Poverty is an Assault on Human Rights

Poverty is Now a Global Concern

Why not redefine 'Billionaire?'

Why not redefine ‘Billionaire?’

In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of. – Confucius

Poverty reduction is an international issue (at least, in the rhetoric of institutions such as the World Bank), yet it is still mostly seen from the narrow economic perspective. In poor countries where survival is at stake, poverty is generally measured in absolute terms; that is, the amount of money necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. The World Bank uses $1.25 a day as the international benchmark of extreme poverty. The Bank is happy that three decades ago globally 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty which reduced to about half in 2010 (1.2 billion) despite increase in world population. It is also despite the fact that the sub Saharan Africa doubled the number of people living in extreme poverty in 2010 (414 million) than three decades ago (205 million). The concept of absolute poverty is not concerned with broader quality of life issues or with the overall level of inequality in society. The concept also ignores the social and cultural needs of people.

In somewhat more developed or advanced societies, where quality of life becomes an issue, poverty is defined in relative terms. Relative poverty considers the status of other members of the society. In this perspective, people are poor if they fall below some average standard of living in the society. It may also be said that the poor have been left out from the development process – they somehow got excluded. The concept of social exclusion has contributed significantly towards development of different indicators of ill-being and enhanced the conceptual understanding of poverty.

Social Exclusion of ST, SC and OBC Communities

Talking of social exclusion, the latest National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) figures indicate that poverty is highest among the marginalized groups in India. In the rural areas, around 47 per cent Scheduled Tribes (ST) live in poverty; it is followed by the Scheduled Castes (SC) at 42.3 percent, Other Backward Castes (OBC) at 31.9 per cent. These figures are enough to prove that when some groups are excluded from the normal social processes (for whatever reasons), they get pushed into poverty. For them it is difficult to come out of poverty due to discrimination against them. Prime Minister Modi’s “clean India” mission acquires special significance in this context. It offers a good forum to raise their intimate issues – from manual scavenging to cultural stigma attached on them.  Let’s hope that the positive side effect of the mission will help the lower caste communities get absorbed into the national mainstream.

Food Security Scenario in India

With India expected to become the most populous country in the world by 2025, providing sufficient food and nutrition to its population is going to be a serious challenges in the coming years. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 1.3 billion tonnes of food, about one-third of the global food production is either wasted or lost. Food wastage is sacrilegious in India, when so many people are unable to get two square meals a day.

Some stark facts about food wastage and consumption

  • 33% of all the food produce globally doesn’t reach human mouths – it’s lost in transit, damaged or wasted by consumers.
  • Developed nations like the US and European countries throw away 222 million tonnes of edible food every year which is almost equal to what sub-Saharan Africa consumes!
  • India loses about 21 million tonnes of wheat annually due to inadequate storage and distribution.
  • The Department of Industry Promotion and Planning (DIPP) claims that losses of farm produce every year are estimated to be over Rs 1 trillion (1,00,000 crore) per annum of which 57% percent is due to avoidable wastage.
  • Food consumption as a share of household expenditure averages 49.5 percent in India, as against an average of 52.3 percent in South Asia and just 20 percent in high income countries.
  • In India an average person consumes 37 grams of quality protein. In comparison, an average person in low-income countries consumes 48.7 grams and in a high income country 101.7 grams.

Poverty is Multidimensional

eradicate poverty look beyond incomeThe Copenhagen Declaration at the “World Summit on Social Development” described poverty as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs such as food, shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation, health, education, and information”.

The declaration points to multidimensional nature of poverty; it must be seen beyond lack of income in a holistic manner. There are many factors – such as the social structure, culture, power, political and so on – that can also cause poverty. Without considering the role of these factors, poverty alleviation program are not going to be effective. Economists’ monetary view of poverty is clearly inadequate. Now social and development experts agree that people’s well-being cannot be measured in money alone.

The UNDP defines poverty ‘as a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life.’ Poverty undermines human rights – economic (the right to work and have an adequate income), social (access to health care and education), political (freedom of thought, expression and association) and cultural (the right to maintain one’s cultural identity and be involved in community’s cultural life). A generalized set of basic rights relevant to most societies include:

  • Right to adequate food
  • Right to health
  • Right to education
  • Right to sustainable livelihood
  • Right to adequate housing
  • Right to appear in public without shame
  • Right to equal access to justice
  • Political rights and freedoms

These rights can be seen as expanding assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold responsible institutions that affect their lives. Once empowered with basic rights people can assert their right to be the subject, rather than the object of development. The poor are no longer passive recipients – no say in things that affect their lives.

‘Empowerment’ is the Key to Poverty Eradication

poor agents of changePerhaps the most holistic approach is the capability (empowerment or ability to function) perspective of Amartya Sen. He sees income as just a means to an end (that of making people more capable of leading their life comfortably) rather than an end it itself. The goods and services money buys are only expected to enhance his/her capabilities to make life better.

The capability perspective suggests that poverty signifies a lack of basic capability to function, required to lead a good life. Capability deprivation or capability failure is the defining attribute of poverty. It also defines the concept of development in a comprehensive way. It touches upon things like empowerment (to eliminate exclusion and marginalization of the poor), participation (to give them opportunities to be heard) and freedom of choices. It also goes beyond physical conditions or possessions to institutional and political elements. This approach does not see people as mere tools (means) of development (seen as economic growth); they are the “target” of development.

The capabilities approach of Sen also supports the rights based anti-poverty programs. The basic rights empower poor people that enhance their freedoms to make their lives better. Sen views freedom as the ultimate goal of economic development; he views development as set of activities enhancing the quality of life by expanding individual freedoms.

People who have learned to view GDP growth alone as the measure of progress or development must ask the basic question, ‘what is the basic purpose of development?’ Amartya Sen provides the answer, ‘The purpose of development is to enhance people’s capabilities and enrich their lives.’ Economic growth is included in this definition but only as a means, never as an end. Therefore, everything which empowers people is development.

Bangladeshi economist Nobel winner Muhammad Yunus, through his microcredit initiative, firmly believes that “The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world… all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.”

Reading Further

Why “Development” should Focus on People, Not Economy
Redefining Development: From Mere “GDP Growth” to Holistic Development
What Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Teach the World

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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