United Nations Development Programme
The UN General Assembly has designated 1997-2006 as the United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty. The main role of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the global effort to erase poverty is to help developing nations build their capacity for sustainable development. The following article is adapted from the 1997 Human Development Report, "Poverty and Human Development" and other materials prepared by the UNDP.
The Dimensions of the Problem
More progress has been made in reducing global poverty in the past five decades than in the previous five centuries. Since 1960, the world's developing countries have cut child death rates in half, reduced malnutrition by one-third, and raised school enrollment rates by one quarter. While this provides grounds for optimism, global poverty remains widespread.
Almost one-third of the developing world's population-or 1.3 billion people-lives in a state of income poverty, subsisting on the equivalent of less than one US dollar a day. One-quarter lives in human poverty, lacking the basics for a decent life. What does this mean?
In the transition economies of Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the number of people living below the poverty line (estimated at four US dollars per day) has surged from four million to 120 million-or one-quarter of the total population-in less than ten years.
Poverty afflicts all countries-developed and developing. More than 100 million people in the industrialized nations live in poverty, with an estimated 37 million who are jobless. Meanwhile, the income disparity between the richest and poorest 20 percent of the world's population has more than doubled-from a ratio of 30:1 in 1960 to 78:1 in 1994. Unless the growth in impoverishment is halted, the gap between the poor and the rich will further widen, with the likely consequence of challenging international peace and security.
A New Definition of Poverty
The UNDP's Human Development Report 1997 presents a new definition of poverty viewed from a human development perspective. Rather than measuring poverty solely in terms of income, the report introduces a composite multidimensional scale called the Human Poverty Index (HPI).
The Human Poverty Index measures deprivation in terms of five attributes of poverty: illiteracy, malnutrition, early death, poor health care, and poor access to safe water. These five criteria are relatively easy to measure, certainly easy to identify with, and immediately relevant to policy.
The HPI has been calculated for 78 developing countries (see Table 1), with the overall findings described earlier: a human poverty incidence of about 25%, and income poverty affecting about 33% of the people. These results point up an essential fact: human poverty and income poverty are not one and the same thing. The correlation between the extents of income poverty and deprivation poverty is not all that close (the scattergram that plots income poverty against human poverty shows countries all over the lot rather than forming a neat line).
This distinction is important for practical reasons. At the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in 1995, all nations agreed to develop anti-poverty strategies to eliminate the worse aspects of poverty in their countries on a time-bound basis. Part of this work involves poverty-mapping: knowing where your poor people are, how many they are, and what are their characteristics. Do they live in cities or in rural areas? Are they ethnic groups? Are they minorities?
Some countries have done a good job at reducing income poverty, but still have high deprivation poverty. These include Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, and Pakistan. Countries that have, conversely, reduced human poverty but not income poverty include Peru and Zimbabwe.
A vital question in this context is whether countries are using their available economic resources to reduce poverty. Consider three middle income countries-Egypt, Jordan, and Namibia-all with a similar GDP per capita measured in purchasing power parity.
Jordan has a low human poverty index (11%), while Egypt's is three times as high, and Namibia's, four times.
Looking at three low income countries-Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Zambia-Viet Nam has a poverty index of 26%, while Cambodia's is twice as high, with Zambia's in between. The message is simple enough: per capita income alone can be a very misleading and inadequate indicator of human deprivation in a society.
Six Steps for Ending Poverty
The UNDP estimates the cost of eliminating absolute poverty worldwide at $80 billion per year. Half of this amount is needed to achieve basic social services, including health, education, family planning, and safe water. The extra income needed to lift poor families to a point right above the poverty line is another $40 billion annually. Viewed in relative terms, eighty billion dollars is less than one half of one percent of annual world income.
Based on successful country experience, the Human Development Report 1997 recommends six policy options to help countries achieve the goal of eradicating extreme poverty.
1. Empowerment of the poor with economic and social assets, such as land, credit, education and training, reproductive and other health services, and sustainable access to energy and environmental services and resources.
2. Promotion of gender equality and the advancement of women. Priorities include ending discrimination against girls in all aspects of health and education; equal access to land, credit, and job opportunities; equal legal rights; and taking more action to end violence against women.
3. Pro-poor economic growth. This step requires moving beyond promotion of growth per se, and adopting policies that mainstream poverty reduction through restructured public expenditures, livelihood generation for the rural and urban poor, and careful targeting of public and private investment to benefit low income groups.
4. Managing globalization with greater concern for global equity. The share of the poorest 20% of the world's people in global income has shrunk from 2.3% in 1960 to 1.1% most recently. The least developed countries, with 10% of the world's people, have 0.3% of world trade, half their share two decades ago. China aside, the low income countries, with most of the world's poor, receive less than 10% of the foreign direct investment going to developing countries. Clearly, new ground rules for globalization-in trade, investment, technology, and other areas such as debt management-need to be agreed upon, while special efforts must be made to increase the capacities of low income countries to benefit from globalization opportunities.
5. Good governance. The economy cannot succeed for long unless the polity succeeds. Political participation by all, accountability, transparency, openness, a strong role for non-governmental organizations and civic groups, and the political empowerment of the poor through democratization and active participation in decisions that affect them-all these establish conditions where equity becomes an issue and an active government becomes part of the solution, not the problem.
6. Special actions for special situations. Countries facing extreme poverty traps, population pressures, environmental degradation, disease epidemics, social disintegration, and conflict deserve special measures of international support.
In the words of UNDP Administrator James Gustave Speth: "Poverty elimination is as much about politics as it is about markets. It is a myth that income growth alone is going to solve the poverty problem around the world. If you look at the successful countries, they have adopted multi-pronged strategies on poverty; they have not just left it to the market ... Yes, you need growth to eliminate poverty, you need growth desperately, particularly in the poorest countries. It's a necessary but woefully insufficient condition for poverty eradication."
"For me, poverty is a kind of deprivation from something which every human being has a natural right to have...the poverty of the lonely, the unloved, the outcast-the unwanted-who are hungry not only for bread but for love. I think the poorest of the poor are those who are not yet touched-rather, those who have not allowed themselves to be touched-by God's love..."
-Mother Teresa, Calcutta, India
"Wealth is a blanket we wear (the land). Poverty is to have that blanket taken away."
-John Hardbattle, founder, First Peoples of the Kalahari, Botswana
"Poverty means that your children are crying and you have nothing to feed them."
-Nadejda Chirica, Deputy Chief, Division of the Department of Foreign Economic Relations, Ministry of Economy, Moldova
"Poverty is crisis. Beans at 35 lempiras, that alone empties the account. Giving a child half an egg because of how much they cost-that too, is poverty, and then they don't even let us work."
-Maria Antonia Padilla, fruit seller and single mother with three dependent children, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
"Poverty is being stuck in a deep hole, being able to see the light and people freely walking around, but not having the voice to shout for help or a ladder to climb out."
-Abdulrazak Raubi, systems analyst, Queitina Oil Company, Tripoli, Libya
"Poverty is what forced me to leave school and work in the central market."
-Anonymous, age 15, Bahrain
"Poverty-means powerlessness and low status. It means a culture of silence. It means bearing children on the street. It means the lack of privacy, dignity and any kind of security."
-Mahila Milan (a women's collective of pavement dwellers), Bombay, India
"Poverty is the denial of all human rights. It is not created by the poor. It is created and sustained by the 'system' we have built around us."
-Muhammad Yunas, Managing Director, Grameen Bank, Bangladesh
"Poverty to me means working for more than 18 hours per day, but still not earning enough to feed myself, my wife and two children."
-Rudeen Kean, age 28, cyclo driver, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
"Poverty is the squatter mother whose hut has been torn down by the government for reasons she cannot understand. That night she sits amid the ruins of her home, listening to her children coughing in the dark. She doesn't know what will happen the next day, but she fears it will be worse than what happened that day."
-Dennis Murphy, Coordinator, Urban Poor Associates, Philippines
"Poverty means that God forgives our thefts."
-Tony, homeless 'street kid," age 10, Angola
"To me real poverty is a poor woman. If she who bears the brunt of poverty becomes poor, then humankind is finished. I say this because the problems of poverty are always dumped on women. They usually do a good job anyway, so humanity survives."
-Baboucar Gaye, journalist, Gambia
"Poverty is the destruction of nature: the forest, land, animals, rivers and lakes."
-Elsa Scadd, Amerindian, age 66, Amerindian Research Unit, University of Guyana, Guyana
"Poverty is to be marginalized, to be deprived of the freedom to choose and of the hope for change. Suppressing the reality of poverty is the strongest shield of the privileged against change. This is true for nations and for individuals. Change is a moral imperative."
-Poul Nielson, Minister for Development Cooperation, Denmark
"Poverty means ill-health, which prevents you from working."
-Zahida, market vendor, Male, Maldives
"Even beyond these material manifestations is another poverty. I want to speak of the deprivation of the intellect, of the world of ideas, from which millions suffer often without knowing it, condemned to plod through their lives at the lowest level of human consciousness ...First feed the belly, then talk aesthetics? Yes. But let us understand poverty as the sum of all its hungers..."
-Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate for Literature 1991, South Africa
The first three activities are based on using sections of this article as student handouts.
The fourth is a suggestion for students to create a handout of their own.
The Sum of All Our Hungers
1. Read the statements describing poverty. Note the speakers and their countries. Consider the varying definitions of poverty they give. Now try to answer the following questions.
2.Write a paragraph describing what poverty means to you. Can you think of a figure of speech that sums up its meaning?
Countries in the Major World Aggregates (UNDP)
Antigua and Barbuda
Central African Rep.
Congo, Dem. Rep of [Zaire]
Iran, Islamic Rep. of
Korea, Dem. People's Rep. of
Korea, Rep. of
Lao People's Dem. Rep.
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
São Tomé and Principe
Syrian Arab Rep.
Tanzania, U. Rep. of
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
Note: Countries in lighter print are
classified as least developed
Moldova, Rep. of
Glossary of Poverty and Human Development
1.Study this glossary of terms used by the United Nations Development Programme. Be sure you understand the relationships between:
2.What is the difference between income poverty and human poverty? How is each measured? Why do you think it might be useful to distinguish between the two?
3.Write a paragraph on the five variables used to index human poverty. Do you think these are good measures of human deprivation? Are there other variables that you would suggest to measure human poverty? If so, what are they?
Beating the Poverty Clock: Catching Water in Zimbabwe
1. Read the report about Betty Bangira and her family. What was the main problem facing farmers in the Mhondoro Communal Area of Zimbabwe? How did they organize to solve this problem? What role did international organizations play in the solution?
2. Compare the situation in the Mhondoro Communal Area to that of America's Dust Bowl during the 1930s. What caused the problem in the Dust Bowl? How did it affect people farming the land? How was the problem eventually solved?
3. The Zimbabwe project is an example of what the UNDP calls "sustainable human development." Such development is based on both economic possibilities and the long-term preservation of the environment. Research other examples of sustainable development (you can find some at the UNDP website: www.undp.org).
Poverty in One Country
Choose one country to research in terms of poverty and efforts to eradicate it. It could be a developing country or an industrialized nation. Prepare a report that addresses some or all of the following questions:
Racing the Poverty Clock: Nutrition's Worrying Slowdown
In developing countries, about 160 million preschool children (half the total) are underweight, a number that has remained fairly steady. Of these, about 85 million are in South Asia, but the number in Sub-Saharan Africa has risen from about 20 million to almost 30 million in the past 10 years. The prevalence of malnutrition has been falling worldwide-but only by just about enough to offset population growth.
The goal of halving the prevalence of malnutrition in one decade was adopted by the World Summit for Children in 1990, and reaffirmed by the International Conference on Nutrition in 1992. Some countries have managed an average reduction of about two percentage points a year (say, from 40% to 20% in 10 years). Thailand has done this for long enough to reach the goal, Indonesia and Sri Lanka for shorter periods.
Unless the rate of improvement is accelerated, however, the prospect of overcoming malnutrition will recede. At recent rates, it would take 200 years to eradicate malnutrition in South Asia, and in Sub-Saharan Africa an improving trend has yet to be established.
Many countries with widespread malnutrition now have policies to speed up improvements. Additional resources are needed to meet nutritional goals; but with the crucial step taken of deciding what to do, finding the resources should be less of a problem. Around $2-$10 a child per year-roughly $1 billion a year-could bring significant progress. But in some countries with large populations and high prevalence, such as Ethiopia and India, appropriate strategies are not yet in place.
Beating the Poverty Clock: Catching Water in Zimbabwe
Betty Bangira lives in Bangira Village in the Mhondoro Communal Area, about 80 kilometers south of Harare in Mashonaland West Province, Zimbabwe. She and her husband have four children. Mr. Bangira suffers from a kidney ailment and has been unemployed for more than five years. Ms. Bangira is 27 years old and has completed two years of secondary school education.
The Bangira family lives in a small dwelling, and Betty Bangira works one half of a hectare of vegetables. The family's livestock consists of two chickens. The nearest borehole for safe drinking water is five kilometers away.
Like many communal areas in Zimbabwe, the Mhondoro Communal Area suffers from encroaching desertification, resulting from widespread soil erosion due to deforestation, uncontrolled cultivation, and overgrazing. Land degradation and gullies are common, rivers are silted, and the occurrence of drought on even a small scale means severe livestock losses and food shortages.
In 1993, a group of people from six villages-including Bangira Village-formed the Kushinga Cooperative and approached the UNDP's "Africa 2000" program for help in irrigating the dry, low quality land of the area. The result-a small dam providing a water catchment basin for irrigation-was completed in June 1995.
Like other UNDP projects aimed at sustainable development-both economic and environmental-this project combined poverty alleviation, natural resource management, food production, and biodiversity. Specifically, its goals were to augment the water supply, improve range lands and increase livestock production, reduce soil erosion and enhance crop yields, permit the introduction of new plant species, increase tree planting, and help the community prepare for greater responsibility in its own development.
Outside funding of $50,000 was provided by "Africa 2000" and the Small Grants program of the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-an agency jointly managed by the UNDP, the World Bank, and the United Nations Environment Programme. The contribution of local community members-in labor, tree planting, and gully reclamation-was estimated at $4,120. The results of the project include a grazing scheme and a nutrition garden managed by the Kushinga Cooperative.
Betty Bangira joined the cooperative in 1995 and soon became its spokesperson. Although it was a bad drought year, she was able to grow and harvest vegetables. With the proceeds, she bought mealie meal, two pots, and a sugar bowl. During the next harvest, she hoped to buy a pan.
Human Poverty Index (hpi) Ranking for
Developing Countries, 1997
The human poverty index (HPI) measures deprivation in basic human development in terms of the percentage of people expected to die before age 40, the percentage of adults who are illiterate, and overall economic provisioning in terms of the percentage of people without access to health services and safe water and the percentage of under-weight children under five. This table indicates the HPI rankings, from least to most deprivation, for 78 developing countries.
1 Trinidad and Tobago
5 Costa Rica
14 United Arab Emirates
20 Dominican Republic
21 Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
22 Sri Lanka
24 Syrian Arab Republic
27 Iran, Islamic Republic of
33 Viet Nam
36 El Salvador
42 Papua New Guinea
50 Tanzania, U. Rep. of
51 Lao People's Dem. Rep.
56 Central African Rep.
63 Cte d'Ivoire
76 Burkino Faso
77 Sierra Leone
An information kit titled UNDP and the Fight Against World Poverty is available from the Division of Public Affairs, United Nations Development Programme, One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017. Information about the quarterly Choices:The Human Development Magazine, is available at the same address. The Human Development Report 1997 is available from Oxford University Press (US $19.95 paperback and US $34.95 cloth-bound). Information on global and national Human Development Reports is also available at the Human Development Report Office homepage: www.undp.org/undp/hdro/.