Taking both rural and urban poverty into account, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that the number of people in the third world living in extreme poverty increased from 819 million in 1980 to 881 million in 1985. This is a rise of 62 million, or 7,6% in just five years. At the regional level, Asia, with its rapid income growth, continues to be the most successful at alleviating poverty. Poverty has worsened in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Moreover, on the basis of present growth projections and assuming the distribution of income remains unchanged, the ILO projects a further rise in the number living in poverty to 913 million by 1995. It must be one of the objectives of an international development strategy for the 1990s to ensure that the projections of the ILO do not in fact materialize.
Rising poverty is most serious in Africa. Between 1980 and 1985, extreme poverty in Africa increased by 68 million and if nothing is done to reverse the trend, poverty is expected to rise by a further 127 million by 1995. In Latin America, extreme poverty rose by 18 million in the first half of the decade. This is much less than in Africa, but because of the smaller base, the proportional increase was larger: 38.3% in Latin America, compared to 32.4% in Africa. Under present conditions poverty in Latin America should decline between 1985 and 1995, but according to the ILO's projections, the number of poor people in 1995 will still be higher than in 1980.
The unfavourable developments in Africa and Latin America were partly offset by favourable trends in Asia. The number of poor people in Asia is estimated to have declined by 24 million during 1980-1985, and the ILO projects a further decline of 88 million by 1995. The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), however, takes a different view and regards progress towards the elimination of poverty as being "disappointing throughout the region". This judgement appears to be based on a relative, rather than an absolute, view of poverty and in particular on the high degree of inequality, the apparent stability of the overall distribution of income and in one or two cases (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) on the fall in the share of household income received by the poorest quintile. At the very least this assessment of the situation in Asia shows that there are no grounds for complacency, particularly when one considers that under the ILO projections, there still will be more poor people in Asia than in any other region, and almost as many as in Africa and Latin America combined.
The minimum objective for a new international development strategy should be to reduce the absolute number of people living in poverty by the year 2000. The present tendency for the numbers in absolute poverty to increase is not acceptable; the trend must be reversed. Each country should set its own standard, its own definition of poverty, and then direct its energies to ensure that by its own standard, development is accompanied by a reduction in the number of people living in conditions of severe poverty and deprivation. This is a readily attainable goal, and it is one that is so central to what development is all about that its enunciation as international policy could serve as a rallying point for renewed national commitment and enhanced international co-operation.
In 1992 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously proclaimed October 17 as [International Day for the Eradication of Poverty]. In 1995 Secretary General Boutros-Ghali announced 1996 as the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty. This called for member states to develop precise definitions of absolute poverty for their own countries; devise and implement national poverty eradication plans to address structural causes, and to promote actions within national plans for employment creation, increased health and education services, and other measures to generate household income and afford access for people to productive and economic opportunities. At the 1995 UN Social Summit in Copenhagen 117 nations agreed the need to "eradicate" poverty and not just "alleviate" it.
The 10 year period 1996-2006 has been declared the first United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty. This 10 year effort considers one in every five people to be living in poverty, mainly women, children, youth, the disabled, the elderly, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees.
The International Centre for Eradication of Poverty attempts to address poverty by (a) lobbying governments and politicians; (b) Undertaking some hands-on self-employment projects through various community based groups; and (c) undertaking research and development work.
2. While it is important to increase the aggregate rate of economic growth, reduce the pace of demographic expansion and give much higher priority in coming years to human development, these measures, separately or together, will not suffice to eliminate severe poverty and deprivation. It is now widely understood that one cannot rely on the benefits of increased production to trickle down automatically to all sections of society, particularly to those most in need. Growth is not enough. Even in the USA, which has enjoyed more or less sustained growth for over 200 years, it is estimated that 20 million people do not have enough to eat.
3. The most effective way to tackle poverty is to stimulate broad economic growth and development. While growth remains negative or negligible, it is almost impossible to reduce poverty substantially. Even when the rate of growth of per capita income is positive, it does not follow automatically that poverty or unemployment or hunger will decline. Much depends on the pattern of growth, such as the employment intensity of the sectors of the economy that expand most rapidly.
The necessity to tackle poverty directly remains in all regions. The required direct measures are likely to include a combination of: (a) welfare services and entitlement programmes which place a safety net under the poor; (b) policies directed towards satisfying the basic needs of the poor, partly by giving priority to the production of goods consumed by low-income groups (wage goods) and partly by redirecting public expenditure programmes on essential infrastructure (transport, power) and services (education, primary health care) to benefit the poor; (c) public works programmes aimed at providing employment for the poor; (d) redistribution of income and productive assets in favour of the poor, notably land reform; (e) investment and credit programmes aimed at the poor.
This may require a fundamental change in attitude by policy makers, a change from regarding poverty alleviation as essentially an act of charity and a drain on the exchequer that should be minimized to recognition that poverty alleviation should be seen as an investment in the poor, and moreover an investment that can produce a high rate of return. Such an approach would be likely in most countries to imply greater emphasis on peasant agriculture and small-scale rural entrepreneurship, a more employment-intensive pattern of growth, greater freedom for the urban informal sector and reduced emphasis on large-scale, capital-intensive, often state-owned manufacturing enterprises. Within the international community this is the approach that was adopted from the very beginning by the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the success of IFAD has demonstrated the validity of the approach. It is argued that national governments throughout the third world could apply on a large scale the lessons learned from the IFAD experience.
4. "Reducing poverty is the fundamental objective of economic development" is the bald opening statement of the World Bank's World Development Report (1990). In 1997 this had become almost a platitude in spite of the impotence and drama inherent in it. There is a gap between the behaviour of the economy as a whole and people's individual economies, a question which national and international policy has never addressed. This growing contradiction between growth and distribution is having disastrous consequences in many countries and regions of the world. In nations apparently united, where the process of globalized economic growth without distribution is "demolishing" long-standing loyalties, the "integration mechanisms" laboriously built up are being torn apart. The rupture of systems social integration is leaving chunks of pre-existing roots of religion, ethnic identity and race, or generally a strange and violent combination of these. If culture is incapable of supplying the mortar to cement the past to the future, the present becomes deeply confusing and disturbing for people.
While it is true that the issue of economic, social and cultural rights arose in a cold war context, those rights have today received new and renewed validation. During the cold war they served to establish a balance between the civil and political rights supposedly respected by the western democracies as against the economic, social and cultural rights on which emphasis was laid by the countries with centralized planning. Once this polarity was broken, it was simply a question of the relationship between the possessors of wealth and the dispossessed, those suffering discrimination and exclusion. The question of economic, social and cultural rights is metamorphosing into the question of the rights of the poor and excluded in a globalized world. Developing these right is to prevent silence from taking hold among the innocent.