We’re Losing the War on Poverty — And It’s Only Getting Worse

UN human rights expert Philip Alston breaks down why we’re failing to meet the goal of ending global poverty by 2030

The world is losing its war on poverty. A new report by Philip Alston, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, says that politicians and philanthropists who boast of an impending victory over poverty are in fact relying on the World Bank’s flawed poverty line, and thus aren’t giving us a real sense of our global impoverishment. In reality, Alston says, the UN’s member countries are not on track to meet their goal of ending poverty by 2030, and climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic are sure to make matters even worse. Alston also denounced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) approved by UN member states in 2015, which offered a road map to poverty eradication. “The UN and its member states are sleepwalking towards failure,” he said in a statement accompanying the report. “Five years after their adoption, it is time to acknowledge that the SDGs are simply not going to be met.”

GEN spoke with Alston about the sustainable development goals and why a neoliberal approach will never end poverty.

GEN: On a macro level, why has the international community failed to combat poverty?

Philip Alston: Basically, neoliberal economic principles have prevailed. They’ve been pushed since the 1980s by the International Monetary Fund, by the World Bank, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And we’ve now got to the situation where the UN itself is consistently saying that the only way to meet the Sustainable Development Goals is through public-private partnerships. That’s a perfect neoliberal solution. In other words, governments don’t have the capacity. And the private sector, by definition, as I say in the report, will never eliminate poverty. It’s not a question of having a bad view or image of the private sector. That’s not their goddamn job.

Has the U.S. held up its end of the bargain on poverty reduction?

We’ve seen no dramatic movement in poverty reduction. What’s been happening, of course, is a great increase in inequality, and that augurs very badly for poverty relief. That money doesn’t trickle down. All of the studies that have been done over the 2017 tax cuts show the great majority of that money simply went into the pockets of the wealthy, because they were used for share buybacks, but not for productive investments.

What will be the long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on poverty?

The outlook is extremely grim for low-income people for a couple of reasons. First of all, the federal stimulus money will have to be recovered at some point. You can’t run endless deficits and certainly, if you have a Republican administration, they are going to continue to want to cut back on welfare, whether it’s food stamps, whether it’s Obamacare or whatever. But the biggest impact, I think, is going to be on State budgets, because States are losing enormous amounts of revenue. If the federal government doesn’t step in and assist there, that’s going to hit largely what we think of, in the broader sense, as welfare arrangements.

You take issue with the World Bank’s official poverty line. How does the World Bank inform the rest of the world’s view of global poverty?

Well, the World Bank is very smart. They will push back immediately and say, ”No, this is nonsense. Alston has taken one of our poverty lines, which is the $1.90 international poverty line, or IPL. But we are aware of all of the criticisms that he has mentioned. And for that reason we actually produce a range of poverty lines. We have different dollar-a-day amounts. We even have an increasingly sophisticated multidimensional poverty measure.”

My response is that that’s all correct, however, in all of their flagship publications and all of their really big-picture stuff, they rely almost entirely on $1.90 a day. The UN has then picked up on that in the SDG context. When you get people like Bill Gates or Steven Pinker saying [there has been] unbelievable progress in eradicating poverty, that all relates back to the $1.90-a-day IPL. If you look at the other World Bank benchmarks, you’ll see that, in fact, the figures are much closer to 2 billion people in poverty, that the progress made over the last 30 years has been much, much less than under the $1.90 a day.

You were harsh on the Sustainable Development Goals, saying in a statement there was “more energy going into generating posters and bland reports” than creating a real road map. Is there anything with the SDGs that is worth building on?

The SDG are in an unassailable position in that they have been adopted by every major player. And huge amounts have been invested in them. The civil society groups are totally dependent on SDG-related funding. So they’re not going to go away. That’s fine, because as a laundry list, the SDGs are useful. They have flagged a very large number of issues. But there are a number of problems. First of all, it’s very hard to discern any overriding priorities, because everything is in there and everything is mentioned. Second, the poverty measure relies on the World Bank poverty line, so it’s ridiculously unambitious — and is still not being met.

The SDGs’ reference to inequality is dependent entirely on growth. In other words, it’s not seeking to redistribute wealth. It is assuming that there will be really strong growth and that that will then improve the equality situation. They really say nothing about redistribution and taxation, which for me is a very big issue. Tax is the key to eliminating poverty everywhere. If you permit the wealthy to pay extremely low levels of taxation, if you set up the system so that it facilitates massive avoidance, governments can then say, “Well we can’t afford to do this or that.”

You’ve then got the climate change dimension. The SDGs are not at all infused with a concern to take urgent measures to reduce global warming. Instead, they are premised on hugely high rates of growth, which in turn assume continued dependence on fossil fuels. There’s no serious talk in the SDG context about developing really sustainable energy sources.

The special rapporteur is a unique position, unpaid and more independent of UN’s oversight. What were your challenges with that role?

Well, independence comes at a price, in the sense that you are a solo actor. For example, one of the big issues that I took up was the UN’s direct responsibility for taking cholera to Haiti. That was an issue the UN had absolutely refused to address. Every UN official that I spoke to said, “Don’t touch it.” But I had nothing to lose, and I went straight into it. What happened was that initially the UN actually reversed its policy; the Secretary-General came out with a big statement the day that my report was leaked to the New York Times. Then bureaucracy started doing its evil work of pulling back. The bottom line is that nothing has changed, but at least anyone who works on related issues knows the real picture now.

It’s the same with the SDGs in a way. My criticism is fairly strong by the standards of most people, but I speak to so many different people who say, “I don’t know what the SDGs are achieving.” And when I ask why they’d don’t say that [publicly], they say, “Because that’s not going to get us anywhere. And in fact, we get a lot of our funding from governments to work on the SDGs.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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