The half-century since the creation of the United Nations in 1945 has
witnessed an unprecedented growth in prosperity, with global GNP (output in goods and
services) increasing sevenfold and per capita income more than tripling. During this
period, great strides have been made in alleviating poverty worldwide:
Despite a growing world population, the proportion of poor has
actually declined, from 32 per cent in 1985 to about 25 per cent in 1995, according to
World Bank figures
Developing countries' growth rates-averaging 4.5 per cent in 1995 -
will generally continue to outstrip those of industrialised countries, at 2.5 per cent
Two of the world's most populous countries are enjoying economic
expansion: China's economy has been growing at an annual rate of about 12 per cent since
the late 1980s, while India has recorded nearly 5 per cent annual economic growth for the
Yet these gains have not been spread equally. Even amid plenty, the
number of poor people is growing. Today one in every five people suffers from debilitating
poverty. The gap between rich and poor is widening, both within countries and between
developed countries and many developing countries, especially the least developed
A COMPLEX PROBLEM
Poverty is a complex multi-dimensional problem with origins in both the national and
international domains. There is no simple or uniform answer. Rather, country-specific
programmes to tackle poverty, as well as the parallel process of creating a supportive
international environment, are crucial to solve this problem.
The eradication of poverty and hunger, greater equity in
income distribution and human resource development remain major challenges everywhere.
They are the shared responsibility of all countries.
Poverty has traditionally been measured in terms of the
income or expenditure level that can sustain a minimum standard of living. Most countries
have adopted national "poverty lines" in terms of household income, and monitor
the number of people who fall below that threshold.
Absolute poverty on a global scale was estimated in
1990 by the World Bank, using a criterion of $370 per person per year. Using this
standard, it estimated that there were about 1.1 billion in developing countries living in
absolute poverty. Today that number is estimated at 1.5 billion and includes the poor in
developed countries as well.
Relative poverty recognises that poverty is not just
a matter of bare survival but also constitutes a minimal standard of living as measured by
the community in which one lives. In some European countries, for example, the poverty
threshold is set at one half the average national income.
The Human Development Approach goes a step further, acknowledging that
eradicating poverty is more than a matter of increasing income to purchase market goods
and services. It uses additional criteria, including infant mortality, life expectancy,
nutrition and health, access to clean water and sanitation, literacy and other aspects of
human existence that affect the overall quality of life.
Extreme poverty: "a condition so limited
by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality, and low
life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency"
Robert S. McNamara, Former President , World Bank.
Conquest of Poverty
Poverty is not a "given". Rather it is a blight on humanity. Its existence
jeopardises that most basic of human rights-the right to survival.
"Extreme poverty is far from
inevitable: it is an unacceptable scourge"
UN Secretary-General, Boutros
Poverty is inseparably linked to lack of control over resources,
including land, skills, knowledge, capital and social connections. It imprisons
individuals and, in a wider context, poses one of the gravest threats to society,
undermining political stability, social cohesion and the environmental health of the
Poverty and peaceful development are incompatible. Taking up the
challenge to eradicate extreme poverty is an expression of growing confidence on the part
of Governments and the international community that it can and should be done.
Facts about Poverty
Despite growing abundance, the last three decades have also been characterised by
increasing poverty. For example:
Every minute of every day, approximately
50 babies are born into 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;
Whereas the income ratio between the
richest 20 per cent and the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population was 30:1 in
1960, it had increased to 61:1 by 1991;
Twenty per cent of the world's population
survive on a daily income of less than $1;
Today one billion of the world's poor
live in rural areas, but by the year 2005 every second person will live in cities or
towns, bringing about a growing "urbanisation of poverty";
The majority of the world's poor are
women. Children and other vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, such as indigenous peoples,
the disabled, the elderly, refugees, migrants and the long-term unemployed, are most
susceptible to poverty;
In developing countries, over 95 million
children under the age of 15 are estimated to be working to help their poverty-plagued
families, while an equal number are estimated to be homeless, destitute "street
Over 120 million people are officially
unemployed and many more are underemployed. Many young people, even those with formal
education, have little hope of finding productive work.
Perimeters of Poverty
Pockets of poverty exists even in the most affluent countries. However, entire
countries can also be shackled by poverty. The most acute problems are in developing
countries, in which more than a third of the entire population lives below the poverty
Least Developed Countries
Many of the world's poor live in the 48 least developed countries (LDCs). The UN's
original 1971 list of 25 LDCs has now swelled to 48.
South Asia: The largest
concentration of severely impoverished people-about half the world's total-lives in South
Asia (i.e., India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal) which is
home to 21 per cent of the world's overall population;
Africa: Fully half of all Africans
are 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-Sahara Africa.
Economies in Transition:
in transition to a market economy (e.g., former Soviet Union Republics and Central and
Eastern European countries) have experienced grave, inflation-aggravated economic
problems. Especially hard hit are people formerly protected by comprehensive social safety
nets that no longer exists (e.g., the elderly, women and children)
OECD Countries: Although in World
Bank terms OECD countries have only 1 per cent of the world's poorest people, over 15 per
cent of the population now lives below the national poverty line in both the United States
and Western Europe. With joblessness increasing since 1960, there are some 34 million
unemployed in developed countries today; in European Union countries alone, there are an
estimated 52 million poor, 17 million unemployed and 3 million homeless.
A Growing Awareness
Eradicating poverty entails more than expanding GNP: it is a complex process embracing
economic factors like creating jobs, as well as non-economic factors such as meeting basic
needs, respect for human rights and popular participation in the development process
itself. The struggle against poverty is simultaneously a struggle for human dignity,
sustainable development and peace.
"Wherever men and women are condemned
to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated."
Father Joseph Wresinski,
International Movement ATD Fourth World
Focus on Poverty Eradication
Throughout the 1990s, the United Nations has been holding a series of international
conferences on global development issues. Taken together, this conference continuum, with
its interlinking themes, has emphasized the need for people-centered, sustainable
development, with the eradication of poverty as a crucial cornerstone.
The World Summit for Social Development expanded the context
of poverty eradication to encompass such factors as access to basic services and
amenities, productive employment and sustainable livelihoods, a sense of human security,
the reduction of inequalities, the elimination of discrimination and participation in the
life of the community.
Concrete Steps to Eradicate Poverty in our World:
Below are some concrete steps which the United Nations system and Governments, along
with NGOs, the private sector and civil society, are undertaking in a concerted effort to
Through sustainable agricultural development, enhanced food distribution and storage,
improved access to food for low-income populations;
Providing a basic standard of living:
Through national action to combat the root causes of poverty in the
area of basic education, primary and reproductive health care, and basic social services,
including such specific goals as:
Minimum life expectancy of 60 years by
the year 2000
Eradication, elimination or control of
diseases posing global health problems by the year 2000
Universal access to basic
education by the year 2000
Reducing the adult illiteracy rate to at
least half its 1990 level, with emphasis on female literacy
Anti-poverty programmes for women,
including employment schemes, affordable housing and
access to land and credit.
Fostering productive occupational opportunities, creating jobs and
promoting the goal of full employment:
Through private-sector initiatives to encourage entrepreneurship,
maximise job creation and labour-intensive industries, and address the challenge of
unemployment and unpaid work;
Empowering women and other vulnerable
Through measures to ensure equal employment opportunities in both the formal and
informal sectors; elimination of bias and discrimination; inclusion in decision-making
Cultivating a stable economically enabling environment:
Through greater international financial stability and non-inflationary growth;
effective use of resources and promotion of a socially responsible private sector;
Financing development and relieving external debt:
Through increased multilateral resources and formulation of an effective, durable,
development-oriented solution to the external debt problem; achievement of the ODA target
of 0.7 per cent of GNP, the 20/20 initiative, increased foreign direct investment in
developing countries; and the use of resources from reduced military expenditures.
Promoting international trade using Uruguay Round guidelines:
Through integration of all countries into an open, equitable, secure, non-discriminatory
and predictable international trading system; enhanced South-South co-operation; commodity
diversification, improved access for exports and an end to protectionism.
UN Special day: 17 October International
Day for the Eradication of Poverty
Source: International Year for the Eradication of Poverty - United