First things first– a world without poverty

Poverty in Vietnam. UN Photo/Kibae Park

by Mirka Wendt*

2015 is a big year for global development, culminating in three big international meetings: Addis Ababa, New York and Paris. Questions of poverty, social justice, human rights and equality will certainly also be on the agenda.

While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reached the target of halving poverty already in 2010, the task of eradicating extreme poverty still remains elusive. Indeed, the first goal of the Open-Working Group’s (OWG) proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted in September is to end poverty everywhere by 2030.  There is still some debate about the shape of the poverty we will be ending – particularly if measurable targets dominate.  Thus poverty remains in the spotlight in 2015.

Reading between the poverty lines

One of the hot debates around the SDGs is over the indicators for each goal. A discussion about indicators, inevitably leads to the need for comprehensive data:  What does the end of poverty look like in figures i.e. how will we define and measure it?

The current SDG #1 follows the path laid out by the first MDG in defining extreme poverty as covering all those living under $1.25 a day, also known as the global poverty line. But does this really reflect the poor?

Defining extreme poverty based solely on monetary indicators such as income runs the risk of ignoring other dimensions (e.g. access to health care, education, decent work) that support the non-poor. Looking beyond what the poor do not have to what they will need justifies the continued questions around the value of setting a global poverty line. Is not a more multidimensional approach needed now more than ever?

Approximately one billion people (17 %) worldwide still live below the global poverty line.  In Brazil, the most recent statistics show that this percentage has dropped from 15 % in 2004 to 3.8 % in 2012, which shows significant success in overcoming extreme poverty.  However, these percentages as such do not reveal what kind of development or increase was achieved in the quality of life and opportunities of those coming out of extreme poverty.

While the poverty line is certainly not the most comprehensive indicator for describing poverty worldwide, it does have the benefit of setting a clear cut-off point separating the poor from the non-poor. This helps policymakers in identifying target groups for public policies. Yet, crossing the poverty line in most cases does not mean that one is non-poor; it means that one is no longer indigent. The importance of going beyond a poverty line towards a sustainable pathway to a world without poverty should be explicit. Defining who is poor and how one is poor is essential and a first step to eradicating poverty for good.

Caught in the middle

What then should be the role of the poverty line? It is important to decide this before deciding where or whether it is to be set.  This is especially relevant for middle-income countries (MICs) such as Brazil, since the current poverty line is based on the world’s poorest economies and not those in the middle or at the top.

Although the recent Brazilian success in tackling extreme poverty is an example of good public policy, there is much yet to be done. On a global scale, the Brazilian experience is certainly a case for the world to learn from, while keeping in mind that each national context requires a unique set of measures and policies.

Brazil’s next step would, necessarily, include more than addressing the remaining 3.8% still in extreme poverty: responding to the growing demand of those who already stepped out of extreme poverty while making a transition to greater sustainability. That includes ensuring that the 11% do not fall backwards.

A poverty line set at $1.25 a day might give MICs the illusion that poverty is no longer a conversation relevant to their reality. Moreover, a  low poverty line puts MICs in an awkward position by easily (and conveniently) excluding them from the global discussion on eradicating extreme poverty, despite still struggling with other poverty-related issues themselves. Keeping this in mind, how do we come up with a global measure relevant to all countries, including MICs? Poverty, after all, is also relative.

Towards a “common but differentiated” approach

Eradicating extreme poverty is not only a challenge of numbers, it is one of quality of life, services and opportunities that are available to people during and after they advance from extreme poverty. Poverty not only exists in different levels, it manifests in different intensities. Some are poor temporarily due to disaster or conflict, while for others it is a more permanent and long-lasting, often inherited, state. Being aware of these differences and starting with defining how one is poor are crucial in poverty eradication.

It is for these reasons that poverty remains one of the most pressing global development issues at hand. Measurement is a good place to start – but it is only that, a start. Capturing multi-dimensionality, local context, income as well as opportunity and choice is no easy task. No one indicator will do and forcing simplicity on a complex issue may create unwanted consequences. As poverty reduces in developing countries, we see the rise of inequality, often with income inequality as the new face of a different kind of poverty in developed countries. Focusing less on numbers and more on quality would be another important step towards eradicating poverty in all its forms.

In line with the SDG principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” (CDR), a universal goal for ending poverty should focus on all dimensions: the causes as well as the symptoms, those shaped by global realities as well as local contexts and those that reflect a future for each individual and not just for most.

First things first - info box*Social Scientist, RIO+ Centre intern

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNDP, or their Member States.

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