the Day was meant to create actions “within the system by using what the system offered”.  Through the Human Rights Council, for example, France had tried to develop guidelines based on the idea that extreme poverty constituted a human rights violation.

Mr. Schölvink added that the Day’s influence had become more apparent over the year.  The United Nations was trying to address poverty in the Millennium Development Goals, particularly through North-South partnership.  The Day was not a single moment, but rather had an impact on the entire United Nations system.  It was a key reason why poverty had been increasingly raised by the Organization’s agencies, funds and programmes.

Turning to a question on whether the 980 million people living on less than $1 a day represented an increase or decrease from 20 years ago, Mr. Schölvink said that, while global numbers reflected reductions, if data were disaggregated by country, one would find that many countries -– especially in sub-Saharan Africa –- faced slim chances of halving poverty by 2015.

Mr. Ripert added that that was precisely the reason why France had made a commitment to finding innovative development financing that would at once combat poverty and address its related impacts on health.  As it was unlikely that the world would reach its goal to reduce poverty by half by 2015, he called on countries to redouble efforts.

Asked about Government efforts to both combat –- and hide -– poverty in their countries, particularly France, which allegedly had been spotlighted for moving Roma people out of sight for a rugby match, Mr. Ripert responded that his Government had understood the lesson that nothing should be hidden.  The Government had put in place someone who was truly committed to combating poverty and mobilizing ministers in that pursuit.  The Government also had worked with non-governmental organizations to address the needs of the homeless.

Asked about how much financing the United Nations needed to combat poverty, Mr. Ripert said that, according to a 2005 report, $500 billion per year over a 10-year period was needed in official development assistance, double what existed at that time.  However, more was needed, as the public sector could not accomplish all that must be done.

Mr. Schölvink, stressing that official development assistance had not been forthcoming, added that global partnerships could help resolve debt and trade issues, and provide budgetary support to Governments in the provision of social services.  Governments unable to penetrate other markets needed that support.  Their macroeconomic policies should not be constrained by international organizations standards that made it difficult to pursue social policies that addressed health and sanitation, among other things.  If global partnerships were “left on the side”, it would be more difficult to eradicate poverty.

Supporting Mr. Schölvink’s comments, Mr. Ripert said he hoped the change of the International Monetary Fund’s chief would be helpful, as consistency at the international level was needed.  How could Governments address public health, for example, if international institutions forbade such spending?  The situation was made more complex by the fact that providing services depended more today on the private sector than on Governments.  Comprehensive thinking was needed, and the International Day provided an occasion to generate thinking on such issues.

Asked about progress in her community, Ms. Nakpassorn noted her concern that the Goals indeed be linked with peoples’ needs.  However, she told the story of a man in an impoverished community that had offered to pour concrete for a reading centre for poor children.  Such examples demonstrated that poor people have the skills and desire to contribute to their communities.

On the same question, Ms. Barrerra said that children’s grades in reading and math had improved, in part through her organization’s volunteer work.

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For information media • not an official record