Removing Poverty in this Generation

Is it time to remove global poverty?

By Roopen Roy Jun 04 2013

Tags: Op-ed


FINDING FORTUNES: Unless we go to the root causes of inequality and disparity in terms of access and opportunity, we would postpone the goal in 2030 yet again

India’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi coined the slogan, “garibi hatao” (meaning remove poverty). She fought the 1971 elections and won. Since then, it has been a recurring theme in India. Jarring poverty remains an emotive issue. Extreme poverty, particularly among our backward classes and tribal population, are nettles we are yet to grasp fully with both hands.

The Millennium Summit of the United Nations was held in 2000. Eight millennium developments goals (MDGs) were agreed upon by all 193 member states and at least 23 international organisations. Again, the first of the eight goals was the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. There was a simple measure for the goal: between 1999 and 2015, let us halve the number of people living with less than $1.25 a day, on a purchase power parity (PPP) basis.

In the meantime, major countries of the world were engaged in wars, internal conflicts, trade skirmishes, battle for markets, debates about climate change and intellectual property, immigration and tariff barriers, among other issues. Emerging countries were obsessed with absolute GDP growth. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, in his earlier avatar, had asserted that the quest for growth in GDP had worsened the lives of millions of women and men.

One must, however, be proud of the progress. In 2000, the proportion of people across the globe, who lived in extreme poverty was approximately 33 per cent. By 2011, the number was down to about 20 per cent. In the past two decades, the rate of extreme global poverty has been cut by 50 per cent. The real big question is: when can the planet shake off the scourge of extreme poverty and hunger completely? This year in April, president Jim Yong Kim wrote on a sheet of paper “2030” and announced with a touch of drama, “This is it. This is the global target to end poverty. Within a generation, the new goal will be to eradicate poverty.”

A recent New York Times article analysed our past achievement. “For much of the improvement, the world can thank one country: China, which alone accounts for about half of the decline in the extreme poverty rate worldwide. It has also driven significant gains across the region. In the early 1980s, East Asia had the highest extreme-poverty rate in the world, with more than three in four people living on less than $1.25 a day. By 2010, just one in eight were.”

There are, of course, serious differences among policy-makers, politicians and economists about how poverty will be eliminated. One school of thought is simply to accelerate growth. All boats will rise with the tide thus destroying extreme poverty. The other school of thought is: the real elephant in the room is inequality.

Bold and simple mission statements like the one the Jim Yong Kim made, have a powerful effect. They focus the human mind and galvanise people into action. On May 25, 1961, president John Kennedy stated that the US should set a goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and returned safely with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

But behind that project, there was meticulous planning of milestones. The bold and audacious statement of eradicating poverty by 2030 is a good one, but the road map and milestones must be designed meticulously, thoughtfully and transparently. Poverty is the outcome of several economic issues, including inequality. Without tackling the issue of fairness and equal access, the war against poverty may be off-target.

On May 30th, a report titled, “A New Global Partnership: eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development” has been submitted by a United Nations Panel to UN’s secretary general Ban Ki Moon. The panel was co-chaired by UK’s prime minister David Cameron, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. The report recommends five simple propositions: (a) Leave no one behind. This goal aspires that, “No person — regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status — is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities”. (b) Put sustainable development at the core. This goal places emphasis on a green economy. (c)Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth: the focus is on innovation, skill-building and job creation. (d) Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all: ensuring freedom from conflicts and protection of human rights. (e) Forge a new global partnership — between all stakeholders in the spirit of common humanity, mutual respect and transparency.

However, the issue of inequality has not been brought to the front burner in the report. Reacting to the publication of the report by the UN panel, Katy Wright, Oxfam senior policy adviser, commented in an official release: “We’re pleased the PM is pushing the world to sign up to tough targets to end extreme poverty by 2030 and tackle climate change. But any future goals will be undermined without action to ensure that wealth is spread more fairly. Billions of people risk being left behind by economic growth, and in a world of finite resources the wealthiest cannot continue to expect more and more without hurting the rest.”

Unless we go to the root causes of inequality and disparity in terms of access and opportunity, we would postpone the goal in 2030 yet again. To achieve inclusive growth, all stakeholders must be invited to the feast of wealth creation with a spirit of equity, an attitude of fairness, a tone of transparency and a promise of social justice.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)