ATLANTA, Georgia– Crusaders in the fight against global poverty traditionally measure success by the number of individuals lifted out of poverty in a given reporting period (the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approach). This benchmark, though indicative of improved outcomes for some, paints only part of the complex picture that is poverty dynamics.
The Third International Chronic Poverty Report (Poverty Report), launched on March 13 by the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN), challenges policy makers and academics to consider not only those successfully lifted out of poverty, but also those who slip back into poverty or fall below the poverty line for the first time.
Extreme Poverty by the Numbers
The Poverty Report applies the World Health Organization’s recent redefinition of the extreme poverty line as $1.25 per day; those living in severe poverty subsist on a mere $0.70 per day (a figure derived from the “average consumption of Sub-Saharan Africa’s poor”).
Revised estimates from Global Issues that incorporate these definitions indicate that 1.4 billion people currently live at or below the extreme poverty line. Millions more teeter on the edge of the poverty line and then revert back to impoverishment.
For example, between 2005 and 2011, 3.4 million people in Uganda escaped poverty, but 5.5 million slid below the poverty line.
The Poverty Tripod Defined
According to the Poverty Report, policymakers must achieve three intertwined objectives coined the “poverty tripod” in order to meet the MDGs’ “getting to zero” aim and eliminate global poverty by 2030. Accomplishment of this lofty goal, which includes tackling chronic poverty, stopping impoverishment and sustaining poverty escapes, would ensure that today’s chronic poor realize and sustain a quality of life well above the extreme poverty line.
Importantly, any policymaking must be tweaked to fit country-specific contexts.
Risk Factors of the Chronically Poor
The Poverty Report’s executive summary identifies both prerequisite causes of chronic poverty and unexpected happenings that exacerbate the already fragile condition of the world’s poorest people.
A lack of merchantable skills, poor education and little to no assets (i.e., property) prevents some families and individuals from sustaining life above the poverty line. The instability created by this accumulation of scarcities renders the chronic poor extremely vulnerable to unforeseen changes in employment status, climate conditions or political stability.
The Poverty Report not only addresses policy options for bolstering the stability of the chronically poor, but also identifies policies that will ensure sustainable escapes from impoverishment and subsequent positive social change.
Overarching Policy Needs
National governments, the private sector and civil society (“main actors” in the movement to reach and maintain zero) must implement three policies that “address all three legs of the tripod.” Each requires significant capital investment, but is a non-negotiable component of CPAN’s scheme.
Social assistance, education and “pro-poorest economic growth” encompass civil rights, political reform, primary and post-primary education, access to land, availability of employment and universal health care. Each country’s main actors must use discretion in tweaking the allocation of financial and human capital to address national needs in each of these spheres.
Why is Universal Health Care Essential?
Chronic and acute illnesses affect fragile populations by both “push[ing]people into poverty and prevent[ing]them from escaping it.”
Ill health, specifically due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, was significant to the upswing in Ugandan impoverishment between 1992 and 2002 (a trend that continued through 2011 despite active poverty reduction initiatives, including economic reform).
In a 2003 study, the University of Manchester’s Dr. David Lawson concluded that “a combination of demographic, activity and asset based factors…associated with a household’s poverty status” was “accentuated with sickness.”
While illness alone is sufficient to spur a household’s decline into poverty, illness in conjunction with other risk factors exacerbates what may otherwise be manageable circumstances.
The double-edged sword of poor health places it squarely within the policy recommendations in each poverty tripod period.
Tackling Chronic Poverty
Policies set in motion to tackle chronic poverty provide for change by including the poorest people in economics, politics and society.
Social assistance, including provisions for quality improvement in primary education, labor conditions, returns to farmers and civil rights, should seek redistributions of economic, political and social power with the ultimate goal of blasting barriers to upward mobility.
At this juncture, civil society organizations must be the voice for the marginalized poor and lobby for basic health education, access to medical care and improved sanitary conditions.
The State is the primary mover and shaker of policymaking that stops impoverishment, the “easy bit of improving poverty dynamics.” Risk management, the implementation of financial strategies (savings, insurance before credit, etc.) and conflict prevention are “pro-poorest” priorities that reduce the likelihood of impoverishment.
Universal health care is the top priority at this stage, particularly in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where poor health is strongly correlated with widespread poverty. International organizations and “global governance institutions” must support fragile states as they develop and implement inclusive health care systems.
Sustaining Poverty Escapes
Once major disparities in health and education are eliminated, the chronically poor should have the earning potential and security to sustain life above the poverty line.
Ensuring that these households never again succumb to impoverishment requires investment in policies that preserve livelihoods and facilitate mobility. Land policy reforms, investment in post-primary education and progressive development policies fall under this umbrella.
Entirely universal access to sexual and reproductive health plays an important role in an “equitable demographic transition,” along with public health programs designed to maintain health outcomes as families transition to having more children.
Is it Possible to Get to Zero?
CPAN acknowledges that the prospect of wholly eliminating extreme poverty will be “extremely difficult” and require the allocation of significant financial resources, a large portion of which will support the “very demanding” health care sector.
The United States and the international community will need to subsidize those funds in order to raise the levels of “per head total public expenditure” (“PPP”) for the 540 million people living under governments with PPP below $500. The Poverty Report hypothesizes that this level of spending is “way below the levels” necessary to achieve health and education goals.
Colossal investment aside, abandoning the “business-as-usual” approach to poverty reform in the developing world affords UN member nations the opportunity to realize the MDGs by 2030 and open the door for an unprecedented era of development.
Sources: Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Inter-American Social Protection Network, Global Issues, Overseas Development Institute Webinar of March 13, 2014, The Third International Chronic Poverty Report