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A. Seriousness, scale and spread of poverty

Seriousness of the phenomenon

32. In its remarkable World Health Report, 1995: Bridging the gaps, the World Health Organization (WHO) paints a striking picture of the scale and seriousness of extreme poverty in the world. The world’s most ruthless killer and the greatest cause of suffering on earth is listed in the latest edition of WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, an A-to-Z of all ailments known to medical science, under the code Z 59.5 which stands for extreme poverty. In its report, WHO goes on to say that poverty is the main reason why babies are not vaccinated, clean water and sanitation are not provided, and curative drugs and other treatments are unavailable and why mothers die in childbirth. Poverty is the main cause of reduced life expectancy, of handicap and disability, and of starvation. Poverty is a major contributor to mental illness, stress, suicide, family disintegration and substance abuse. Poverty wields its destructive influence at every stage of human life from the moment of conception to the grave, continues the report. It conspires with the most deadly and painful diseases to bring a wretched existence to all who suffer from it.

33. In his study on the right to adequate food as a human right[1], in 1989, Mr. Asbjørn Eide said that however one counted or described the situation, the picture was staggering: more than 1 billion people were chronically hungry. No other disaster compared to the devastation of hunger which had caused more deaths in the past two years than were killed in the two World Wars together.

34. The study by the author on human rights and disabled persons[2] places malnutrition and poverty among the main direct causes of disability, besides classifying them as aggravating factors. UNICEF has pointed out on several occasions that in many countries extreme poverty takes the form of high infant mortality, disability and illiteracy rates; its annual report for 1995 asserts that diseases and malnutrition continue to take the lives of 35,000 children every day.

35. According to the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, extreme poverty is intimately connected with other worrisome facets of the human condition[3]. One is that the majority of the world’s very poor are women, children or the elderly, who are ordinarily dependent on the care of women.

36. The Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995[4], states that while poverty affects households as a whole, because of the gender division of labour and responsibilities, women bear a disproportionate burden, and must manage household consumption and production under conditions of increasing scarcity. The situation is most difficult for women in rural areas.

37. One particular problem, to which poverty and rapid urbanization are major contributing factors, is street children. According to WHO, many of these children are below the age of consent, do not have parents or guardians, do not know a trusted adult who could accompany them for medical treatment and do not have the necessary documentation. Both boys and girls are highly vulnerable to drug abuse, prostitution and criminal exploitation, and in some regions street children risk summary execution from death squads. As a result of these extremely painful and hopeless living conditions, 55 per cent of children in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil admitted that they had attempted to take their own lives. Recent estimates place the number of street children at as many as 100 million. There may be 40 million in Latin America, 25 million in Asia and 10 million in Africa, with about 25 million in other areas, including the developed world.

38. The World Bank, in its annual report for 1995, also describes the dramatic situation of children. Every year, 3 million children in developing countries die for lack of clean water; 12 million die of other causes before their fifth birthday and 130 million have no access to primary school. More than 1 million children are blind for lack of vitamin A and 50 million suffer from serious mental and physical disabilities due to lack of iodine. In low income countries, more than half of the young children are anaemic, thus initiating the vicious circle of poverty - ill nourished mothers give birth to underweight babies, who run the greatest risk of becoming the next generation of the poor.

Scale and spread of the phenomenon

39. Revealing a growing awareness of the spread of poverty in the world, the General Assembly in its successive resolutions entitled "Human rights and extreme poverty"[5] has declared itself, in the same language as used by the Commission on Human Rights, "deeply concerned that extreme poverty continues to spread in all countries of the world, regardless of their economic, social and cultural situation, and seriously affects the most vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals, families and groups, who are thus hindered in the exercise of their human rights and their fundamental freedoms".

40. In addition to disparities in national development levels, WHO affirms that there is a phenomenon common to all countries: the increasing poverty of disadvantaged groups and communities, particularly in inner cities in the developed as well as the developing countries. There is a gap not only between rich and poor but also between the poor and the poorest of all, not only between regions and countries but also between population groups in the same country. A disadvantaged subclass exists in every country and also in every town.

41. The Department of Economic and Social Development, in its Report on the World Social Situation[6], 1993, states that over the preceding 10 years, poverty has increased in Africa and Latin America in both absolute and relative terms. In Latin America, the advance that the years of rapid growth had brought to poverty alleviation during the 1970s was lost in the 1980s. The region entered the 1980s with an estimated 35 per cent of households living in poverty, down from 40 per cent in 1970; it closed the decade with 37 per cent of households and 44 per cent of the total population in poverty.

42. Galloping and unplanned urban development is both the cause and the effect of spreading poverty. As urban development progresses, poverty, too, develops. Already in the United States, Europe, and Latin America the city has become a centre where extreme poverty flourishes. In developing countries, cities offer less and less escape from poverty, particularly in the absence of social services. They are even becoming the venue for a specific form of poverty, where the weakest are even more vulnerable than anywhere else, the obvious targets of prostitution, of crime whether organized or not - and of violence, including violence on the part of the security forces. Street children, child slaves sold to the highest bidder, women on their own, burdened with too many children, and old people without resources are often worse off in these huge cities and slums than in the countryside whose poverty they have fled. In 1980, only one third of the inhabitants of developing countries lived in cities. Today, half of the world’s population are already city-dwellers.[7]

43. According to the Report on the World Social Situation, 1993, poverty in Latin America has increased mainly in urban areas. In 1986 there were more urban poor (94 million) than rural poor (76 million). With few exceptions, the share of poor households in rural areas was stable or decreased, despite sluggish economic growth. Yet rural areas continued to host the vast majority of the extremely poor, whose incomes would not purchase the minimum basket of food.

44. Still according to the same report, poverty, which had been practically eliminated in the centrally planned economies during the period of rapid post war industrialization, re-emerged in the late 1970s. It is estimated that half of the poor in developed countries live in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Even though there are ambiguities in defining poverty levels, there is agreement that the number of people living in poverty rose in all countries in the region during the past two decades. The studies of the World Bank, the Statistical Office of the European Communities and some others are consistent in their conclusions. However, "the risk of falling into poverty was highest in the former Soviet Union for large families and therefore children, non male headed families and one earner families".

45. During the 1980s, the social composition of groups in the region living in poverty changed substantially. Impoverishment among workers increased most. The living standards of residents in urban centres deteriorated more than those of farmers. Late in the 1980s, homeless people and beggars - extinct social groups under socialism - slowly became a part of the city landscape in many countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

46. The expansion of the phenomenon in industrialized countries should not be overlooked. Awareness that the phenomenon had worsened was expressed recently, in 1995, by the Council of Europe which spoke of "a rapidly growing problem"; it noted that "there was currently no shortage of indications showing that poverty and social exclusion were posing an increasing number of problems in all European countries".[8] A recent report of the Committee on Social Affairs and Employment of the European Parliament reminds us that Europe in 1995 no longer knows where to conceal its poor. Poverty, a paradox in one of the most prosperous regions on Earth, affects more than 52 million people. Practically one person in seven is threatened by poverty and social exclusion in Europe as a whole. The report stresses that the figures are certainly underestimates.

47. Given the extent of this scourge which so seriously affects millions of people in every part of the world, the Special Rapporteur endorses the view set forth by UNICEF in its remarkable report The State of the World’s Children 1993: "none of the great issues that are assuming priority today - the cause of slowing population growth, the cause of achieving equality for women, the cause of environmentally sustainable development, the cause of political democracy - will or can be realized unless the most basic human needs of the forgotten quarter of the Earth’s people are met".

B. Statistics and methods of measuring poverty

48. A good deal of concern has been expressed over the overwhelming evidence of rapidly spreading and worsening poverty, especially since the 1980s - a fact on which the major international organizations agree. Nevertheless, not all of them use the same methods of evaluation or reach the same conclusions on the extent of poverty. The figures vary, depending on the method (indicators) used, the effort made to reach the population under study, the technical means available and, obviously, the purpose of compiling or tabulating of the data.

Methods of measuring poverty

49. There are highly reductionist methods for measuring poverty and extreme poverty that use income levels as the sole parameter. Other, much more sophisticated methods apply a whole series of indicators. As one might suppose, the figures resulting from such disparate methods inevitably differ. For example, if a person is not considered poor because he earns more than one dollar a day, even though he has nowhere to live and cannot attend school, the statistics will report a much smaller number of poor people than if individuals lacking both housing and education are also counted. Clearly, in this field we still do not have accurate, much less reliable, statistics; as most of the organizations and institutions that deal with the subject at the international level recognize, the commonest quantitative tools tend to underestimate the phenomena they claim to evaluate.[9]

50. In 1985, the World Bank established a "poverty line" as representing a level of consumption of $370 per person per year and an "extreme poverty line" of $275. Based on those benchmarks, the Bank calculated that that year there were approximately 1.115 billion poor in the developing world, 630 million of them extremely poor. The notable feature of this estimate is that it was used as a baseline by a number of bodies and institutions in the system, sometimes confusingly, without specifying which of the two categories of poor was in question, and at other times critically, raising the extreme poverty line to the level of the poverty line on the grounds that even a dollar a day was an extraordinarily low threshold for measuring extreme poverty. A short time later, the Bank itself was introducing revisions,[10] and in 1993 it used a "poverty line" of $2 per day and an "extreme poverty line" of $1 per day for Latin America.[11]

51. In his previous interim reports, the Special Rapporteur referred in detail to the commonest methods in use in the different geographic regions.[12] The new trend is to combine several classical indicators in order to obtain greater statistical reliability. In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, where the poverty line or threshold method was traditionally used, it has recently been combined with the criterion of unsatisfied basic needs. The resulting difference in percentages is quite striking: whereas the World Bank calculates a rate of 25 per cent for the entire region in 1990, in 1992 ECLAC, using the poverty line method, came up with a rate of 45.9 per cent. UNDP’s Regional Poverty Eradication Programme applied the integrated measure of poverty method and arrived at a value of 61.8 per cent - 36.6 per cent more than the World Bank estimate. This demonstrates the astounding discrepancies that can result from different methods of measuring poverty.

52. It is interesting to review the changes that have been occurring in other United Nations bodies. The "Report on the World Social Situation 1993" makes a distinction between the poor and the extremely poor: a person may be considered poor "if the total of his/her income earnings from the various assets he/she commands - such as land, capital and labour - do not allow that person a minimum nutritionally adequate diet and other essential non food requirements".

53. The Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) in 1993 established a panel whose task is to examine the role of technology in the satisfaction of basic needs and to consider fresh scientific approaches that could help low income populations in that regard. The panel defined basic needs as being the minimum elements needed to sustain life in all humans without exception, i.e., sufficient and appropriate nutrition, health care and water distribution and sanitation services, but also access to education and information so that individuals and groups can participate in productive activities and make rational use of the basic goods and services at their disposal.

54. As may be seen, the current trend in indicators is to give the concept of basic needs a much broader meaning than that of food needs. This coincides with the emphasis placed by the Social Summit on the fact that the satisfaction of basic human needs is a decisive factor for the alleviation of poverty and the achievement of real social development. It also asserted that "these needs are closely interrelated and comprise nutrition, health, water and sanitation, education, employment, housing and participation in cultural and social life" (Programme of Action, para. 35 (b)).

55. These were the main criteria used by the Social Summit to define extreme poverty, which it also called "absolute poverty" and characterized as being a state of "severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information", noting that it "depended not only on income but also on access to social services" (Programme of Action, para. 19). More specifically, it called for "the development of methods to measure all forms of poverty, especially absolute poverty" (para. 25) and the complementary "elaboration, at the national level, of the measurements, criteria and indicators to determine the extent and distribution of absolute poverty" (para. 26 (d)).

56. The Special Rapporteur assigned to study the relationship between enjoyment of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, and income distribution at the national and international levels could make a very useful contribution in this field, by elaborating quantitative and qualitative indicators of social development.

Data discrepancies and shortcomings

57. Whatever measurement method is used and whatever the resulting discrepancies, figures on the number of persons living in extreme poverty will always be alarming. As we saw above, the estimate of 1.1 billion has long been considered low, and some people believe that, if properly re-evaluated, the figure might be as high as 2 billion. According to a recent United Nations publication on the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty, "Of the 5.7 billion people in the world, 1.5 billion are desperately poor and the number is increasing by approximately 25 million a year. According to UNICEF, it will quadruple within a single lifetime if current economic and demographic trends continue." Every minute of every day, one in every five babies is born into poverty.

58. In Africa, half the population is impoverished. As a continent, Africa has 16 per cent of the world’s poor, most of them (60 per cent) in rural areas of sub Saharan Africa.

59. As stated in the previous report, the only region where the number of poor has declined in proportional terms was Asia, on account both of the improvement in the situation in India, Pakistan and China, and of the spectacular development of the countries known as the four "dragons". Asia continues to have the highest number of poor in the world, however, even though Africa has the highest proportion. The Standing Committee on Poverty Alleviation of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) further states that "Even in Asia and the Pacific, where the growth performance was exceptionally strong, the number of people living in absolute poverty increased, partly owing to continuing population growth."[13]

60. According to figures in the "Report on the World Social Situation 1993"[14] and the table on the extent of poverty presented by the Special Rapporteur as an annex to his 1994 interim report[15], Latin America is the third most impoverished region - ranking after Asia and Africa, if the number of poor is taken into account, or after Africa and Asia, if the percentage of the population below the poverty line is considered.

61. In Europe, estimates made in 1989 found between 3 and 5 per cent of the total population living in a situation of cumulative precariousness.[16] As we have seen, both the Council of Europe and the European Parliament believe that the situation has worsened considerably.

62. These estimates, beyond their obvious discrepancies and inadequacies, show that, in so far as we do have a clearer picture of poverty, the phenomenon is evidently worsening - not only in developing countries but in countries in transition and industrialized countries as well.

Lack and inadequacy of data on poverty and extreme poverty

63. Such, in broad outline, are the data available today. But what are the reasons for their inadequacy? Are they technical, sociological or other? Even in industrialized countries with the technical and financial means to compile high quality statistics, the statistics do not take account of the poorest section of the population. In its final report, dated 13 February 1991, on the Second European Programme to Combat Poverty, the Commission of the European Communities (CEC) emphasized the shortcomings of the data on poverty, which entailed not only an underestimate of poverty but also a lack of any estimates of extreme poverty.

64. At least four reasons for the lack and inadequacy of the data can be identified:

(a) The poorest people are not contacted when statistics are gathered

65. For example, the above-mentioned CEC report indicates that homeless persons are not covered, and nomads, political refugees, illegal immigrants and inhabitants of shanty towns are inevitably underrepresented. People in socio medical establishments of all types are likewise disregarded even though they are probably poorer than the average. When surveys are based on a representative sample of families in a country, the most disadvantaged are not usually questioned owing to the difficulty of contacting them.

66. In developing countries, where many extremely poor people do not even appear on the civil registers, or where the means to compile statistics even on relatively identifiable sections of the population are lacking, the statistics that do exist are far from complete or reliable.

(b) The parameters used are inappropriate

67. As mentioned above, current indicators generally underestimate poverty. The CEC report says as much, adding that the figures obtained in surveys are based on expenditure. Poor households’ expenditure often exceeds income, however, since they are more likely to accumulate debts than savings. This is particularly true when their income is precarious and fluctuates daily.[17]

(c)There is a lack of interest in and regard for the poorest section of the population

68. The fact that people living in extreme poverty do not appear in the statistics is not attributable solely to technical difficulties; it also reflects the lack of interest and consideration from which they suffer. As a result, they do not enjoy the fundamental right to be included correctly in censuses.

69. The fact that the poorest are aware of this lack of consideration can have a direct impact on the findings of surveys to assess poverty. The CEC report mentioned above says that the demeaning nature of poverty induces persons facing major difficulties to refrain from designating themselves as poor in surveys in which they are requested to rank themselves on a scale ranging from wealth to poverty. A study by the International Institute for Labour Studies (IILS)[18] ironically observes that "being recognized (and recognizing oneself) as poor is part of the misery of being poor".

(d) Manipulation of the data

70. The Department of Economic and Social Development[19] warns that the inadequacy of available statistics must none the less be borne in mind and that, even where official statistics on income distribution exist, illegal or parallel economic activities may make for a very different situation. It warns that "poverty lines are inevitably somewhat arbitrary, and small changes might increase or reduce considerably the estimates of those living in poverty". This makes it possible to manipulate statistics, by either increasing or, more commonly, decreasing, the numbers of the poor for political, economic or other reasons which have very little to do with combating poverty.

Need for better quantitative and qualitative information on extreme poverty

71. Societies have long been accustomed to a lack of precise information about the poorest sector of the population, and would continue to disregard it if its growth were not starting to prove disruptive.

72. Aware of the pernicious consequences of inadequate statistics on the implementation and effectiveness of measures to combat poverty, the Social Summit called upon States "to improve the reliability, validity, utility and public availability of statistical and other information on social development" (Programme of Action, para. 16 (e)). More specifically, it called for "the development of methods to measure all forms of poverty, especially absolute poverty" (para. 25).

73. The Summit also stressed the need for better qualitative information in this field. Its Programme of Action calls for qualitative indicators of social development to be developed (para. 83 (h)) and for changes in poverty levels to be evaluated, also from the qualitative standpoint (para. 29 (b)). Chapter III of this report will demonstrate the usefulness of that approach.

74. Even more than for other subjects the combination of the two approaches - quantitative and qualitative - is essential to a pertinent understanding of extreme poverty, which in turn is clearly indispensable to the implementation of effective measures, as called for at Copenhagen.

  1. United Nations, Human Rights Study Series, No. 1.
  2. United Nations, Human Rights Study Series, No. 6.
  3. The Commission on Science and Technology for Development maintains that mankind and nature are also out of step; this gives rise to increasingly serious ecological problems, some of which affect regions remote from the countries in which they originate. Here, too, the question of basic needs arises since some of the most marked ecological deterioration can be seen in regions subject to extreme poverty. See also the paragraphs on the United Nations Environment Programme in annex II to this report and the final report of Mrs. Fatma Zohra Ksentini on human rights and the environment (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/9).
  4. A/CONF/177/20.
  5. See annex I.
  6. 14-ST/ESA/235-E/1993/50/Rev.1.
  7. - French review "Les enfants du monde", No. 128, 1996.
  8. Council of Europe, Intergovernmental Programme of Activities for 1995, Activity II.1b, Human Dignity and Social Exclusion, p. 77.
  9. Ezcurra Ana Maria. World Bank. "Políticas para el problema de las pobreza en el Sur," forthcoming publication.
  10. According to World Bank statistics, in 1985 the incidence of poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean was 19 per cent of the population. In a subsequent document, the Bank revised those estimates and raised the percentage for Latin America to 22.4 per cent in 1985 and 25.2 per cent in 1993.
  11. Julio Boltviink, former director of the UNDP Regional Poverty Eradication Programme, in 1994 applied a "poverty line" of $2 to the case of Mexico. As a consequence of that empirical comparison, he concluded that such a poverty line could be interpreted solely as a malnutrition line, below which one would be suffering from caloric malnutrition (with all other needs unmet). That is to say, the line would not mark off the universe of the poor, as had been the intention, but rather the population whose physical survival was endangered. That was why he added that the lower figure ($1) had no meaning, since at that level of income a person would be technically dead.
  12. See E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/19.
  13. See TD/B/CN.2/2, para. 10.
  14. Para. 41.
  15. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/19, annex III.
  16. "Pour une justice accessible à tous: le regard des familles en grande pauvreté sur les mécanismes de l'aide légale et sur certaines initiatives locales." Council of Europe, Directorate of Human Rights, Strasbourg, 1992.
  17. A particular effort at improving indicators is proposed by Mrs. Katherine Duffy in the introductory report for projects of the Council of Europe, "Human dignity and social exclusion".
  18. "Growing points in poverty research: Labour Issues". Discussion paper by Michael Lipton (DP/66/1994), IILS, Geneva, 1994.
  19. Chapter VII of the Report on the World Social Situation 1993 is devoted to a study of the interrelationship between income distribution and poverty.

catégorie:United Nations

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