Former UN rapporteur blasts global complacency on poverty

7 Jul 20

Global poverty is rising despite “triumphalism” about its perceived decline, according to a global report from a former United Nations official, who also released specific reports on Malaysia and Spain’s failures to tackle the problem.


Furthermore, Covid-19 is rapidly impoverishing many more people, according to the former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston.

The pandemic is expected to push “hundreds of millions” into unemployment and poverty, he said – but world leaders’ “abysmal record on tackling poverty, inequality and disregard for human life” predates the virus.

“Even before Covid-19, we squandered a decade in the fight against poverty, with misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the pandemic,” Alston said upon the release of his reports by his successor, Olivier De Schutter.

Alston condemned the near universal reliance on the World Bank’s international poverty line – about $1.90 per person per day – which he called “scandalously unambitious” and “utterly unfit” for tracking progress, because it does not cover the cost of food or housing in many countries and tends to exclude poverty among migrant workers, refugees and often women.

At the same time as releasing his global poverty report, Alston also released reports on Malaysia and Spain.

In Malaysia, the new government – which came to power in March, following the defection of more than 30 MPs – “has performed a backflip on its predecessor’s commitment to take poverty seriously”, Alston said.

He called for “far-reaching reforms” of the country’s “fractured and patchy” social protection system to ensure that there is a social protection floor for everyone.

“Covid-19 has demonstrated that anyone can lose a job through no fault of their own, and reinforced the absolute necessity of strong support programmes,” he said – going on to criticise incomplete, inaccessible and often non-existent data that leaves policymakers “essentially working in the dark”.

Alston also criticised the Spanish government’s failure to reach people needing support, as well as the country’s “shockingly high” inequality.

“Poverty in Spain is rooted in a social protection system that is broken, underfunded, impossible to navigate and not reaching the people who need it most,” the former official said.

“The need for deep reform is even clearer since my visit. Covid-19 has shone a light on the serious weaknesses in the anti-poverty programmes of the central government and autonomous communities.”

Alston praised “a number of positive steps” taken by the government during the pandemic, including measures to secure jobs and housing, as well as “an ambitious and impressive” national minimum income scheme aimed at supporting 850,000 vulnerable families.

“But these reforms to the social safety net will do little without meaningful action to uphold people’s social rights to housing, education and an adequate standard of living,” he warned.

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